The Year’s First Read Aloud

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“Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters – the saints and the sinners, real or imagined – reading shows you how to be a better human being.”

Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child

My most important goal every new school year is that I want my sixth graders to leave our classroom more invested in their reading lives in June than they were in September because they have come to know the value of “wild reading” – the kind of reading that Donalyn Miller’s quote above describes.  To achieve this goal I will have to effectively organize time, assemble a library of great books, communicate the joys of my own reading life, talk to my kids about the books they are reading, and find opportunities to nurture a community of readers who love nothing more than a lively conversation about what they are reading and how it speaks to them.  

The surest tool in my reading teacher toolkit to lay a foundation for all of that is the read aloud, and this is why I spend so much time choosing and planning out that first read aloud of the school year.

Choosing that first shared book is both joyous and nerve wracking – after all, there are so many fabulous books to read, how is one to choose?!  Here are a few things I look for:

*length: the first read aloud has to be on the short side, a book I can finish reading to my kids in two weeks.  Kids hate it when we teachers begin a book with great gusto and then peter out, either reading a chapter a week or just abandoning the book entirely.  So, I go all in – I make it as intense and theatrical as I can, so they remain engaged in and remember the story.

*a mystery or an adventure: I find that these books work really well for the beginning of the school year, when my sixth graders are usually distracted by all their concerns about middle school life and are not looking to be worried by books that tackle topics like bullying and learning differences.  A mystery or an adventure is somewhat escapist, and you have to pay close attention for clues – that’s a perfect combination for those challenging first two weeks!

*heart:  the story and characters have to have heart – they need to pull each reader into the story, and make them care about the outcome.  I look for positive characters who show a capacity for growth – characters my students can find believable but can also emulate.  The struggles and victories of these characters must stick with my students in ways that they will remember across the span of the school year, for they will be the touchstones we will refer to many times and for many reasons.

*content: we will spend the year reading many books about difficult and timely topics, books that present challenging  circumstances in our past and current history, and books that explore all manner of personal issues – from bullying to divorce, learning differences, and gender identity.  I find that my sixth graders are consumed with stress about their first year of middle school, a book focuses on something they are privately struggling with and are not yet able to speak about in their new classroom community (divorce or gender identity for example), might just add to that stress.  So, I reach for books that touch upon such difficult issues in a tangential way which allows for broader discussion.

*humor: it helps to have reasons to laugh together at the beginning of the school year, it’s always reassuring for both students and teacher to know that they can count on the fact that everyone in the room (to varying degrees) has a sense of humor.  We are ALL going to need this!

*sorrow: it also helps to have reasons to sniffle a bit together.  When I choke up or have to reach for a tissue, it gives my kids permission to know (right away) that it’s okay to cry – great stories reach into our hearts and make us want to cry, too. I choose books that have moments of sorrow so that reaching for that tissue is a collective experience; after all, we bond through laughter and tears alike.

*addressing “the curriculum”: The first read aloud of the school must also touch upon certain foundational teaching points which we will address as we read – the story arc, character development, the role of setting, and the Notice & Note signposts.  In our school, we move from the first read aloud to realistic fiction book clubs where our students will dig deeper and elaborate further in smaller groups; that first read aloud must also serve the mandates of our curriculum.

Two past selections:

Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings: Set in the Chesapeake Bay area, this is a story of friendship, and choosing between what is true and what is safe.  Cummings does a wonderful job setting up the problem and developing the main character’s moral plight – it is a true page turner.  This served as our first book for many, many years.

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart: Set in the wilderness of 1890s Washington State, this is a grand adventure.  Eleven year old Joseph Johnson has lost everyone in his life but his beloved horse, Sarah, and then she is stolen, too.  Joseph has no choice but to face whatever stands in his way to getting Sarah back – bears, murdering thieves, or dangerous terrain.  This was our read aloud last year, and my kids were thrilled to follow the experience with a Skype visit with Gemeinhart, which was a wonderful experience for us.

This year, after mulling over several excellent new books, we  returned to, and just finished,  Some Kind of Courage. My students were thoroughly engrossed in the story, once again, and the whole experience of following the highs and lows of Joseph’s adventures has brought our class closer together as community of readers and learners. 



It’s Monday And Here’s What I’m Reading:Pablo and Birdy, Armstrong & Charlie


Alison McGhee’s Pablo and Birdy is one of those lyrical books you cannot bear to stop reading, even though you’ve read it twice already.  I picked it up right after having the same experience reading Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree, and so I count myself a lucky reader these days when we have such gifted writers gifting us one memorable read after another.

