Making Text-to-Text Connections

Today my students impressed me so much!  We were reading Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic and discussing the part of the story where Hannah/Chaya experiences the tattooing of Jews in the camps. One of my students raised his hand and said, “Ms. M., that reminds me a lot of Chains“.

Intrigued, I encouraged him to continue.

“Well, the tattooing reminded me of Isabel being branded with an ‘I’ by Mrs. Lockton. In Chains, the ‘I’ is a punishment, a way for Mrs. Lockton to take even more away from Isabel. But instead, Isabel took back the branding and made it hers. She said the ‘I’ stood for Isabel, for her, and not for insolent. And now Hannah/Chaya is taking back the tattoo, making it meaningful to her instead of just giving in and taking it.”

WOW! I had never even thought of that connection, but how great is that? It’s so true, and such a solid connection between the two novels we read this year. I am so proud of my students!

Read-aloud Tips from President Obama

I was thrilled when I opened my email today and saw this: Reader-in-Chief: Read-aloud tips from President Obama.  Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that my passion is reading and sharing books with kids and teens.  Seeing the President of the United States reading, enthusiastically, to children is an amazing sight.  Hopefully, he will inspire parents and teachers to carve some time out of their day to share a book with their children.

Nuts and Bolts of the Read Aloud in my Middle School Classroom

Reading aloud to my students daily is one of, if not the most, important aspects of my classroom.  I extoll the virtues of classroom read alouds to anyone and everyone who will listen, yet I realized I never broke down the nuts and bolts of it here on my blog!  Recently I have received a few emails seeking the answers to questions like, how do your read-alouds work? About how long does it really take to read an entire book aloud to the class? How much time do you spend per week on it? What types of assignments make their way into the gradebook?  Do you ever give traditional comprehension quizzes/tests or grammar tests? Does your school implement standards based report cards/grading?

 

How do your read-alouds work?

I read aloud to my class every.single.day.  Yes, there are days when it feels like a pain because we are pressed for time or the schedule has been changed.  But I refuse to shortchange my students when we are deep into a novel!  And if I ever feel like we truly don’t have time that day, my students make sure that we make the time (usually by begging)!  

I begin the school year with a read aloud on the first day of school.  From day one, my students see that I value reading and I value reading together as a community.  Those first days of school are always crazy- assemblies, extended class periods, getting to know you time, learning the ropes, and all that.  Well, that usually makes for lots of downtime.  Instead of doing silly bulletin board activities or useless worksheets, we read together.  It sets the stage for a great year!

When I read to my students, it is usually at the end of our period together.  I set aside about 15 minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less) to read each day.  My students stay at their desks  because we don’t have the time or space to move around- 6th graders are pretty big.  They just close their binders, put down their pens, and settle in for a relaxing few minutes.  I read and every so often stop to think aloud.  These think alouds might model a reading strategy or share a response I have to the text.  At other times they will elicit responses from the kids.  But I try not to spend too much time talking because that takes away time we could spend reading.   

I usually read between 1-3 chapters per day (depending on the book and chapter length, of course) and I try to leave my students at the end of a chapter.  If I can’t do that, I leave them hanging at a point when the time/action moves forward in a chapter.  This means I usually dedicate at least an hour to the read-aloud each week.  And honestly?  That hour is time that is usually lost otherwise because it’s “extra” or left-over time when we transition or the schedule changes or we have an extra 5 minutes here or there.  Learn to use time to your advantage!  

 

About how long does it really take to read an entire book aloud to the class?

Depends on the book. ;)  On average, I read about a book per month to my class.  Figure that most books are between 150-250 pages, and I read 10-20 pages per day.  This year I did read Chains and The Underneath to my class- each ran over 300 pages. These took slightly longer to read but were well worth it. I make smart decisions about the books I share with my class and that means trying to stay away from huge tomes. If a book is too long my students lose interest because it ends up being spread over 2 or 3 months. That’s just too long. Plus, I want to expose them to a variety of genres and authors through our read alouds and I can’t do that if we spend 3 months on one book.

