The Power of a Great Read Aloud

Read aloud time is THE most important part of my day.  Period. The end.  I am lucky that I teach in a self contained third grade, so I can make sure it happens, every day.  It is my morning meeting, my reading lesson and so much more.

This is my second go around with teaching third grade.  I did a stint about 18 years or so ago for 6 years.  However, this time things are different. I have a different perspective on teaching grade three, as I taught second grade for many years, then fourth and then I landed back in grade three. Also, in that time, the middle grade genre exploded!

Third graders are an interesting bunch.  They are caught between early childhood and middle grades.  That makes read aloud a very interesting time.  At the beginning of the year, many (not all) responses to conversation are about themselves. If you are reading about a dog, they will tell you they have dog or their aunt has dog or their friend has a dog. Etc.  This is very developmentally appropriate.  As we delve deeper into read alouds and read more, slowly, their responses begin to change.  They are able to begin to look through the characters eyes now. They can make predictions that make sense to the story and not what they want to happen.  Because by now we have shared many good books, we are starting to make connections to other stories.  I marvel as their responses grow as they mature as students and small humans.

Last week, an amazing thing happened.  My read aloud at that time was the One and Only Ivan.  This is one of my personal must read to student books.  It is about a gorilla named Ivan and his friend Stella the elephant who live in a shopping mall.  If you haven’t read it, you need to! It is probably my 5th or so novel this year so I am starting to see the change in responses from my students.  Anyways, 3 girls asked if they could stay in for recess to work on something.  I said sure.  I noticed that one student took about 20 sheets of copy paper.  She put them all out like a puzzle and began sketching.  At the end, she handed everyone sheets to take home and work on it.  At the end of recess, they told me that they were creating Stella the elephant. (See picture below).  The story was so powerful that they felt the need to miss recess to get their ideas down.

So, I finish the story and then I read the picture book by the same name.  The students were not happy about the treatment of animals.  Also, at that time, my daughter Kelsey is in South Africa   Home.   And had been to safaris.  She had been sending us pictures and information about animals that needed help.  It was decided that we would “save” animals.  We looked up the World Wildlife Federation and we decided to save a gorilla or an elephant.  It was decided that the students would have to earn the money themselves. it cost $25 to sponsor one animal.  I told them that if they raised $16, I would kick in the rest.  Well, a very generous donation from our teaching assistant, Mr. Carroll helped us to adopt a gorilla.  The students then worked to adopt an elephant.  They were to do chores at home.  Parents were not just give them the money.  The money started coming in. Yesterday, I was able to adopt a gorilla, an elephant AND a rhino (which we had learned from Kelsey were in the most need).  How fabulous is that?

My next read aloud which I started immediately (and am still reading) is Wishtree also by the same author as the One and Only Ivan. The same girls from before decided to make a Wishtree where each child created a wish for it.  They also felt we should have a class wish, which is in the middle of the tree.  These girls also played Wishtree at recess.  Students who at the beginning of the year who were making connections to themselves are now seeing connections between Wishtree and Wonder.

I love to read aloud.  I love to watch their faces as the story unfolds.  Some books, I choose to read every year.  Some books I mix up but every year, students surprise me with their insight.  Every class takes read aloud in a different direction.  I am so lucky to be able to watch it unfold. I can’t wait to see where this class continues to go..

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This is our bulletin board mentioned above.  On the sides is our personal reflections to the One and Only Ivan.  The elephant is Stella.  (The girls haven’t finished yet with the title).  The sign in the middle says, We Love Katherine Applegate Book.  Then the Wishtree.  Our class wish is that We Wish everyone to be kind to each other.

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Home.

My first blog entry since I have landed in the United States. My first blog entry since October. I am struggling with what I want to say, how I can summarize this experience in a few paragraphs, how I can convey the emotions I am feeling and have felt. I will do my best to express what I am thinking, five days removed.