The island town of Isla was already famous for its talking birds and for (perhaps) being one of the few places where the mythical Seafaring Parrots come home to roost, when baby Pablo washed ashore strapped to an inflatable swimming pool and guarded over by a fiercely loyal lavender parrot.

Rescued and raised by Emmanuel, Pablo and Birdy are loved and protected by the birds and people of Isla, which he has come to look upon as his home.  But, happy as he is, as Pablo nears his tenth birthday, he begins to have questions about where he came from, and who he really belongs to.  And Birdy, well Birdy can neither fly nor talk, unlike every other bird on Isla…or anywhere else.

And, as Pablo nears his big double digit birthday, Birdy, too, seems restless.  The “winds of change” that stirred up the seas so violently the night Pablo arrived are beginning to rustle up again, and there is a feeling that some of the truth of Pablo’s story, and Birdy’s too, will finally be revealed.

This lyrical, fable like story was such a delight to read, and I loved Ana Juan’s gorgeous illustrations which made it all so much more believable, for, with stories like this, one wants to believe.

Steven B. Frank’s Armstrong & Charlie is such a fun read, even though it touches upon tough issues: death in a family, race relations, and depression.


Armstrong Le Rois and Charlie Ross are not looking forward to sixth grade: Armstrong’s parents have seen fit to sign him up for an opportunity to be bussed to an all-white school in fancy Laurel Canyon where he will know no one, and most of Charlie’s friends at his Laurel Canyon school are leaving just because these new kids are being bussed in.

Both boys have a lot to learn about getting along and seeing that people who seem different on the outside are more alike on the inside than they will ever know unless they take the time to know each other and to learn.

At times laugh out loud hilarious and then deeply moving, Armstrong and Charlie is a wise book, perfect for our troubled times.  For, even though it is set in the tumultuous early seventies,  many of the questions this story raises about race and prejudice are just as relevant today.  This would make a wonderful readaloud or book club selection.


Poetry Friday: For My Son, Reading Harry Potter by Michael Blumenthal

 Poetry Friday is hosted by Irene Latham at Live Your Poem


One of my favorite things, as a teacher and a mother, is to watch the children in my care lose themselves in their reading lives.

For my own twenty-something children, reading was always at the center of our family life, and book talk somehow always wove itself into our conversations.  Even now, when they live in places of their own, we exchange texts all the time about our reading lives: books we just read, want to read, or want to re-read together.  Books are a comfort, a place to retreat to even as they navigate through the messiness that comes with adult life.

For my sixth graders, reading is the great imaginative escape – the world of the still possible.  They bring to their reading a certain freedom that comes with being young, largely untouched by life, and with a lovely faith, still, in magic.

Watching them read, hunched over, curled up, tucked into corners of the classroom, or stretched across the hammock at the farm, is one of the great delights of my life.

For My Son, Reading Harry Potter


How lovely, to be lost
as you are now
in someone else’s thoughts
an imagined world
of witchcraft, wizardry and clans
that takes you in so utterly
all the ceaseless background noise
of life’s insistent pull and drag soon fades
and you are left, a young boy
captured in attention’s undivided daze,
as I was once
when books defined a world
no trouble could yet penetrate
or others spoil, or regret stain,
when, between covers, under covers,
all is safe and sure
and each Odysseus makes it home again
and every transformation is to bird or bush
or to a star atwinkle in some firmament of light,
or to a club that lets you, and all others, in.
Oh, how I wish for you
that life may let you turn and turn
these pages, in whose spell
time is frozen, as is pain and fright and loss
before you’re destined to be lost again
in that disordered and distressing book
your life will write for you and cannot change.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Why slice? Here’s why…

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

My weekend plans were gathered and focused in one place, the only spot with the room for it all, my dining room table:


Here were poetry notebooks, reading journals, charts to copy from the in-the-moment mess of student sharing to something useful we could all refer to, lesson plan book, lesson hand books, movies to screen for Social Studies, and books to read for the Cybils Awards (I’m a second round judge for middle grade fiction 🙂 ).  But, the task I was itching to get to was still buried in my laptop: my students’ slice of life writing.

Of all the “stuff” that anchors our year of learning, it’s this weekly posting that brings us together and knits it into what we will will always be, even after the school year is over: a community.  When I first present our Slice of Life writing project to my sixth graders, they are less than enthusiastic.  “We have to do this every week?” they ask,  “Why???”, they wonder.  So, I show them the community of teachers who assemble every Tuesday here at TWT, I tell them about what it feels like to write for this community, and how doing so makes me a better writer.  I tell them that hearing stories from all over the world expands my view about writing, yes, but also life and the way human beings can bring grace and pleasure and comfort into each other’s lives through sharing their writing.  They look at me, that first day, utterly unconvinced. “Right…” they say, “Uh..huh.”

