Slice of Life: What’s a Just Right Read Aloud

I believe literature can bridge gaps that would otherwise never close. The potential of this brings me hope.

Teaching how to read and love literature is the cornerstone of my language arts classroom. I try to capture it in read aloud. This time is precious. It has to count.

Every year we read joyful, funny books. Books that children love. And every year we read books that are disturbing. Every year I wonder, are my book selections the best I can make. Too heavy, too light. What’s just right?

Our first chapter book of the year was Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. I love this book, yet was concerned. How might my students understand it or handle the topic?

The story of Kek is brutal: a ten-year-old Sudanese refugee making his way in Minneapolis after his detention in a refugee camp, after losing his mother, after the murder of his father and brother.

Heavy stuff. My students aren’t privileged by Western standards, yet they are light years away from Kek’s experience. My students read for plot, action, adventure, humor, and fantasy. Is this too big of a stretch?

I went with it because it was the chosen text for the TCRWP Reading unit of study. While I don’t hesitate to change things to meet student needs, I felt I needed to give the design of this unit a chance. The expectations are high. I thought if anything would help students approximate the work required, the read aloud would be the access point.

We have a week left in the book. And there have been glimmers of deep thinking. I’ve seen a few notebooks that gave me hope, but the overall reactions of students worried me. Was the nature of the story turning them off? Was engagement waning? They were so quiet.

Today I read this scene,

The grocery store has rows and rows, of color, of light, of easy hope. . . I stand like a tree rooted firm my eyes too full of this place, with its answers to prayers on every shelf. . .

I reach out and touch, a piece of bright green food I’ve never seen before. And then I begin to cry.

I stop and wonder aloud:  “I don’t understand. This is the opposite of what I’d expect.  A grocery store is a place that ‘answers his prayers.’ Why would he cry?”

I hear

Maybe he’s filled with joy. Yeah happy tears.

Then from a student who seemed disengaged and had voiced his opinion that the text is slow (not enough action) turns to his partner,

I think he’s doesn’t think he deserves these things. Why him and not his family.

We read on. The Library,

I don’t know what to do with it all, I say. I kick a chair leg. To have all this food and all these books and all this freedom. I  feel sort of… I dont’t know, the word. Too lucky.

“Too lucky?” I say. I don’t understand. Why is Kek feeling this way. How could he feel too lucky? His life has been unlucky. Why is this such a problem? Why has the author created this situation for Kek? For us to understand?

Partner talk erupts.

He can’t handle this it’s too much.

He doesn’t think he deserves it.

He feels guilty.

I think I have a new theme!

Somethings can not heal. Things can’t help, sometimes they hurt.

They listen to more.  They hear how Kek handles his trip to the mall, his encounters with money, birthdays, and racism. All ideas that are foreign to him yet he moves through it.

Then, I take them back to the quote that titled the section:

One doesn’t forgo sleeping because of the possibility of nightmares.

Students have interpreted this to mean: One doesn’t give up living because there might be trouble.

I ask, “How do these chapters fit into this part? How does it fit with the whole?

They talk and write.

Later at the end of reading workshop, students finish up their discussions on their books. Two students approach.

“Mrs. Harmatz, we have two new questions we should ask during partner talk: How does this part fit in with the whole and why is this important?”

Whoa.  What I’d been saying again and again in read aloud had sunk in just a little bit and transferred to their work. A few have gotten toeholds on the wall they need to climb.

This book is challenging in its structure and content.  But perhaps, there lies the wisdom of this book choice.

We have to sort through the whys and hows. We have to fit the pieces together to make sense of it. And we do it together. That’s what a read aloud should do.

We have to think through the differences. We have to come to terms with ideas that disrupt our world view. That’s what literature should do.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hThank you, Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Live Tuesday. You bring us together to write, to share, to connect. Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Stacey, and Tara. Read more slices here.

19 thoughts on “Slice of Life: What’s a Just Right Read Aloud

  1. Julieanne,
    It’s 5:26 in NYC. I am rush, rush, rushing to get me and my things out the door to start my day. Thank you for this post. So beautiful. Just what I needed to slow me down and remind me of all that’s magical in this work.

  2. Wow! Just…wow! I’m impressed with the thinking work your students are doing with this read aloud. Amazing!!!! So important to take that risk and challenge…they have risen to the challenge! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Bravo Julianne! What a way to begin the day, right in the middle of your classroom, feeling the power of real teaching and learning. Politicians aren’t in there. They should be. But your cheerleaders are right where we belong, side by side with your kids!!!!

  4. Like Shana, I needed you “work” with you today. I am feeling a bit lost as I’m on a team at a school that isn’t focused enough on strong reading and writing workshop and colleague conversations feel mundane. But after reading your post with such detail, I feel like I had a conversation with you about read-alouds and I’m inspired. So inspired by your work and the work your kids are doing. Now I can’t wait to go work with my own students!! Thank you for sharing and being my co-workeer today. I love Tuesdays – my day to “talk” with you!

  5. I’ve heard you talk about the struggle with this book. But what I hear over and over again and read in this post is the value of the struggle. I’m glad you have stuck with it. Your kids should be proud, too, of the great brainwork they have done. It matters. You matter. Books matter.

  6. I hear you loud and clear. For my third graders the book was Because of Winn-Dixie. I thought that the book would be “too hard” for them (most speak a home language that is not English and they are a young group, the story did not have lots of action, the story wasn’t one they might immediately connect to). As we read the book aloud the level of conversation I heard was amazing, the questions, the noticings, the thinking-wow! It was really a reminder to me that excellent books can be understood on many levels and that I should never underestimate the power of words. Thanks for sharing your experience- I must look for the book.

  7. Your post does an amazing job of letting us peek into your room and hear the wonderful conversations. I love that you gave the book a chance and didn’t cave to plot and humor. It sounds like they got a lot out of it. I also love the inquiry in your room–kids ask their own questions and then work to answer them. So, so good.

  8. What a powerful glimpse into the world of real teaching! Just when we begin to doubt some choices, kids reveal they are there with you and their minds are fully engaged. Now that’s awesome!

  9. That is such an encouraging slice! I love how your patience endured. Thanks for the reminder that patience is necessary, and hope should be a part of our readers workshop as well as all of the smart design and thoughtful lessons!

  10. Love hearing how those students came to you to introduce more questions, Julieanne. The quiet may also mean more and deeper thinking is happening from this story than just the enjoyment of action. Thanks for sharing all the ideas that have emerged from your students.

  11. I’ve said it before, and I am sure I will say it again. Your students are lucky to have and know you. Thank you for giving us this amazing snapshot of your read aloud time. I’m going to find the book…

  12. Patience and Persistence are your middle names. Both are evident in your reading, writing and thinking. Thank you for sharing. Sometimes it’s hard to hang on to “high expectations” on a daily basis, but in the long run the kids don’t need “low expectations”!

  13. So excited I stopped by to read this incredible post. I love how you showed us what you did with your students and included their comments and thinking. One of my groups in after school book club chose this book for their first book yesterday.

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