Slice of Life: Read Aloud with Jason Reynold’s Ghost

This morning I sat my fifth graders down to a new read aloud.

“Is it a chapter book? I hope so; I do lots of thinking in chapter books,” A. said.

For the last three weeks, I’ve read picture books. Great books. The choice was intentional. And they have done good work.  But, now they are itching for a good novel. One that sweeps them up off their feet, just like Some Kind of Courage by Dan Geimeinhart did.

I  read Jason Reynold’s Ghost over the Thanksgiving break, and I was fairly sure it would be a perfect fit.  Reynolds has an amazing way of inhabiting a character. He puts you right there. Even if it isn’t your experience, when you read his words it becomes yours.


I shared a picture of Jason signing our class copy.

“Whoa, he looks like my brother.”
“He’s so young!”
“He looks cool.”
“What did he say when he signed it?

Before I read one word, their hearts are in it. They love this guy.

I read the subtitle, Running for his life, or from it? and asked,
“What do you think that means?”

There were tentative thoughts.

“It could mean …”


“He could …”

The provocative subtitle pulled at them making them think. After chapter one, we don’t know why our main character is the way he is, but we have theories and wonderings. That’s the work we do at the beginning of a book. We try to make sense of the confusing place the writer has landed us in.

He eats sunflower seeds and talks about world records.
Why the heck is this 12-year old (we figured that out) not wanting to get home?
Why is he walking home, when he could take the bus home?

After a bit of reading, I ask students to reconsider the subtitle. They explode with ideas that are stronger and specific to the story so far. The wheels are turning not just about what happened, and what might happen, but why things are happening.

We’re busy noticing and wondering and revising our thinking about the character and his journey. This reading work we do when we start a book; it’s our journey. They are doing as “A” said lots of thinking.
Time flies, and we have to stop, for music. There are protests and groans of “noooo! ” Music to my ears.

No worries, I tell them, there’s tomorrow.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesday. Read more slices here.

Celebrate: Unexpected Connections

This week I want to celebrate an unexpected connection.

This week I was listening to the amazing and sometimes overwhelming Good to Great Voxer chat. I happened to listen to something that I might have skipped over. It was about Number Talks.  I could have passed over the link; I don’t teach math. But this week I had the time to listen to a few.

I saw the seven dots as a square of four with a line through it.

I was fascinated, and a little ashamed that I had no knowledge of this beautiful work. Turns out my colleagues who teach math use this strategy all the time. Interesting how it took my Voxer friend, Christina Nosek in San Francisco to clue me into something that is going on two doors down from me. It makes me think about how I listen to the world. But that’s another blog post.

This post, for this week, is about how math work informed my literacy work.

Thursday my students and I were talking about the many ways we can write about reading. How readers can be reading the same thing and have different ways of seeing it and writing about it. Right then in that discussion, the seven dots popped into my head. How we see the world varies. How we see the text varies.

The next day I read this passage from our read aloud,  Deltora Quest #1: The Forests of Silence, by Emily Rodda.

The cart that collected the food scraps would be of no use to him. Prandine must have guessed that Jarred had used it to escape, because it was no longer permitted to enter the palace. These days it waited between the two sets of gates while guards loaded it with sacks.

I stopped and asked them to sketch or envision this scene. I told them thumbs up when you’re you’ve got it. Then I asked them to describe what they saw so I could sketch it on the board.

Some described iron gates, others, wooden slates. Some saw the gates arching; others spiked at the top. Some saw the doors slightly open; others saw the lock. Some just saw the bags of food scraps; some were seeing the apple cores inside the bag. Some saw the guards with a frown and a metal helmet.

We read on.

Its walls were lined with stone. In wonder, Jarred realized that he had found the entrance to a tunnel. Scurry, mouse, Into your house … He knew what he must do. He lay flat on his stomach and wriggled into the hole, pulling himself forward on his elbows until the space broadened and his way became easier. So now the mouse is in the mouse hole, he thought grimly, as he crawled along in the darkness. Let us hope that no cat is waiting at the other end. For a short time the tunnel sloped downwards, then it became more level and Jarred realized that he was moving through the center of the hill.

Students had to do some thinking work. They used their notebooks.

We all see the text differently.

This week I saw dots differently. The dots connected, unexpectedly. This week I celebrate those unexpected connections.

Read more celebrations here on Ruth Ayers blog Discover, Play, Build.

Celebrate: Read Aloud in their Midst

Elevation matters.

Even the slightest height inequity sets a tone.

I pulled kids to the carpet for Read Aloud. (Notice the emphasis?)

This time of the year, students become a little resistant. They are comfortable with me and more self-conscious about their 10 to 11-year old bodies. Add in a bit of fatigue and sunshiny day and there is a recipe for even the most willing to start to lingering at their desks when called to the carpet. I can see this thought on their faces: Am I a little too old for carpet sitting? 