 

What types of assignments make their way into the gradebook? 

I DO NOT grade the read alouds.  Read alouds are my way of modeling reading for pleasure, introducing my students to new genres and authors, and modeling my think alouds.  If I graded them, students would see them as work.  And I am trying to train lifelong readers, not academic-only readers.  However, I do grade reading.  The most important assignment I give is letter-essays.  Each student writes me a friendly letter, once every 3 weeks, telling me about the reading they are doing.  And then I write back.  If you aren’t familiar with letter-essays, you must check out Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers.

I also give alternate assessments. I’ve gathered these from a variety of sources, such as Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6. While it says grades 3-6, I think you could easily use many of the ideas up to grade eight.  I also give a monthly reading log that parents have to sign, which is worth 20 points.  If students hand it in on time, they receive a 20/20.  One day late is 15/20.  Two days is 10/20.  I do not accept it after two days.  (The reading log is something I struggled with- I don’t necessarily agree with them.  However, many parents asked for them and it appeases them.  For my kids, it’s no big deal because reading becomes an integral part of their life and daily routine within a few months.  They leave the log at home, mom or dad signs it, and they bring it back the day it is due.  A quick, easy grade and it forces them to be responsible!)

One of the best decisions I made was to grade based out of total points. Because I grade with a rubric 90% of the time, this makes it easier to get final grades. Each marking period is worth a total number of points (say 200) and I add up the points each student received. Then I divide it to get their average. For example, if a student received 165 points out of a possible 200, they would receive an 83 for the marking period.

 

Do you ever give traditional comprehension quizzes/tests or grammar tests?

Simply put, yes.  Each year I do two whole-class novels: Tuck Everlasting and The Giver. Both are required by the district. In the case of Tuck Everlasting, I use the novel as a means to teach my students how to annotate text. (Inspired by Monica Edinger ).  We read Tuck early in the year and annotating is a skill my students have very little experience with up until that point.  However, it’s a skill that will serve them well.  I treat the novel as a read-aloud but we annotate the text together and individually.  Because they are so familiar with it, my students are tested on the novel.  However, the test is short answers and an essay, not multiple-choice questions that they would just memorize.

The Giver is also a district requirement.  My students read it individually, and we discuss it together.  I do read certain chapters aloud, because the novel is difficult.  Again, the students are tested but the test consists of short answers, explaining the importance of quotes, and an essay.  There are also a few multiple choice questions.  

I know it seems like giving a traditional comprehension test/quiz goes against everything I believe in.  However, I have to prepare my students for middle school, where comprehension tests and quizzes are the norm.  And in high school.  But because my students are growing as lifelong readers, the tests and quizzes aren’t an issue for them.  I also make sure that I have enough alternate assignments in my gradebook that one test won’t hurt their grade too much if they don’t test well.  

As for grammar, I teach it within writing workshop as much as possible.  I also use Story Grammar for Elementary School: A Sentence-Composing Approach: A Student Worktext and Grammar for Middle School: A Sentence-Composing Approach–A Student Worktext a lot. I don’t give a lot of straight grammar tests but I sometimes give grammar quizzes.

 

Hopefully, this helps someone out there who wants to begin sharing read-alouds with their class.  Now is as good a time as any to start!  Questions?  Comments?  Ideas?  Leave them in the comments!

I Don’t Know What I Want to Read Next….

It’s the statement I hear everyday.  The signs are obvious- wandering through the classroom library.  Randomly flipping through books.  That disinterested state.  Diagnosis?  A reader without a book.  A floater.  So how do we help middle grade readers  select books?  And how do we select books to share with middle grade readers during read aloud time?  Luckily, we can answer both questions the same way!

Middle graders are famously picky about their reading material.  They have more in common with Goldilocks than they would ever admit- each book they choose has to be “just right”.  Not too long, not too short, not too gross, not to lovey-dovey.  Just right- for that student.  “Just right” is, of course, vastly different for each child.  So how do I help my students choose books?  By being a voracious reader myself.  I read blogs, book reviews, trade magazines, newspaper articles, and every book I can get my hand on.  I read books that interest me and books that I wouldn’t necessarily choose myself, because I have students who might enjoy them.  When a student tells me, “I don’t know what to read next”, I can engage them in a conversation about books they have enjoyed over the past few weeks or months.  

