I wasn't going to blog this morning. I spent most of yesterday helping write a grant for a community organization, and I needed to get up early and do some work for school. But then I read Mary Lee's beautiful entry about read aloud. And I knew I had to write something…
Two years ago, I was doing reading intervention half time. For 90 minutes every afternoon, I met with a group of fourth and fifth graders who were reading at a second grade reading level. Two of the eight were English Language Learners. One little guy we later found out was living with his mom and little sister in their car most of the year. One of the girls was living with her mom and four younger siblings-- her dad was in jail. Another guy was a gentle giant, one of those kids who I know I will see on Monday Night Football some day, but also a kid whose sweet sensitive spirit had some how gotten overlooked in favor of his athletic prowess. And then there were the random children that arrived at our school for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, and then moved on, often without any notice at all. If you were to ask me about a group I would always remember, it would be that group of kids. The reason being- they reminded me of the power of a great read aloud.
The first book I read to them was Barbara O'Connor's HOW TO STEAL A DOG (which, by the the way, is one of my all time favorite read alouds, and a book I have read to two other groups and am about to start for the third time tomorrow). Given that I hardly ever use a novel as a read aloud more than once- that's huge!). That book became the cornerstone of our reading life and of our reading community for the entire year. HOW TO STEAL A DOG was the measuring stick by which we measured all other books, "That was good," the kids would say, "but not as good as HOW TO STEAL A DOG." I turned to HOW TO STEAL A DOG every time I needed to teach a mini-lesson. The children used HOW TO STEAL A DOG as a lens into each other's lives. "You have to be nice to B," said M, a girl who was recognized as one of the biggest bullies on the playground. "Remember HOW TO STEAL A DOG? You don't know what someone else might be going through." HOW TO STEAL A DOG became that scarlet thread that bound the kids together as readers and as human beings.
This year, I'm working with an entire class of fourth graders. And I have to say, in over a quarter of a century of teaching, it is one of the toughest groups I have ever had. Almost thirty kids. Seven reading at a first grade level. Another five reading at least a year below grade level. Five that speak more Spanish than English. A mean girl group that rivals any I have ever seen. Three kids in foster care. A child whose fifteen-year-old mom's in utero drug and alcohol use has led to severe cognitive issues. Several others living with random relatives. It's a tough, tough group, kids with life stories that take my breath away on pretty much a daily basis.
I have taught a long time and have a few tricks in my bag. Usually I can figure out something to tame even the most savage of beasts, but the first month that I worked with these kids was really, really hard. Every time I tried to do a minilesson, or have a writing conference, or engage the kids in independent reading, chaos erupted. They wiggled and squirmed and fought with each other. They stole each other's pencils and chips and book bags. They harrassed and bullied and were unkind to each other.
Over Christmas, I thought about the fourth graders. About how mean they were to each other. About how hard they were to teach. About how far they had to go. About what we were not accomplishing. And I realized that the one thing that I had not done with this group was to read aloud much. In my rush to maximize my 90 minutes of teaching, I hadn't helped them to become a community of readers, or to learn to care for each other. Overwhelmed by their academic and emotional needs, I had forgotten the power of a good book.
And so that first day after Winter Break, we started again. I sat down in my chair in the meeting area. I opened up THE FANTASTIC SECRET OF OWEN JESTER. And I read to them. I read away the hardness of their lives. And read them into a world where a kid could make a hard choice to say goodbye to a beloved pet. And have a big adventure. And stand up to mean friends.
Things didn't change all at once. That first day, the kids complained about sitting on the floor. Some of them didn't listen, or at least didn't appear to be listening. They wiggled and squirmed and poked at each other. I had to do teacher stink eye pretty much every time I turned a page. But I kept reading.
And somehow, over the course of 150 pages, this group is becoming a community. They come to the floor without protest. They press against my knees, gently stroking my legs as I read. They are quiet and focused. After every chapter, they beg me to read, just a little more, just a few more minutes. They are attempting to incorporate some of Barbara O'Connor's techniques into their own writing. They stop by my office to ask for other books by Barbara O'Connor. They are becoming better readers. And more caring human beings.
And that, Mary Lee, is why I read aloud to kids...