Welcome home! How was it? has been the most common question I’ve been asked. I find it difficult to sum up everything I experienced and learned in a few sentences, which is why I wanted to write this post. Truthfully, it was

  •  Hard. It was on of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I have become so much more independent in this past year than before, but I still missed my family with every fiber of my being. Not being home for Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, made me heartbroken. Getting infected with a severe stomach bug for five days and having to solely take care of myself, on a different continent, was exhausting. Lacking wifi so FaceTimes were few and far in between was tough. It was hard missing my family.
  • Eye-opening. In my other few entries, I talked about the income disparity. I was ignorant before this; I was unaware of how little some people survive off of. I was unaware that there are children, my students, that come from those conditions. Children who don’t have running water, children who live in informal houses, children who live in townships where there are shootings every night, children who lack basic hygiene.
  • Exhausting. I saw the poverty almost every single day I was there. I saw people on the streets begging, I saw people going through trash, I drove on the highway and saw townships, I saw my littles and talked with my teacher about their home lives. It is exhausting to be exposed to those kind of situations and feel so utterly helpless. It is exhausting to be in a country and a city that is known to be progressive but yet I saw day-to-day the reality of extreme poverty that the majority of the population faces.
  • Humbling. I was shocked. The longer I was there, the more I realized how incredibly privileged I am. Is the United States flawed? Absolutely. However, am I privileged enough to fight against inequalities in the system? Am I privileged enough to be in a country that has a union to protect teachers? Am I privileged enough to be proud to be labeled feminist and participate in a third feminist movement? South Africa does not have those movements. There are an abundance of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) fighting for those without a voice, but the impact nationally is still unseen.
  • Challenging. Everyday I was challenged. In my classroom, I have never been tested like I have by those 30 little humans. It made me reflect on my teaching practices. On my teaching philosophies. Every. Single. Day. Working with my mom and my other housemates, I had to think about what I was doing and how I could improve. And I had to improve hard. I had to repeat expectations every single time I was in front of the classroom. It tested my patience and I lost it more than once. Even though those Grade Rs were the hardest group of children I have taught, I fell in love with each and every one of the little anklebiters.
  • Life-changing. Was this experience exhausting and hard? Yes, 100%. Everyday I was challenged. Cape Town challenged my views of the world and flipped me upside down, 180 degrees, and shook me on the way down. I am a completely different person than when I left in August. It gave me passion to fight for those can’t. It taught me the importance of getting to know my kiddos. It slapped me in the face with perspective and privilege.

Yesterday, a few of my friends from Cape Town went to talk with the current seniors in Neag. At the end, I closed with this:

“This was the hardest experience of my life. However, I would do it all over again. Was it great? Absolutely. There were some things that I have never been able to experience and things that I crossed off of my bucket list. But I am not going to lie to you, it will be hard, I can guarantee that. But if you go, and I hope you do, it will be the most eye-opening and life-changing experience you will ever have. It has made me so much more passionate about fighting for those who don’t have a voice, fighting by using my privilege, fighting for those not just in Connecticut, but those across the world. It has made me a better teacher, but most importantly, it has made me a better person. It is challenging, oh boy it’s challenging, but one thing I can promise you is that it will be worth it.”

So, thank you Cape Town, for shaking up everything I thought I knew about this world. You have a piece of my heart. I’ll end this entry with:

“A little part of everywhere I go becomes a big part of everything I do.”

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You Talked to Who????

Wow have things changed since I started teaching! I often take for granted the advances that have made my life more enjoyable in the classroom. Yesterday, I was hit full force with just awe. When I started my career, we had no computers at all. I think the secretary may have had one. Now, I carry everything I need either on my phone or my iPad. It would not be unusual to see me working on three devices at once. I did not have a phone in my classroom. I used to have to go to the office and wait for a line out (of which we had two). I didn’t think about it then..it was just the way it was.

