Final Read Aloud of the Year

This past week I began our final read aloud of the year.  It’s always a bittersweet experience- my students have come so far but we will be saying goodbye soon.  I spent a few weeks debating which book I would share, but ultimately decided on Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid (The Kane Chronicles, Book 1). For the past two years my final read aloud had been The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians), working alongside our social studies teacher in the ancient Greece unit.  But this year many of my students were already huge fans after seeing the movie and I knew I had to choose something else.

The Lightning Thief was always popular in my room because it was funny, easy to relate to, and full of action.  Boys and girls alike fell in love with the book and many of them proceeded to read the rest of the series over the summer.  I wanted to do the same thing with our last read aloud this year.  While Riordan may not be the most literary of choices the kids love him.  He opens up doors to new knowledge and ancient mythology.  I can’t tell you how many of my Percy Jackson fans are now reading Greek mythology and even classics like The Odyssey.

When I began to read The Red Pyramid, I knew it would be perfect for our end-of-the-year read aloud.  Like Percy, Sadie and Carter are funny and easy to relate to.  I also love that we have two protagonists, male and female.  While I’m not sure we will actually complete the 500+ page book together, I know it will leave my students wanting to read it on their own over the summer.

We began the book over the past week.  It’s already a huge success!  Within days I had 15-20 students who went out and purchased their own copies.  I have a few more planning to do the same.  They read ahead and then listen again when we read together.  For those students, they are learning the value of rereading.  Inevitably, they learn something new or notice something else on the reread.  My more dormant readers are loving the humor and adventure in the story and enthusiasm is building.  I’m hoping our read aloud leads to more reading for pleasure this summer!

Have you started your final read aloud of the year?  What will you be reading and why did you choose it?

Our Next Read Aloud

My 7th and 8th period classes finished reading All The Broken Pieces this week and we needed a new read aloud. For the first time, I presented both classes with 5 books, did a book talk for each one, and then allowed the kids to vote by secret ballot. The winning book would be our next read aloud.

I chose five books that have been on various mock Newbery lists and I would have been happy with any of the choices. However, I was secretly hoping they would choose a specific book because I thought it would fit the class populations well.

The five books I presented were:

The winner was almost unanimous in both classes- Anything But Typical won by a landslide in both classes.  I was thrilled, because I was hoping at least one class would choose it.  I can’t wait to see what kind of conversations come out of our read aloud.  It should be great.

Different Read Alouds for Different Classes

For the first time ever, I abandoned a read aloud with some of my classes.  I’ve always persevered through the ups and downs of read alouds, knowing that the payoff would be worth it in the end.  Some books do take longer to get into than others and I think it is important for my students to understand that you can’t quit a book after 10-15 pages.

But all of that changed last month.  I started out reading Also Known As Harper to all four of my classes. My morning classes were flying through it and really got into the story after about 50 pages. My two afternoon classes were an entirely different story- after 3 weeks we were only 60 pages into the book. I don’t think it had anything to do with the storyline- The kids were just not connecting with the story for one reason or another. I still haven’t determined why- maybe the fact both classes are at the end of the day, or the makeup of the classes themselves (my afternoon classes lean very heavily towards the male end). But for the first time I set the book aside and started a completely different read aloud with those classes.

I began reading All The Broken Pieces to those afternoon classes and it was a completely different mood! All of a sudden, they were engaged and begging me to read more. I have students who are looking up more information on the Vietnam War and bringing their research to class, just because they are interested in it.  I really agonized over abandoning a read aloud but now I am so glad that I did.  It was not worth dragging them through the rest of the book while they were disengaged- that would only accomplish the exact opposite of what my read alouds aim to accomplish.

It’s funny, because my morning classes loved Also Known As Harper.  I loved Also Known As Harper.  It’s a great book and one I really wanted to share it with my classes.  But I’m glad that I practiced what I preach and allowed us to abandon a book that just wasn’t clicking with the classes I teach in the afternoon.  I discussed the abandonment with the class and we hypothesized why it might not have been working.  A few students did ask to finish the book so they borrowed my copy and are reading the remainder of the story independently.  It was definitely a learning experience, but a positive one.  So don’t be afraid to abandon a read aloud that is not working!

An Author Scolding Teachers for Reading Books Aloud?

I love Horn Books monthly email, Notes from the Horn Book.  This month’s issue has been causing quite a stir on Twitter, though.  I admit to being a part of that stir, but the subject matter is near and dear to my heart.

Richard Peck has a fantastic interview in the latest issue, Five questions for Richard Peck. Having heard Peck speak, I was looking forward to reading his latest thoughts.  However, my eyebrows were definitely raised when I read this:

You talk a lot with young readers. What are they telling you?