I saw an open space on the carpet; just big enough for me. I grabbed A Writing Kind of Day by Ralph Fletcher and sat down in that spot. I leaned back against the corner of the bookshelf.  We were knee to knee, eye to eye. K laughed and said, “This is so weird!”

I opened to Poetry Recipe and started to read, til we got to the end …

I picked up my best friend’s pen
that I’ve kept in my drawer
ever since he moved away.

I took a deep breath,
opened my notebook,
and started to write.

They sat listening. Mouths open.

Just like Ralph,
I said,
let’s remember
a someone or something
you know, miss, or care about.
Open your notebook.
Put yourself there.
Look, smell, feel, hear.
In you mind,
look to the left,
write what you see.
Now to the right,
write what you smell.
Reach out in your mind’s eye,
write what you feel.
Close your eyes
and listen.
Write what you hear.

They sat and wrote
on the carpet.

This week I celebrate Read Aloud’s superpower: flexibility.

Read aloud allows us to adjust our stance with students and text. Sometimes were are in the thick of it.  Sometimes we listen in, observe; coach; direct. Sometimes we take our pens and study text. Letting the words move our pens, as thinkers, as readers, as writers. And sometimes we let words wash over us.

Writing beside them is nothing new. Sitting, in a place where a student usually sits, changes stance. Everything looks different, from my perspective and theirs. Read aloud lets me be with students. This week I celebrate being in their midst.

Thank you, Ruth, for Celebrate this Week. Read other celebrations here.



Celebrate: Challenging Presumptions

This week I chose the last read aloud of our nonfiction unit. I wanted it to showcase the genre and lead into the next unit on advocacy. I wanted a book with a strong narrative and a supporting expository text. I wanted a book that could foster an understanding of advocacy. Nonfiction reading lends itself to advocacy thinking. It’s natural to read about an issue or an event and react. Thoughts of “that’s not right” are the immediate response to mistreatment or abuse.

Looking through my pile of books I chose this:


Many of my students had The One and Only Ivan as a read aloud in third grade so I thought the “true story” would be an interesting choice. We could look at the narrative portion of the picture book and then compare it with the expository article in the back of the book. A perfect pairing of the ways nonfiction can go.

But an interesting thing happened on the way. During the narrative portion, students who knew The One and Only Ivan story stopped me saying, “Wait, you left something out,” and ” Yeah, that’s not the way it goes.”  Those comments led to an explanation of true versus real versus imagined.

Ok, that’s solved I thought. Nice that we clarified that.

We started reading again. Then we got to the page that showed the two baby gorillas in the dark, damp crate, and they stopped me again.

T: How could the writer know how it looked?

Me: She imagined how it might have looked and felt and then she wrote it, and the illustrator drew it.

S: Wait, I thought this was true.

J: How could the writer say this is the true story?

Ah, what a slippery slope the nonfiction world presents. They are entirely correct. Nonfiction doesn’t always mean “true.”

With that, I handed it back to them asking, “What do you think? Should this be called the true story?” Better them debating than me explaining. They wrote in their notebooks and then turned to their reading group to discuss.

I thought the text would be a good ending to nonfiction. I thought it would be a good segway to advocacy because of the people who protested Ivan’s situation in the mall. Little did I know that it would get us to reexamine the very nature of nonfiction and introduce our argument writing unit.

It’s remarkable. What we don’t see. What we don’t know. The unpredictable outcomes students offer us.

This week I celebrate the power of read aloud, writers like Katherine Applegate, and students who challenge what I presume.

Thank you to Ruth Ayers, who asks us to celebrate each week. Connect with others who celebrate here.

Slice of Life: Student Owned Read Aloud

Most days I enter my read aloud with a post it free text and an open mind. This might get me kicked out of the interactive read aloud club that has post its carefully planted at strategic points to teach specific reading moves. But, I have found that my students find more and I find out more about them when I am open to their thinking. 

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of planning and thought that goes into read aloud.

I choose text that present opportunities for my students to think; titles that they could not have accessed on their own.

I plan for the process. I want them to know this is what readers do, and this is how it feels when they do.  I set them up to do the reading work, to know they are readers.

I plan for replicable approaches to text. I plan for conversation and writing.

Today we considered:

Why writers do things.

Chapter 34, “A Star is Born” in Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

I asked, “Before we start, what do you think this title might mean.  Why this title?”

Conversations started in partnerships and grew. I heard:

It’s like a star in Hollywood.

Someone famous.

Maybe it’s about space. Albert loves that.

Stars can mean hope.

Hope is born?

Could it be about Ally having hope now that Mr. Daniels is helping her?

With this replicable beginning to any chapter, students were set up to look for potential lines of thought.