Yesterday, we Skyped Alaska. I am in Connecticut. Actually, we didn’t Skype. Because they are so remote, they facebook video chatted with us (thank goodness for the young teacher in Alaska who could walk me through that). Can you imagine?! Children from Alaska and children from Connecticut looking at each other and talking. Asking questions and finding out about each other. It was awesome!

We learned that yesterday in Alaska it was 7 degrees outside. Many of the children were wearing hats in the classroom. The coldest it has gotten in 50 degrees below zero. We also learned that they can get a foot of snow a day and they go to school no matter what. They laughed at us that we miss school if there is too much snow. There are 20 children in the third grade class and that was their entire town of grade three students. What hit my class was that it was 12:40 in CT and our new friends in Alaska had just gotten to school because it was 8:40 am there. Their students also asked in anyone hunted or trapped animals. They said their houses are usually made by hand and out of wood and trees.

I don’t know if my class totally understood how amazing this was. For them, Skyping has become something that we do. We definitely discussed it after. We talked about how their lives are different than ours and how wonderful is that that we get to see that first hand. We can read all about these states, but to actually talk to children from there..priceless!

I will forever be grateful for the technology that brings these fabulous programs to my students. My 21 year old, first year teacher self, could never have imagine in my wildest dreams what happened yesterday! So, I think my not 21 year old self is going to sit back and enjoy this moment..(until I find the next cool thing)

The Year of Change

Two days ago, I put my 20 year old on a plane for a 22 hour flight across the ocean to see her sister in South Africa. She got into line to go through customs and I cried like a baby. Don’t get me wrong, I am excited for her to go! New adventures await her. But to have both of my children that far away from me was gut wrenching. But then I had to stop and process all that this kid has been through in the past year and I cried again. Tears of pride.

We all want for our kids to go to college, stay there for 4 years, graduate and get a job. Nice straight even line. While that was my destiny, that path didn’t happen with either of my girls. Krista’s year of 2017 has been a year of change. It all started in the summer of 2016 when she worked as paraprofessional for special education summer school. She fell in love. She fell in love hard and found what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She went back to college for the fall of 2016 but her heart was no longer in the mathematics major that she was. She tried taking occupational therapy classes but soon found that the course selection was limited. On a fateful family vacation she knew she had outgrown the college she was at and had to transfer.

After much discussion (argument, tears, yelling), Krista went back to college. She lasted 3 days. The place that she had signed for lacrosse at 16 and loved more than anything was no longer the place for her. She came home. She quickly enrolled at a UCONN branch and began the process of choosing a college for the fall. This time, she realized, she had to do it by herself. She was over 18 and now it became her responsibility. She also got a full time job. Faced with her first season without sports since she was 2, she decided to train and run a marathon.

I would like to say that everything went smoothly. It didn’t. She had the difficult choice of choosing another college. One offered her sports and a liberal arts major to graduate; the other no sports but a health science major. Krista has been a competitive athlete since she was 5 and a gymnast. Her walls in her bedroom are adorn with medals, trophies and awards. Training for the marathon helped to focus her in the spring, but I can’t imagine what her brain was going through to possibly never play sports again. Sports had been her identity up until that part. It was was made her tick. As much as I love watching her play, I wanted her to make the best decision for her. Because sports had been everything to her for so long, I was afraid that she would regret the decision to not play. We paid the deposit at both school so she had more time to decide.

Decision day came. When she said, the only reason why I would be going to that college is to play sports. The decision was made. It was terrifying. Krista had been in the sports bubble for so long. How would she do without that structure? Would she regret this decision? As a parent, you struggle with saying the right thing and allowing your children to grow and change. As an educator, I know that new experiences help your brain to grow. I know that life happens outside your comfort zone. I know that. But I am her mom. I just wanted an easy path for her. However, I also firmly believe that you go to college to learn. If you can play sports, great, but the purpose is to learn.

