Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

I love, love, love Rebecca Stead.  I reviewed her debut, First Light, in one of my first blog posts ever.  And I have very fond memories of sharing When You Reach Me as a read aloud in my sixth grade classes. I’ve been waiting for her newest novel for what seems like ages!

Liar & Spy does not disappoint. Rebecca Stead is the queen of setting.  Her New York City stories are utter perfection; I feel like I am walking the streets with her characters, listening to the traffic, and in this case, watching the parrots.  But her characters don’t suffer for this.  Georges (yes, with a silent ) is a middle schooler dealing with a load of issues.  His parents recently had to sell their beautiful home and move the family to a small apartment.  His father lost his job and is trying to build his own business now.  Mom is always at the hospital, where she works as a nurse.  Georges’ best friend is suddenly a “cool” kid and can’t give him the time of day.  So when Georges meets Safer, a pretty weird kid who lives in the new building, they form a strange friendship.  It’s strange because Safer is obsessed with spying on his neighbors.  Think Harriet the Spy, but slightly more modern.

Ahh, but things aren’t as they seem. At least not at first glance.  Stead is a master of plot twists and it continues to be true in Liar & Spy.  I won’t spoil it here, but it’s not a sci-fi twist like Stead’s last novel.  However, it’s just as masterfully crafted.  Upon finishing the book, and upon finishing it as a read aloud, I wanted to turn back to first page and reread it.  There were clues I missed along the way and I wanted to go back and catch them.  And my campers felt the same way.  One of them emailed me to say that she went out and purchased her own copy to read because she enjoyed it so much!

Highly recommended.  Great for middle school and high school readers, and even upper elementary!

*review copy courtesy of the publisher

Attention Middle School Teachers!

I am looking for a few “words of wisdom” for a presentation I am doing this week.  If you are a middle school teacher who uses read alouds in their classroom, I’d love to hear your thoughts/comments.

1. Why do you read to your middle schoolers?

2. How do you choose your read aloud material?

Thanks so much!

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?

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.

Read-alikes and Booklists

When we share books with our students, it is inevitable that they will fall in love and want to seek out similar books.  How can you find read-alikes or booklists for popular books and series?  Why, with the wonders of the internet, of course!

Popular novels and series are frequently the source of “If you liked_________, You will like _________” lists. Earlier this year I was constantly referring to read-alike lists for Twilight in order to satiate my students’ desire for my vampire love stories.  Below are links to some read-alike booklists that you can use with your children.

The best way to have a go-to read-alikes list is to read, read, read yourself.  I am constantly reading children’s books and thinking of specific students that I think will enjoy a particular book.  Over the last few days I have given Don’t Die, My Love to a Twilight lover (she is a romance addict), The Alex Rider Collection for my Roland Smith fan, and Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things for my Diary of a Wimpy Kid superfan.  The more I read, the more books I have to draw on.  I can make personal recommendations for students, based on their previous favorites.

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.

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