And then we begin, and so too does the magic.  This was some of the magic I entered when I began reading what my kids had to say:

From Naomi, something important she felt we ought to know:

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From Ethan, a nerve wracking chess match:

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From Lisa, the only bit she wished to share about her recent surgery:

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From Miriam, a slice of middle school life:

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And, from Romy, who has been sad of late, the reason why:

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By the time I’d read fifty slices of life and the thoughtful comments my kids had left for each other, I knew that my kids had already come to change their minds about this writing project.  For, when we share a slice of our lives we do so much more than just practice writing…we become part of something much, more more: a community.

It’s Monday, And Here’s What I’m Reading: Wishtree & Patina

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#IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

I have been hearing so much about Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree, so that when my copy finally arrived I set aside everything else I had planned to do and sat down to read it.  Of course, having loved The One And Only Ivan, I knew that I would be in for another lyrical reading experience, one that would pull at my heartstrings and give me hope for humanity…which is exactly what it did.

Red is a northern red oak tree, two hundred some years old, who houses an entire community of assorted birds, creatures, and, every May Day, the wishes tied to her many boughs by people hoping for all manner of things.  Although much of the world Red remembers from her earliest days has passed into history, she still casts shade over two homes that go back to her earliest days, in one of which lives a girl who has become close to Red’s heart.

Samar is about ten, with “the look of someone who has seen too  much.  Someone who wants the world to quiet itself.”  She finds comfort under Red’s branches, especially late at night, and when she sits, all the creatures around make their way over to join her. Red, of course, takes note of this.  One night, Samar wishes for a friend, and Red wants to make her wish come true.

But someone scrawls an ugly word intended for Samar’s family on Red’s trunk, and the neighborhood becomes a world divided between those who wish for newcomers to stay, and those who want them to leave.  Francesca, who owns the land Red’s roots have dug deep into, and therefore owns Red as well, decides that it’s time to cut the tree down, who needs the bother of all the leaves, critters, acorns, and wishes that come with Red, after all?  For that matter, do wishes ever come true?

Wishtree is a journey into believing in wishes, and in people, too.  I loved every moment of reading it so much, that the moment I came to the end of its last page I just had to read it again.

Jason Reynolds’ Ghost was our final read aloud last year, and my ex-students still talk about how much they loved it and how they can’t wait to get their hands on its sequel, Patina .  Well, they will be glad to know that the copy I ordered is finally here, and that it was worth the wait.


Patty is Ghost’s track team mate.  She is just as fast as he is, naturally, but with her own compelling story.  Patty has seen a lot of loss for someone in middle school: her father died suddenly when she was quite young, and then her mother lost her legs to diabetes, which meant that Patty and her sister Maddy had to live with their aunt who was better able to take care of them.  Even though Patty sees her mother every weekend when they can all go to church together, she misses the family she life she once had, and her old school, too.

Patty knows two things for sure: that her family counts on her to be strong , and that she is fast as the wind on the track. But, Patty is also just a kid trying to negotiate being one of the only African American girls at her school, being a role model for her younger sister and a cause of nothing but pride for her mother, and being part of a track team filled with big personalities.  That’s a lot for one kid.

I loved that Patty is a strong young lady, her sassiness hides a big heart and a vulnerability which makes her an interesting character to follow through the book. Reynolds writes with an understanding of a kid’s perspective on life, and with a genuine love of all the quirkiness that (especially) goes into  middle school aged kids.  These are my people, too, and I loved being immersed in their world through the eyes of Patty.


#Celebratelu: Celebrating the work of launching memoir

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

I saw this Tweet this morning, which made me sit up and take notice, because it came from my wise friend Katie Muhtaris and it mentioned the also wise Colleen Cruz:

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Teaching eleven and twelve year olds who often come to me feeling that they are writing about nothing, I have sat through more writing conferences than I can remember helping my kids find their something.  So, yes, our kids need us to believe that they have something to say, and we need to believe (i.e. deep down in our hearts, not just pretending to pay lip service to the very idea) that they have it in them to say it.

