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. 

 

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#Celebratelu: Time for play

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

We went out to play on the last Friday of September.  Fall was in the air, and we’d been looking longingly out the window at birds and clouds flying free in the the blue sky.

As we raced onto the soccer field, all our cares left in a heap of books and pencil cases at the edge of the field, it did not matter that we didn’t have anything to play with – just a green field, our classmates, and our imaginations.

Tag.

Duck duck goose.

Who can cartwheel the fastest?

We laughed, we goofed around, we yelled our heads off.  We discovered that Will could run like the wind, that it was impossible for Zach to get tired no matter how much he ran.  We learned that someone we thought was rather quiet actually had a lot to say, and that someone we thought shy was … NOT!  The outdoors, and a whole period to just “be!”, brought us closer together.

We sixth grade Smithlings work hard…but every once in a while, we just need to play.

#celebratelu: Creating the space

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

I first learned about the idea of querencia from Writing Toward Home, Georgia Heard’s sublime book inviting writers to write, where she explains it this way: “In Spanish, the word querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home. It comes from the verb querer, which means to desire, to want.”

From September through June, the place where I find querencia is my classroom – it’s where I want to be, where I feel most at home, for the work I do there defines who I am.  The last week of August is always given over to unpacking last year’s classroom and preparing it for this year’s kiddos – and it is one of my favorite tasks ever.  Because, as I prepare our learning space, I am hoping that it will be also be where fifty new sixth graders feel their querencia lies for the school year ahead: their home base, place of comfort, place they want to be.

In setting up my pods of desks, I thought about all the talk and activity that would transpire there:

In setting up our classroom library, I imagined the way our books would circulate – joyfully passed from one reader to the next:

While putting aside a space for conferencing, I could hear the important book talk and writing talk that I would be privileged to be a part of:

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And in setting up my student’s bins, I thought of all the organizational learning this year would also come to mean:

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Arranging our easel space for mini lessons and conversations is my favorite thing to do – this space is really the heart of our classroom:

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Our walls await the learning we will do together, so they are mostly bare, but our bulletin boards hint at what our first week of togetherness might bring:

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And putting together my corner of our room filled me with anticipation for all that will unfold in the year ahead:

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Our classroom space, a place of our querencia, is ready for another school year…and I celebrate that!

Slice of Life Tuesday: What I would like to hear and do on “Opening Day”

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

 

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A new year – a new lesson plan book!

Opening day, the first official day for teachers in our school, is about a week away but I am dreading it already.  It is my least favorite day of the school year, which is probably not a politically wise thing to admit to…but true.

Here’s what every opening day of my teaching life has looked like: Everyone arrives to sign in sheets and a breakfast of doughnuts, danish pastry, and weak coffee. Thank goodness for that weak coffee, though.  We move from the cafeteria to the auditorium (more sign in sheets) and prepare ourselves for opening remarks in which someone from the School Board essentially tells us that we must do more with less and that (nevertheless) our school is the crown jewel of our town.  A few inspiring quotes will be shared for that humanistic touch. There may be a PowerPoint. That is followed by someone from the school’s  administration telling us what the district’s new goals will be (remember, we must do more with less) and how important it is for us to keep these goals in mind as we march into the new school year.  There will definitely be a PowerPoint – many with pie charts and graphs so we can visualize how to do more with less.  And inspiring quotes, hopefully not the same ones we saw in the previous one. Then we will troop out of the auditorium and into another meeting just for our particular school.  Sign in sheets, and another PowerPoint to remind us of procedures, rules, expectations, changes in how things are done.  There may be an ice breaker activity so that we can be reacquainted with our colleagues in the most awkward way possible.  There may be additional quotes, one year we even had a pop song thrown in – the less I say about that, the better.  Then we will be asked to meet with our teaching teams so that we can go over said rules, and changes in procedure.  Definitely no PowerPoints to look forward to, thankfully.  Finally…we can go back to the places where the real stuff of our teaching lives happens: our classrooms.