Everyday I have one or two readers advisory sessions, based on what I know about my students as readers and recommendations I think I can make for them.  And this doesn’t have to just happen in the classroom– parents can do it at home, too!  Engage your middle grade reader in conversations about the books they are reading.  Tell them about books you enjoyed.  Have discussions!  Pay attention to what they read and enjoy, and what their friends are reading and enjoying.  Go to the library or bookstore and flip through books together.  When kids see that you take an interest in their reading, they will be more engaged.  Soon enough, they will be making recommendations to you!

When it comes to read-alouds, I approach the decision in a similar way.  Because I will be sharing the book with 50 students, I take into account their various tastes.  Obviously, I know I will not choose something they all love.  But I take the read-aloud as an opportunity to choose a book they wouldn’t normally choose for themselves, yet I know it is a book they can enjoy.  I read voraciously throughout the year and I usually have a few books on the back burner, books I might read next, after the current read-aloud.  Right now, I am making the final decision on our next read-aloud.

Earlier this year, I read Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, after reading rave reviews on blogs. Immediately after finishing the book, I knew I wanted to share it with my class. Sometimes, a book just hits me that way. The Underneath wasn’t a book my middle schoolers would typically pick up on their own. But the writing was magical, lyrical, and provocative. I knew it was a book we could dig our heels into and have great conversations about. Because I loved the book, I knew my enthusiasm would be contagious.

And boy was it!

We couldn’t put The Underneath down. The students begged to read it.  They made connections, predictions, inferences, and dug into the text.  When we finished the book, I was so immensely proud of them.  Months later, they are still referring back to the novel.  And the same thing has happened with each and every book we have shared as a class.

So far this year, my classes have read a variety of books.

Each book I was chosen because I enjoyed it, I had a connection to it, and I knew I could share that passion and enthusiasm with my students.  While each student has a personal favorite, they enjoyed all of the books.  Reading aloud together has brought us closer as a class.  It’s a tradition I would never give up and one I look forward to sharing with each new class.  If you haven’t tried reading aloud with your middle schooler, I can’t recommend it enough!

What are some of your favorite read-alouds to share with middle schoolers?  Or what books do you suggest parents read with their middle schoolers?

Making Time in the Classroom for Read-alouds

Reading aloud to my students is my favorite part of our daily routine.  I like to think it is also my students’ favorite part of the day. When I pull out our latest book, a silence descends upon our classroom.  They are on the edge of their seats, ready to begin!  Throughout the year, our read-alouds bring us closer as a class.  We laugh together and sometimes we even cry together.  (Reading Marley: A Dog Like No Other as a class was an experience like no other!)

When I mention read-alouds to most other middle grade teachers, I am usually met with a look of amazement.  “How do you have time?” they ask.   It’s not always easy- I’m the first to admit it.  In this day and age of shortened class periods and little wiggle room, it can be difficult finding time to share books.  But it is worth it.  The time I spend with my class during read-alouds fosters a strong sense of community along with modeling my own love of reading while sharing various genres with my students.  Reading aloud to my students is the #1 way that I encourage my students to read!  

Read-alouds are usually an integral part of the day for elementary school students, but the practice dwindles as students enter the intermediate and middle grades.  However, this is also the time when students begin to set aside books for video games, computer time, and various social activities.  While these are also important parts of growing up, modeling our own love of reading can foster the joy of reading in our middle school students.  So how can classroom teachers make time for read-alouds?  

1) Establish a regular routine- I share our read-aloud each day at the end of reading or writing workshop.  Our schedule is different each day, because of specials and assemblies.  But my students know that read-aloud will happen each day and they know it will be our wrap-up.  My read-aloud time is written into my lesson plans each week- nothing complicated, just a simple box with the title of our current book.  But this ensures that I include it each day.  Are there times when I don’t fit it in?  Of course.  But I make the effort each day.  And I am successful 90% of the time.