We started. Readers stopped to add to and adjust their theories. They supported and changed their ideas that showed up in conversations.

It’s about Albert being a star.

But he doesn’t want to be famous, he said so, he didn’t want the limelight.

No, it’s about all of them Keisha, Albert, and Ally.

But Ally doesn’t think so. She doesn’t believe.

I still think it’s about hope.

We ended our read aloud and considered a quote from the end of this chapter:

Be careful with eggs and words, because both can’t be fixed.

I asked, “Why did the writer write this? Why did she end this chapter this way?”

To answer this time,  students wrote.

Five minutes passed.

I leaned over N’s notebook.

Eggs can break and they can’t be fixed. Words can be spoken and they can hurt that can’t be taken back. Neither can be fixed.

I said to N, “Hmm, that makes me think of Each Kindness!” I had not seen that connection. I saw it with his words.

Students offered up their thinking with their partners.

Then I asked, “I wonder why the writer used this image of eggs? Add on to your thinking.”

Over T’s shoulder I read:

Ally is like an egg. And connects to the title of the chapter – A Star is Born. It’s like Ally isn’t a star yet. She’s the egg. Like not born. If someone is  mean she could break before she becomes a star.

I could not have planned this. Students own this read aloud.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays: a place to reflect and share our lives. Read more slices here.

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.

Slice of Life: Read Aloud Communion

This morning, the line of fifth graders seemed to be on vibrate.

Fidgeting and talkative, students settled for moments of instruction, attempting bits of work, then the nervous energy seeps out dissolving any possible focus.

Ah, the end of elementary school.  Worry permeates their writing. Talk bubbles all around, and the drama rises.

I asked students to come to the carpet for read aloud, and a sense of calm takes over.  As we move into the world of the story, the shared reading experience shuts out stress. It offers an opportunity to take a break and live through another’s eyes.

Today before we read about Salva Dut’s first air flight, I ask my students how many of them had ever been on an airplane. Half of the class raise their hand.

With this in mind I said, “For those of you who have been on a flight before, hear Salva’s words and live this experience alongside him. Your memories will help you. For those of you who haven’t been on an airplane, you must work a little harder, let his words create the experience you haven’t had yet. Let the language move your body and mind to be there with him.”

Students close their eyes, and I read A Long Walk to Water:

Salva stared at the scene outside the small window. The world was so big, yet everything in it was so small. Huge forests and deserts became mere patches of green and brown. Cars crawled along the roads like ants in a line…It landed with an alarming thump, then breaked so hard that Salva was thrown forward in his seat; the strap across is stomach caught him hard.

I reread. Students write and draw in their notebooks.  Then they talk.

I’ve been pushing my students to fill gaps in knowledge by looking things up. I’ve reasoned with this approach to reading, students might understand literature at a deeper level and at the same time build knowledge of the world. Just like they might look up a word’s definition, they might google an image to help them understand a piece of text.

But there are times in books when we can’t do this. Google images can’t get readers to feel. For this, we must take in the author’s words, put our hearts into the character’s experience, and let the emotions rise inside.

When we experience a story together, we set our personal worries aside and let the words fill us up to venture into the emotional and physical world of our read aloud.

The opening of a book is communion.


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more or contribute your own slice  slices here.

Slice of Life: Contextualizing, Part 1

Here’s a slice of classroom life around the idea of context.

Context as defined as:

the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

When my students read, I want them to see the world of the story as if they were looking through a window, as an observer of a time and place. But also, I want them to understand literature on a human level. And to do this, they must also connect to the character’s situation. How can this be done with a text that is removed from their personal lives? How can we contextualize foreign ideas and experiences for our students?

Historical fiction and informational text present these challenges.  As literacy teachers, we don’t have time to teach background on all possible contexts that could crop up in their independent reading. So what’s the solution? Avoid? Ignore? Accept surface understanding? Or, is there a way to facilitate thinking about a foreign concept in an authentic way within our literary block?

Last week Emmalee Briggs and Dayna Wells brought their expertise and brilliance to my classroom to help think through some possibilities. Could their use of primary documents that instigate deep thinking about history, be used with literature? And if so, what would be the approach and protocol.

We decided to build on read aloud. By asking ourselves, what questions come up as we read? What information could we present to stimulate thinking and contextualize a subject for students?

On Friday, we read this from A Long Walk to Water .:

There was a big lake three days’ walk from Nya’s village. Every year when the rains stopped and the pond near the village dried up, Nya’s family moved from their home to a camp near the big lake.

Nya’s family did not live by the lake all year round because of the fighting. Her tribe, the Nuer, often fought with the rival Dinka tribe over the land surrounding the lake. Men and boys were hurt and even killed when the two groups clashed.

How can students, who turn on the water and drink whenever they want, connect to a life that includes fighting over water?

I searched Library of Congress for “Los Angeles water.”