Every year, I sit through all of the above thinking of only that last part: my classroom.  To be honest, I’ve been thinking about my classroom all summer, and I would have been there the week before getting it ready for the year (which is a good thing, because getting a classroom ready for a school year is a labor and thought intensive process).  Our classroom is half of the  beating heart my teaching life – every book, stick of furniture, placement of furniture, wall and corner of this room has been thought out to best suit the other half of the heart: the children.

When I think of these children, and the year ahead, I am filled with so much emotion: they are why I show up every day, they are why I read and think teaching things all summer, they are what will keep me up late into school nights. The children.

I wish Opening Day could be less about procedures and  facts and directives and opining about lofty goals for the school district.  I wish all of that could just be sent to us via email sometime before, so that our first official day back in our building could be more joyful, more nourishing of our teaching souls.  Teaching is hard, hard work.  The school year makes many demands  on our time and on our emotions that vary as wildly from year to year as do the children we are responsible for.  Opening Day should acknowledge that.  I would love for it to be about a quick gathering of building staff and then TIME to get back to our rooms.  I would love it be about being in that space upon which so much depends with time to make that shift of mental gears: from summer time research and planning to school time “here we go” reality.  I would love the luxury of quiet time in which to put the last few things in order and immerse myself in thoughts of hope, and dreams of doing with the children – to get into the teaching zone again in the way I, the teacher, see best fit.

That’s what I would like to do on Opening Day.

 

#celebratelu: Celebrating fresh starts

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

This year, I’ve decided to go old school with my plan book. I’ve been working with Google docs for the past few years, and have loved going paperless.  But…some part of me has missed the old way of  sharpening my pencils and actually writing down those plans, so I ordered a planbook via Etsy which would give me the layout I needed and the option to customize the cover:

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This quote by Kylene Beers and picture (created from a Waterlogue photograph of my classroom and Picmonkey) has been on the wall behind my desk for a long time, but this year it felt appropriate to have it in front of me  – a quote that defines my teaching spirit every day of the school year: each day is a new opportunity to affirm the hopes and dreams of the children in my classroom.

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I’ve been thumbing through the blank pages of this new plan book – looking ahead to ideas I have for each day, month, and the year as a whole.  I love the blankness of it all and the opportunity for a fresh start that it represents, and I love the fact that it is neatly contained with a sturdy cover and spiral, which suggests both resolve and flexibility (two necessary and key ingredients in any school year).

Every September, I choose two excerpts from my summer PD reading as new guideposts – wise words I want to live up to in my planning, in my teaching, and especially in the way I listen and guide my kids along in their sixth grade year.

From Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s new book, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters :

We argue that the ultimate goal of reading is to become more than we are at the moment; to become better than we are now; to become what we did not even know we wanted to become.  The transactions we have with texts might enable us to do that.  If we read actively, assertively, thoughtfully, responsibly, then any text we read may offer us the possibility that we can reshape ourselves…

Our students, however, too often go to reading expecting a grade not growth.  So, we want to disrupt the thinking kids are doing as they read, thinking that is primarily focused on helping them extract evidence from a text.  We want them aware of the possibility that reading may – perhaps should – give them the opportunity to reshape themselves.  We want them to realize that reading should involve changing their understandings of the world and themselves…We want to ask students to be open to the possibility that a text might be disruptive, and that it is this disruption that gives them the opportunity to learn and grow. (pgs. 59-61)

And from Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading:

…it’s my hope you feel something akin to that as you emerge from this book: excited, reenergized,and eager to take this work into your classroom…It creates opportunities for us to be big-picture thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers, too.  And by not tying us down to a script or a lesson plan that claims students will meet outcomes that are hard, if not impossible, to reach in a single sitting, it allows us to reclaim the status of professionals in a world that often sees us as the problem.” (pg. 216)

July has been a time of reading, reflecting, discussing, and writing.  As I gaze upon my new planbook, freshly unwrapped and fragrant with “new paperness”, I celebrate fresh starts – how lucky we teachers are to have this opportunity every September!