2) Choose books that you enjoy- This is so, so, so important!  Your students will be able to tell immediately if you aren’t enjoying the time you spend reading aloud.  And if you aren’t enjoying it, neither will they.  Share classics that you enjoyed as a child.  Or new favorites!  What you read isn’t nearly as important as the enthusiasm you share with your class.  Your passion will be contagious!  And when you are passionate about the book your are reading together, making time to share it will come naturally.  It won’t seem like a chore.  And your students will be begging you to read more.

3) Make connections to your read-aloud throughout the day and the course of the year-  In my classroom, we have a bulletin board where we hang up copies of the covers of books we read as a class.  Throughout the year, we refer to our past read-alouds whenever possible.  As a class, we have a group of common texts that helps bring us together.  I try to read a variety of genres, so that the students can draw on these books during various units of study throughout the year.  It’s a great way for the kids to come together and share a common pool of knowledge!  In this day and age of less time and stricter curriculums, making connections ties your read-aloud into your day and year.  It becomes an integral part of your classroom routine.

4) Read aloud books that connect with various parts of curriculum- In middle school, teachers are usually specialists in their subject area.  Because of this, we sometimes forget about the other content areas.  A class read-aloud can be an opportunity to bring content area reading into the language arts classroom, or language arts into the content areas.  Science teachers can read novels with scientific or environmental plot threads- Carl Hiaasen’s books are a great example.  Social studies and history teachers can choose from a plethora of historical fiction!  

These are just a few of the ways that I make time for reading aloud in my classroom.  Reading aloud with my students is honestly my favorite part of the day.  In fact, I am signing off now to go through my pile of possible read-alouds to begin this week.  We just finished our current book, Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie. Choosing our next book is always extremely difficult because there are so many great books to choose from!  It will take me a few days to narrow it down, but in the meantime I will share picture books and short stories with my students.  No matter what, we always share read-aloud time together!


*Be sure to check out the rest of today’s posts on the Share a Story – Shape a Future blog tour, hosted by Terry Doherty at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub, the Reading Tub blog.

Diamond Willow Read-aloud

On Friday, both classes finished reading Diamond Willow . They loved it! When we came to the twist about Willow’s past, they literally gasped out loud. Below are a few of their final thoughts on the book:

 

“More books should do the bold words thing.  It’s so cool!  They tell you what the character is thinking deep down.”

“It must have been really hard to write a whole book using the right diamond shapes and making sure you had all the words for the bold parts.”

“This was my favorite book that we read all year.”

“This was an awesome book!  

 

There was more, but I was trying to jot down their thoughts while they were all very excited and talking about the end of the story.  Needless to day, we are now extremely excited for the awards announcement on Monday!  We even moved our assembly schedule around so that we can all head down to the library and listen live.  My afternoon class can’t be there for the live announcement, so we have sworn the morning class to secrecy and will replay the recording for the afternoon class (trying to preserve some of the excitement)!  I will be sure to post our reactions on Monday!

CHAINS is the winner of the 2009 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction!

Congratulations, Laurie!  

 

“Laurie Halse Anderson has won the 2009 Scott O’Dell Award for Chains (S&S, October 2008), narrated by teenaged Isabel Finch during the Revolutionary War. Although Isabel and her enslaved five-year-old sister were to be freed upon the death of their mistress, the woman’s heir sells the siblings to a new owner in New York City–that is the first of the betrayals that lie ahead, but also the beginning of Isabel’s fight for freedom. The award, established by O’Dell (best known as the author of The Island of the Blue Dolphins), is given annually to a meritorious work of historical fiction and includes a $5,000 prize.Chains was also a National Book Award Finalist, just like Anderson’s debut novel, Speak(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999).”

I can’t wait to tell my kids this tomorrow.  They are going to be thrilled!  (Maybe this will tide them over until Forge comes out? )

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