On Monday, I shared this:

And said,  “This is a picture of the Los Angeles Aqueduct taken in 2008. Study the picture and when you’re ready, jot your thoughts, your wonderings.”

After a few minutes, I invited them to share their thinking. Here’s a sample of conversations:

Where is the water coming from?

A lake?

The ocean?

Not the ocean.

Where is it going to?

The ocean.  Look the blue.

What’s in the pipe?

Maybe recycled water.

Is it clean?

Of course it’s clean look at it.

It looks like a water slide.

Then we focused in on specific quadrants of the picture a la Smokey Daniels‘ work.


It’s dry.

Just rocks.


Then we focused in on this part of the photo.


It looks like a road.

It’s a freeway.

The water is going there!

Are those cars?

They jotted, talked.

Then we read.

Tomorrow, before read aloud, I’ll share these pictures taken when No Name Canyon was blown up in May 1927. The explosion destroyed 400 feet of pipe.

Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times

Students will look, wonder, and question.

Then think: How might this connect to our story?

What does this picture make you think?

Can you see doing something like this work in your literacy block?

Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Tara and Stacey for Slice of Life Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers. Read more slices here.

#SOL15: Day 23, What We’re Reading

It’s Monday, and I made a commitment to a chapter book Read Aloud. I don’t take this decision lightly. Our class Read Aloud shoulders a huge responsibility.

Read Aloud is the centerpiece of the Reading Workshop. It guides and informs reading and writing instruction: from vocabulary, structure, and craft to understanding character, cultural  and historical perspectives.

Read Aloud is our shared group experience. We are tied together by this text. It’s one of the biggest decisions I make for my students. It nurtures our reading community.  For this reason, the majority of our Read Aloud time is spent in literature. I believe that is how we learn about humanity and how to be humane.

Informational text happens beside our Read Aloud, with online articles, picture books, infographics, maps, pictures, and primary documents that supplement the literature.

Some of my students struggle to love reading. They read because it’s good for them (like spinach), because their parents require it, because they want to do well in school. Not because they love it. I get that. But if all goes well, Read Aloud is the best part of the day.and these students know that book love is possible.

Because of this, Read Aloud must be a book that students will carry with them forever. When they come back to visit me as middle schoolers, the first question they ask is what are you reading.

These reads have met the standard for my students over the years-

  • Because of Winn-Dixie
  • Flying Solo
  • Mick Harte Was Here
  • How to Steal a Dog
  • Tiger Rising
  • Wonder
  • Out of My Mind
  • The One and Only Ivan
  • Locomotion

All of these reads have included kids that in some way connected to my students.They could see themselves in one way or another in these books.

Today we will start a book that may stretch their thinking a bit, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Will they see themselves in Salva and Nya? Can they connect to this world of war and struggle for the basics of life? Will this be just a window into this foreign country and culture? Or will we find threads that connect us to these characters.

9k=The Sudanese children in this story are a far cry from Los Angeles urban kids. Or are they? We start our journey today.


Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here.

#SOL15: Day 20, Voices Found in Story

Building on our work in Read Aloud this week (see Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday posts), I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness. Students are very familiar with the story; we’ve read it multiple times at the beginning of the year.

Students were asked to take on the voice of one character. They wrote in their notebooks as I read, stopped and asked: what do you think and feel.

Their choice of character split down the middle. Those who chose Maya had similar reactions, a mix of hurt and confusion. The Chloe choice showed differing responses.

Asking students to be the character; to write in the voice of the character has moved their writing about reading. The difference in reactions to the Chloe character maybe due to the various ways students interpret her through their personal lens.

2015-03-19 13.13.502015-03-19 13.13.45

The following is a found poem based on six students responses.

I am Maya.

Who is this person?

Why is this girl getting away from me?

I think she doesn’t like me; isn’t happy with me.

Feel lonely cause they

didn’t want to be my friend.

Can’t ask they’ll say no

I will not tell the teacher

Hate this place, left out

Feeling scared.

People are whispering

they’ll reject so I just play by myself

Left out

and I want to go.

I am Chloe

why is she so shy?

should I smile back?

should I be her friend?

why next to me

eww I don’t like her

she has poor clothes


she’s poor

has no friends

I never want to be her friend

laughing because she was sitting by herself and

has a pretty party dress but looks like

second-hand store

Why am I being so mean?

Should I say sorry?

Should I play with her? She is nice to ask.

Why am I being so mean

Should I compliment her

Her dress is pretty but it’s used.

Maybe it’s new.

Why won’t she come over

Where did she go?

Should have been kind.

why didn’t I smile back?

Why was I so mean?

When will she come back

Want to smile back

be nice to Maya.

Tomorrow’s the last day in our picture book series. We’re reading One Green Apple.


Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here. 11454297503_e27946e4ff_h