Things they didn’t mean to. Over and over they’re telling me that the books I wrote for them to read are being read to them by their teachers. And hearing a story read doesn’t seem to expand their vocabularies. If a teacher is going to take limited classroom time in reading aloud (and even giving away the ending), the least she could do is hand out a list of vocabulary from the reading to be looked up and learned.

Wait a minute.  WHAT?

No offense to Mr. Peck, a former high school teacher and prolific author, but I have to disagree with this.  Vehemently.

Read alouds are a vital and integral part of my reading workshop.  We read approximately 10 books each year as a class, and I have the only copy.  With school budgets in such dire straits, there is no way I would be able to get enough copies for my students to read along.  I have 100 students!  There are almost 700 students in my school.  It’s not even remotely possible.  If I waited for enough copies for each student to read along with me, we would read only the few class sets available in school.  The class sets we have are all wonderful books, but I want to be able to expose my students to more books, more genres, more authors.

Read alouds in my class are introduced as “fun”.  What does that mean?  For the students, their only responsibility is to listen.  Without fail they begin participating in classroom discussions after listening to only a few chapters.  But just because they are fun doesn’t mean students aren’t learning.  I model think alouds, comprehension strategies, and good reading habits.  I don’t hand out a vocabulary list, but we define words as we come to them.  We talk about author word choice.  Students become familiar with vital vocabulary.

What would happen if I handed out a vocabulary list along with read alouds and asked the students to define the words for homework?  Nothing.  Very few of them would do it.  And it would turn them off to reading/listening to the book.  Read alouds are a vital part of my class but they are only one tool in my arsenal.  I do use whole-class novels and literature circles/book clubs and students are responsible for vocabulary when we do that.  But we don’t hand adults a vocabulary assignment when they purchase a book at the book store.  So I don’t hand my students a vocabulary list for our read alouds.  I do everything possible to turn my students on to reading and into lifelong readers.  For me, that means read alouds are fun and not busy work.

I am hoping that Mr. Peck is being misunderstood in his interview.  Hopefully, he is referring to teachers who read aloud to students and do no other reading with them.  Those teachers tend to be the ones who read aloud because they think their students can’t or won’t read on their own.  Read alouds need to be part of a wider reading initiative, not a way to put students down.  When books are read aloud to make life easier for the teacher it isn’t right.  But when books are read aloud as part of the curriculum as a way to turn students on to reading, teachers need to be praised!

My own anecdotal evidence shows me that read alouds work.  Students become invested in the story and will even go out and do research on their own.  When my class read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains last year, they became obsessed with the Revolutionary War and the part that slaves played. They did research on their own in order to be able to debate during our class discussions! They had learned about the Revolutionary War in 5th grade, but it was in one ear and out the other. But when it was something they were learning about for the joy of learning (and because they wanted to), they suddenly wanted to go above and beyond to learn more! Months later, they were making connections to Chains, citing references they never would have remembered if we just read a textbook.

Inevitably, read alouds lead to social reading.  And social reading leads to kids picking up more books.  Could we ask for anything better?

Read alouds work.

I’ve seen it in my classroom. Thousands of teachers see it in their own classrooms daily. Jim Trelease has the research to back it up.

Sorry Mr. Peck.  But we will have to agree to disagree here!

First Read Aloud of the Year

We are about 15 pages into our first read aloud of the year- Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me.  So far I think it’s working out well with our 55 minute periods.  I’ve been dedicating the first 10 minutes of the class to our read-aloud in order to motivate my students to get to class on time.  Seems to be working so far!

What are you using as your first read aloud this year?

Reading in Middle School: Choice, Independence, and Community

It’s been a crazy few days for reading in the news.  First, I was devastated to learn that Reading Rainbow has been cancelled and its final episode aired on Friday.  I remember watching Reading Rainbow often as a child and singing the theme song even more often.

“Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a  look, it’s in a book…”  I can still picture the opening credits in my head!

According to vice president for children’s programming at PBS, Linda Simensky, “research has shown that teaching children the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority…”  This breaks my heart.  It’s just another example of the mentality that mechanics and how-to takes precedence over why reading (and often writing) is fun and enjoyable.  As a teacher I can promise you that enjoying reading has taken my students to new heights and in my experience is just as important as those mechanics.  If you hate reading it doesn’t matter how well you can read, you still aren’t going to pick up a book.  And if you struggle with reading it’s hard to see a reason to enjoy it. It saddens me that PBS no longer sees teaching the enjoyment of reading as important but I plan to continue teaching and modeling that enjoyment in my classroom.