Why I love soft starts and what I hope for soft closings

Writing about my “July dreams” yesterday, got me thinking about how valuable it was to experiment with soft starts last year, which makes me want to try to bookend our sixth grade block with a soft closing this year, too.  (You can read more about soft starts by going straight where I did: Sara Ahmed’s book with Harvey Daniels – Upstanders)

Why it worked so well:

  • The kids really needed it. Morning block (three periods-writing workshop,reading workshop, social studies) begins first thing in the day at 7:50, when my kiddos are still half asleep.  They need some time to get into school mode.  Afternoon block begins right after lunch, when my kiddos are either half comatose from all the carbs they just consumed, upset about something that happened at lunch recess, or still hyper from recess activity. They also need some time to get back into school mode.  About ten minutes gives them a chance to collect themselves, so that when we begin our learning time, we really begin.
  • It worked the same way every day: classical or jazz music to set the tone, and both the day’s “order of operations” and the “starting menu” posted so that everyone was always in the know about what to do, and I didn’t have to field a hundred questions first thing:
  • Allowing time for issues settled kids down and eased their minds. If someone had forgotten lunch money, or just had a big melt down at lunch, it was best to address concerns before we began working, rather than have a student worried and miserable and therefore not able to pay attention.
  • Be flexible about the timing.  Somedays we need more time than others, most often it’s the idea that kids know they have some time, rather than sticking to a rigid timeframe.  When time’s up, the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, please meet at the rug to begin our day” is all it takes – they already know what to expect and have, it’s just a matter of picking it up and moving there.

Why a soft closing and what would that look like?

Our block ends with Social Studies, which is discussion based and project oriented.  I find that my kids rarely leave our classroom in a calm way  – they are either still bubbling over with discussion points and ideas, or not quite done putting away their supplies.  Most importantly, they don’t leave in the same frame of mind they had when we began our work day, and I’d like to change this.

I’m thinking that music could signal this time frame, too.  And, perhaps a reference chart for closing that could look like this:

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Who knows, maybe this soft close to our day will have as much of a positive effect on me as the soft start does!

 

Slice of Life Tuesday: July dreams

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

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July has come and gone, and August begins today.  Those were my first thoughts upon waking this morning: July is gone, here comes August…here comes the new school year! Even though I have three more weeks of Summer vacation stretching out before me – somehow, the moment I see August on the calendar, I think about Room 202 and the kids who will be walking in.

July is for dreaming…August is for planning to make those dreams come true; here are some July dreams:

*carving out more time for students to share what they have been reading with each other. My summer book club has been so much fun – lots of reading, and lots of talking about the different books we’ve read and how they have impacted us as readers. I want to give my students a chance to do this, too.

*opening up our reading journals to new ways to experiment with reading responses.  For my summer book club and the PD book groups I participated in, I deliberately experimented with sketch noting and a few other forms of responding to both fiction and nonfiction.  I want to make time to share these with my new students, and to brainstorm with them for ideas they will undoubtedly also have.  It’s time to have more response options in reading workshop!

*our soft start of the day was such a success, that I want to experiment by bookending our block of time (three periods) with a soft closing as well, just to give my sixth graders an opportunity to end their time in our classroom in a calm way as well.

*designing a short unit on “how to think like a historian” before we go on to examine the historical time frame mandated by our curriculum. My friend Julieanne shared this link with me:http://sheg.stanford.edu/rlh, and now I am more excited than ever about opening our year with this unit.

*creating a history blog, so that we are writing about the events we’re learning about, and carrying on with our class discussions after time to think/do some independent research.  This is a work in progress, but that’s what August is for.

*a graphic novel book club.  I think it’s time for this!

I have a few more dreams up my sleeve, but the above seems quite enough to get through for the moment.  After all, three weeks is not that long of a time to make all of those July dreams come true!