Believing, of course, is only one part of all that goes into teaching children how to reach into their hearts and souls to find that something.  Katie’s Tweet made me think about all the groundwork my kids and I laid for writing memoir this past week.  Before I describe any of that work, however, I want to be absolutely up front that everything below has been cobbled together from wise books I’ve read and workshops I’ve attended over the past twenty years (Katherine Bomer! Ralph Fletcher! Nancie Atwell! Linda Reif!) and collected in my writing workshop handbook.  I owe everything about the work I do in my classroom to folks much smarter than me…and to my students from whom I learn every day how to transform theory into practice.

First, we talked about how personal narrative differs from memoir:


We spent a long time talking about the difficulties some have had writing memoir in elementary school, and acknowledged how hard it sometimes is to look at the small moments in their lives for whatever it is that their teachers have deemed “memoir worthy”.  Most of my kiddos felt that “memoir worthy” moments to write about were just something dreamed up by teachers with which to torment them (which brought to mind Billy Collins’ lines about what is done to poetry – “But all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.”).

Next, we moved onto a minilesson about the source of memoir ideas for writers:


And then we examined a list of possible places to venture for memoir “seeds”:

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Every day, after our mini lessons and mentor text studies, we reached into this idea bank to story tell and then quick write.  Some of these forays just might become the writing pieces that my kiddos will choose to stretch out and develop next week, but the purpose of this was simply to think about small moments through the lens of the above “big ideas” and try one’s hand at writing in a “memoirish” (their word!) way.

That led us to the real heart of our memoir study – reading powerful examples of memoir writing and deconstructing each piece for those elements most common to memoir: how the author uses language to convey meaning/how we learn about the memoirist and those important to her or him in this moment/the role of setting/the use of time to lend power and meaning/the “so what?” – the author’s purpose for remembering and writing this experience.  I have always opened with James Howe’s “Everything Will Be Okay”  because it is, quite frankly, the most compelling text with which to begin – it’s a story that somehow always leads my students to an “ah ha moment” of their very own, one that never fails to answer their nagging questions about “what the heck is the difference between personal narrative and memoir anyway???”. With “Everything Will Be Okay” there is immediate clarity.

We read and take it apart collectively, with prompting and noticing by me all along the way.  This messy, in the moment work with my morning and afternoon writing workshops:


coalesce into neater, more easily readable (and therefore more referred to) charts like these (our  other text for this type of work is  “All Ball” by Mary Pope Osborne):



Then we turned to Ralph Fletcher’s “The Last Kiss” (from his Marshfield Field Dreams ), and my kiddos did all this so-smart deconstructing by themselves:

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Every day, we reached into our “memoir idea bank” for storytelling and quick writing after we’d worked with these mentor texts; reading them, talking about them, and taking them apart to analyze the craft with which they were put together helped understand memoir better and helped our quick writing become a bit more focused…a bit more “memoirish”.

By Friday, our working bulletin board was ready for next week, when my kiddos will begin drafting their memoirs and deciding what they want to say.

And that is cause for this sixth grade teacher to celebrate!


Poetry Friday: Nightingale by Tony Morris

Poetry Friday is hosted by Violet at Violet Nesdoly | Poems

When my children were little, we took many late-at-night drives to soothe their restlessness and lead them into sleep.  Now that they are adults with lives of their own and bedtimes beyond our reach, I often look back on those rambles through pitch black neighborhoods with one or two babies in their car seats with a weird nostalgia. We have two of of kids home temporarily as they deal with medical issues, and there are no more late-at-night drives I can offer.   Sometimes, I realize that I am not even fully aware of all their symptoms and how they have (being responsible adults already) learned to cope and soothe themselves.  From time to time, over the past few days, I have come downstairs  in search of my morning coffee to find car keys flung on the  kitchen island. Perhaps one of them has rediscovered late night rambles.


When our daughter was a baby,
she’d sometimes cry and cry,

raw-throated nightingale heavy
on evening’s shoulders,

no solace in the rocking lullaby,
warm milk, blue velvet blanket,

nor in the whispered words,
the quiet shush we’d loose

while pacing back and forth
across the wooden floors.

Until one night, by chance,
we needed diapers,

and my wife, as tired
as I and needing, if not rest,

at least another’s voice to soothe
the small disquiet in her chest,

lifted Morgan from the crib,
bundled her against the cold,

and together we walked out beneath
the stars that pulsed

against the winter’s crisp
and piled into the car.

And halfway to the store,
heater blowing warm against our feet,

we noticed the muffled
wind that faintly buffeted the glass,

the slapping, even rhythm
of the concrete seams we crossed,

and the silence—but for heavy breathing
coming from the car seat in the back.