After reading about Reading Rainbow I was I was thrilled to see the “reading workshop” approach to teaching getting publicity with an article in the New York Times.  Motoko Rich’s  A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like isn’t ground-breaking- reading workshop has been around for decades- but any publicity for this way of teaching is good publicity in my opinion. There are thousands of teachers out there who are unfamiliar with the workshop approach, don’t believe it can work in this age of standardized testing, or don’t feel confident enough to take the plunge. Hopefully this article will encourage a few more to try it in their own classrooms.  Presenting students with choice in reading opens new worlds.  I have the anecdotal evidence from my own classrooms as do many other teachers. You only have to read my literacy surveys at the beginning of the year and the end of the year- you’ll see the difference in my readers.  Speak to their parents.  More importantly?  Speak to my students.  Having a choice in their reading leads to enjoying reading!

I don’t agree with every single thing in the article, just like I don’t agree with every single thing Nancie Atwell or Lucy Calkins preaches.  Lorrie McNeill, the teacher in the article, doesn’t believe in any whole-class novels.  While I use them (very) sparingly, I agree with Monica Edinger (a fourth grade teacher) that they can be very valuable.  Adults read with book clubs, so why not students?  I do agree with McNeill’s opinion that too many teachers overteach whole-class novels.  That’s the problem.  But this is why I love the workshop approach- you do what works for you and your students.

My teaching was shaped by my student-teaching experience.  I was extremely fortunate in that I taught at a Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project school in New Jersey.  I attended staff development and saw the workshop approach work over my two semesters in third grade there.  My cooperating teacher was an inspiration and I’ve never looked back.  Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher, and so many more have been inspiring me ever since.  But my reading workshop isn’t identical to anyone else’s.  I teach 100 sixth grade students in 55 minute periods.  I have to modify the system to fit my classroom and my students.  For the record, I do think reading workshop works at its best with small classes for larger quantities of time, like McNeill’s classes.  But we all work within the parameters of our district.

Here’s a broad overview of my sixth grade reading workshop:

  • Independent Reading- The cornerstone of my workshop.  All of my students are required to have a book with them at all times.  We read in class, while I model by reading or conference with individuals.  At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time modeling reading while easing into reading conferences with my students.  Our minilessons are related to each child’s independent book because I focus on comprehension strategies which can be applied to all books instead of lessons tailored only to a specific novel (a la the numerous novel guides out there).  My students begin the year with in-class reading logs while easing into letter-essay responses.  They also keep an at-home reading log that is collected once each month as a quiz grade.  The quiz is pass/fail and everyone passes as long as the log is turned in.  The logs, and later letter-essays, allow me to keep track of each student’s progress and help guide them.  I also have individual reading conferences with each student along with numerous informal chats in the hall, during homeroom, and hopefully online this year!
  • Read Alouds: Can you have two cornerstones?  Because read alouds are equally as important as independent reading in my class  We are always reading a book together.  This is a “for fun” book, as I tell my students.  They aren’t quizzed, tested, or graded.  What they rarely realize is how much they are learning from my modeling, thinking aloud, and our class conversations.  I choose books that they class wouldn’t normally choose to read on their own and the books are always a few level above my average reader.  We usually use Newbery buzz as a guide, trying to read the Newbery winner before it is announced in January.  Of course, we also read picture books, non-fiction related to the content areas, and numerous articles.  This year’s first read aloud? When You Reach Me.  See here if you are interested in what we read last year.
  • Whole class books:  The dreaded whole-class novel.  *shudder*  We do read books together.  These are different from our read alouds because the students are responsible for these books (tests, quizzes, or projects). One of the reasons I grade the activities attached to these books is because my students will experience reading class this way from 7th grade until graduating college.  It’s my job to prepare them.  We normally  read Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as we learn to annotate text and dig deeper. We read literary articles about the novel, including Horn Book’s amazing interview with Babbitt, “Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt”. We also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver as we debate euthanasia, free choice, and so much more. Every year it is a wonderful experience. And nothing beats hearing kids moan and groan about a “boring book” before we begin reading it and then listening to their devastated reactions when Jesse and Winnie don’t end up together or debating whether or not Jonas made the right decision.
  • Book Clubs- We study the  Holocaust at each grade level (4-8) as part of our district initiative.  We read and research different aspects of the Holocaust before students break off into book clubs of their choosing. The groups read a variety of books, fiction and nonfiction, about different aspects WWII.  They take notes, do further research, and then present what they learn to the class.  Every year I learn something new and the students are able to dig even deeper into aspects of the war they might not have been familiar with before our book clubs.
  • Primary and secondary sources- Our students participate in National History Day each year and I love introducing them to primary sources!  Connecting with history through those who actually experienced it turns on so many students to research and helps them overcome the dread attached to the word “research”.