So, Krista did not play sports in the fall. She has not had a stick in her hands since last year. Instead, she began to ref field hockey and make good money. She works in Special Olympics office. She trained for an ran another marathon (knocking 30 minutes off of her time). She rushed a sorority and became their CFO. She took a month of barre class. She is volunteering with a running group to act as a guide for disabled runners. She is taking health science classes that she is very excited about. She has signed up to play club lacrosse in the spring. And she is currently in South Africa, being grateful for the life she has back in Connecticut. None of this would have happened if she didn’t have the courage to make a move.

I tend to play things safe. Change can be terrifying for me. Krista has taught me that while it is terrifying, sometimes you need to do it anyway. As a mom, I look back at all she has accomplished his year and I am in awe. She is not the person she was a year ago. While this change has not been easy for any of us, I think we would all say it has been worth it.

Push Even Harder

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to attend the Connecticut Reading Association’s Fall Conference.  It had an all star line up.  Dave Burgess, Jen Seravallo, Gravity Goldberg, and Nancy Boyles to name a few.  It was beyond difficult to even decide who to see as each presenter is rockstar.  My teaching buddy and I decided that we would watch Dave Burgess as the keynote and then go see another presenter to increase and diversify our learning.  For those of you who don’t know, Dave Burgess is single handedly revolutionizing professional development for teachers.  He is the writer of an amazing book called Teach Like a Pirate. But he didn’t stop there. He created his own publishing company where current teachers and adminstrators write books that are timely and practical.  All of the books are amazing (and I personally own about 10 of them).  They are written for teachers by teachers.  They are practical and doable.  They are on the cutting edge of what is best for kids.  I read Dave’s book a few years back and since then have been a loyal follower of anything that has Dave Burgess Publication on it.

Anyways, back to the conference.  We saw Dave walking around the conference, so I just had to meet him face to face.  After all, I had created the  Iwanicki Book Awards because of him! (Also see Here)  He was just as kind in person as I expected him to be and allowed me to gush and get a selfie.  (I am such a nerd) So, we went to the keynote. It was honestly nothing I had ever seen before.  He was dressed in a pirate outfit, ran around the room and talked a hundred miles a minute.  I was completely hooked! (Pardon the pun).  I started to take notes, but quickly put them away to be in the moment and just listen.  Dave’s keynote was about engaging kids, being creative and pushing limits.  He wasn’t just another presenter lecturing us on what to do.  He has talked the talk and walked the walk.  The hooks he discussed, he used in his classroom.   He pushed us as teachers to think outside the box and do our very best to engage kids.

We knew then that we had to hear more.  We had to get to his break out session.  However, I am a rule follower.  I don’t break the rules.  I think I had a mini heart attack even thinking about it!  But we did!  (My heart is still racing thinking about it). I kept looking around afraid that there wasn’t going to be enough chairs and the PD police would come in and take me away.  You laugh, but this is true story.  It is so hard living in my brain. However, I don’t regret it for a minute, even if I felt like one of those hippy protestors. (Seriously, what is wrong with me?)

His message is clear.  We need to engage kids.  We need to be creative.  We need to push ourselves.  This is not just another person telling us what to do.  In my mind he has street cred because it is what he does.  He would give us small little problems and then 90 seconds to come up with something creative.  It is amazing what you can do in 90 seconds. He also said what I believe is true, teaching this way smashes the core standards.  It also makes kids want to come to school and want to work.

I walked away from that energize and yet completely exhausted.  My brain was on fire and yet it was telling me to stop.  But, at lunch, my buddy and I came up with a better way to end the Global Read Aloud than we had originally planned.  I dropped a hook in my class the next day as teaser.  Then during lunch recess, I said to the kids, “I have a crazy idea, anyone want to stay in and see what happens?” I had about 9/16 kids stay in.

So, here is to keep improving, keep getting better, not sleeping through the night but engaging kids and showing them the magic of learning.