This is only a brief, very brief, summary of my classroom and my personal approach to reading workshop.  The reaction I get the most when I mention I use reading workshop is a frown followed by, “Don’t your  students just read “junk books?”  Of course.  However, they aren’t junk books to me or those students.  They are gateway books.  I watched this year as one of my most reluctant readers  read Twilight, followed by all of its sequels, every other vampire book she could get her hands on, and then Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and eventually Wuthering Heights!  One person’s junk is another’s treasure, and that same junk opens up a whole new world to readers.  And that’s also why I am sure to include all the other aspects of my reading workshop- read alouds, book clubs, and even whole class selections.  My students are surrounded by books and words at all times.  Each book connects with each student differently.

Reading workshop works so well because it can be personalized by each teacher.  Every classroom is different.  Just check out some of these other responses around the blogosphere:

-Monica Edinger’s In the Classroom: Teaching Reading
-The Book Whisperer’s The More Things Change
-Lois Lowry’s I Just Became Passe’
-Meg Cabot’s How to Foster a Hatred of Reading
-Kate Messner’s Heading Off Book Challenges

2008-2009 Class Book Lists (Read-alouds)

Each year I keep track of the books my class reads together.  This year we read some great ones!  This year on my year-end survey I asked my students to tell me their favorite read-aloud.   Below is a list of the books we read and some of the students’ comments.

 

Read-alouds:

Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher- This was the first book we read together (in my homeroom). We read it aloud during the first week of school and it was one of our favorites for the year! A great way to start off the school year, with the story of a class that has no substitute when their teacher is home sick.

 

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (Whole-class Novel)- A gorgeous story and well-known as the greatest children’s book ever written.  One of my favorites each year.

 

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt- This was the first book we read together as part of our unofficial mock Newbery. I first read The Underneath over the summer and I knew I had to read it to my class. It took a few days for them to get into the story, but within the first week they loved it! This is a difficult but beautiful story- my students needed scaffolding but it was worth it. Plus, Kathi is awesome and corresponded with my class over the course of the school year. They were THRILLED!

 

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson- The second book we read for our mock Newbery, this was a huge hit. My students learned about the Revolutionary War in 5th grade, but Anderson presents a whole different perspective. The novel taught my students a lot and they enjoyed it. Most of them were begging for the sequel at the end of the year and are annoyed it’s not out yet!

 

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost- The final book we read as part of our mock Newbery. I read this aloud while presenting it on the document camera, which worked great. You can read more about this 21st-century read-aloud here.    For many of my students, this was their first verse novel and many of them turned to verse novels again and again for the rest of the year.

 

The Giver by Lois Lowry (Whole class Novel)- This is my favorite dystopian novel for young adults, and one of the first I remember reading in school.  Another book that takes some scaffolding, I love teaching it every year.

 

Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick- We read this as a companion to our Valentine’s Day charity work each year.  While gathering donations for the children’s cancer ward, this novel is the perfect companion.   Sonnenblick has crafted a gorgeous story of a young boy whose family is touched by cancer. It also made us laugh out loud a lot!  

 

The Journey That Saved Curious George : The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden- This was a new book for me this year and the anchor of our non-fiction unit of study. I loved presenting a new side of the familiar Curious George tales my students know and love while growing up. And our read-aloud even inspired one student to further research H.A. Rey and his wife Margret for her National History Day presentation!  (It was also a great lead-in to our Holocaust unit).

 

The Devil’s Arithmetic  by Jane Yolen- This is the anchor of our Holocaust study and this year I read it aloud instead of as a whole class novel. This year’s class enjoyed the read aloud while working with other WWII novels/non-fiction in book clubs.  Yolen’s haunting story of a girl who does not want to remember is a powerful testament of the strength and courage of those who were persecuted during the Holocaust.

 

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan- Definitely oneof my classes’ favorites! A great adventure story that infuses regular kid problems, Greek mythology, and tons of adventure! A must-read!  I’d say close to 25% of my students began reading the rest of the series before school ended for the year!

 

 

A few comments from my students:

“My favorite read-aloud this year was The Lightning Thief  because I found out that I like mythology.”

“My favorite read-aloud was Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie  because it was funny.”

“My favorite read-aloud was Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie  because I really felt for Jeffrey and Steven!”

“I loved The Devil’s Arithmetic .  It taught me a lot about the Holocaust that I didn’t know.”

Diamond Willow was my favorite because it was emotional and reminded me of my relationship with my own dog”.

“My favorite book this year was Chains because it told a great story.”

“My favorite was Chains because it leave a cliffhanger at the end.  It has lots of action.  It made me want Ms. M. to read more.”

“I really liked Flying Solo .  It was so funny.”

The Underneath was my favorite read-aloud this year.  I just loved it!”

There were many more comments- every book resonated with a specific student.  That’s why I make sure to share a variety of genres, authors, themes, and books with each class!

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