Write What You Love

Writing is hard to teach.  Students come to me in third grade already not liking writing.  Or, many come to me thinking they know how to write and don’t need your help to get better.  Many are shy and don’t like to put down what they truly feel.  Combine all that with the act of simply letter formation and spelling words can be extremely hard for 8 year olds.  

I start writing with Heart Maps from Georgia Head.  Students draw and write in their hearts what is important to them.  We begin our Writer’s Notebooks.  I have students write for 10 minutes every night.  Not long, but enough.  I try to educate parents that this is just to get ideas down.  This is not a final, publish copy. In the Writer’s Notebook, we don’t worry about spelling and grammar. That will come but not yet.  It takes students a while to get into the grove, but around now they are getting the hang of it.

One of the things that I emphasize in class, is write what you love.  Write what you are passionate about and the words will come.  For eight year olds, I am finding that this can hard; deciding what they are passionate about.  Sometimes they need help finding topics.  So this week, was Halloween week.  One of the hardest weeks to teach!  We are in the middle of our opinion essay unit.  I decided to try something new. Usually, after my mini-lesson, I send students back to free write on topic of their choice.  On this day, I didn’t.  What I did was I told them that  I hadn’t decided if I was going to give them homework yet (Halloween night).  They had to write to convince me that I should not give them homework.  We discussed that I was the audience, so they needed to keep that in mind and think what would words would be best to convince me. I set the timer and off they went.

What happened next was unbelievable.  On Halloween, last period of the day, I had 16 focused children. You could hear a pin drop in my room.  Children spread out on carpet, rocking chairs, floor, desks etc. all working hard to convince me to not give homework. The small humans were clearly united in their fight against me and wanted to prove to me that they didn’t want homework! When the timer went off, they met me at the carpet.  Each student could then read if they chose.  The essays were fabulous.  

This is one of my favorites.

Dear Mrs. I,
I think we should have no homework on Halloween because if we don’t do our homework then you will probably get mad and we will have to make up an excuse and it is hard to make up an excuse and they will probably tell you that I started trick or teaching 4PM to 8PM and I was thinking of it, but Halloween is so fun scaring the little humans and they’re going to make up an excuse that I had a nightmare.
Isn’t this just wonderful! What I learned was sometimes giving them a topic that is meaningful to them is also incredibly powerful (especially if the fight is against me! 🙂 )

Draw a picture

The assignment in one of the many education groups I belong in was to have each student draw a picture of you and them. The thought being that you would learn a lot about their perception of the classroom. Hmm…I was game. I would try it that day. Friday, as it turns out, was not a stellar day in my classroom. Any teacher that has taught the week before Halloween knows what I mean. Add to that, indoor recess due to bear (yes, bear) sightings, my teaching assistant being out, an early release this week and honestly, not my best teaching day and we have a mixture for who knows what they will draw. Me, with bug angry eyes, fangs coming out of my mouth? I quite frankly was nervous what the little humans would draw. We all know that they can’t remember past 5 minutes, so I was afraid. But, I still decided to give it a go. Most of the pictures looked like this:

Then I got this:

In these two, I am clearly a teacher at the front of the room and the children are in their seat.  I didn’t think that was how I ran my classroom, but it is their preception.  The bottom one gives me pause with how little the child is and and how big I am!

Many students only drew them and me, so I had them draw them in the classroom where I usually am and where they usually are and I got this..

These are examples of me reading and the students on the carpet.

But then I also got this..

I am not sure I am small in this?  I think the keep working was from the Gonoodle video. :). Gonoodle is a brain break video.  I like how I am so small in this pic and the child is so big!

The one gave me a laugh. It came from a student who had difficulty listening yesterday.

The last one was probably my favorite..when asked to draw where Mrs. I is in the classroom, I got this.. (name scribbled out)


I liked this activity. It definitely gave me pause after a trying day.  It will keep me humble and fill my heart at the same time.