Choosing the Right Read-Aloud Book with which to Begin the New School Year

Introduction

When my son was younger, my wife and I would read to him every night before bed.  He loved listening to the fantastic, fun, and wild stories that we would read aloud to him.  He would become so enthralled in the nightly stories that we would need to talk about them before he could fall asleep.  He would ask lots of clarifying questions.  One of his favorites was Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.  We would often read this story to him when he had a difficult day, as it would remind him that the next day would be better.  Although my son is now 19 years old and, sadly, no longer requests a story before bed, we do often reminisce about the stories that we read together when he was younger.

Luckily for me, as a teacher, I am able to get my fix of reading aloud on a regular basis.  I find it engaging and therapeutic to read aloud to my students.  I notice that even when I’m reading a book I’ve read numerous times before, I can easily become lost in the story.  The prose swallows me whole like a snake devouring a tiny mouse.  I become a part of the adventure, mystery, humor and comedy as I read the book aloud.  I get into the characters and read the text with gusto.  It is so much fun!  My students love listening to the various books I read aloud to them during Language Arts class, and usually beg me to keep reading when it’s time to stop.  They don’t want the story to end.

Benefits of Reading Aloud to Students

If you teach fifth grade, why are you reading aloud to your students, you may be asking yourself.  Fifth graders can read just fine on their own.  Why take more time away from the curriculum to read to students?  Why do I read aloud to my students?  That’s like asking, why do you use Project-Based Learning or retesting methods in the classroom.  I read aloud to my students because it’s a best teaching practice.  I do it because it’s a vital part of my Language Arts curriculum.  I use the read aloud text to teach reading and comprehension strategies.  I read aloud to my students to help them find the joy in reading.  I read aloud to my students to foster a sense of inclusion and community within my class.  I read aloud to my students because the benefits are immeasurable.

Choosing the Right Read-Aloud Book

The easy part is deciding to read aloud to my students at least twice a week.  The challenging part is determining what book to read to them.

  • Do I choose a book that I know many of my students have already read and love?  While there is certainly value in reading treasured stories to students, I don’t see the the point in reading a familiar story to my students as part of our Language Arts curriculum.  As I enjoy employing the elements of surprise and the unknown when reading aloud to my students, I attempt to choose books that my students have not yet mentally consumed.  I find the read-aloud experience is far more enjoyable when the students don’t know what to expect.  They hang on my every word, desperately waiting to find out what happens next.
  • So then, do I choose a book that aligns with content I’m covering in other classes, such as Science or Social Studies?  I do like that I can help the students make connections between the read-aloud novel and what we are learning in another subject area.  It makes the content more tangible for the students that way.  Two years ago, when we studied space in Science, I read the class Space Case by Stuart Gibbs.  As it touched upon some elements of astronomy, the students were able to draw connections between the book and our Science unit.  As an added bonus, it was hilarious.  Perfect!
  • But what about simply choosing a great book that students have not read?  So many wonderful and amazing new young-adult novels are being published on a weekly basis.  What about reading a new book aloud to students?  Sometimes I do that.  This past winter, I read my class Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly.  What a terrific book about a hearing-impaired girl coming to terms with the loss of her grandfather and not being able to effectively communicate with other members of her family.  The prose was tantalizing and the story was relatable and engaging.  My students loved it.
  • Or perhaps, should I choose a book that addresses current issues in our world?  With the racial unrest we’ve all read about in recent months, wouldn’t it make sense to choose a book that digs into this realm so that I can foster meaningful conversations with my students?  Or, would that be too controversial?  Well, I’ve never been a teacher to steer away from difficult topics conversations.  I’m all about getting students comfortable talking about uncomfortable things.  If we want to inspire our students to go out into the world and bring about change, we need to teach them how to see the world through multiple perspectives.
  • Then there’s always the fun factor.  What about choosing a book that is super fun to read aloud?  During our unit on Poetry two years ago, I read my class Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston.  Talk about having fun when reading aloud.  The book, written entirely in verse, tells the story of a young girl trying working with a Zorgle to find a group of missing Zorgles.  The rhyming and flow of the book made it so enjoyable to read aloud.  I felt like a poet at an open mic night every time I read aloud to the students.  It was awesome!

While there are of course many other ways in which a read-aloud book can be chosen, the key to choosing the right read-aloud novel is purpose.  Teachers must choose a book that serves a purpose, regardless of the rationale for why.

My New Read-Aloud Book

Over the past several months, we have been inundated with a plethora of new information and ways of living: Social Distancing, wearing a face covering, racial unrest, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Pandemic, COVID-19, and many more.  The new normal, is that there is none.  Every new day brings something different: States are reopening, states are closing, COVID-19 cases are going down, reported COVID-19 cases are increasing exponentially, schools are reopening in the fall, schools may not reopen in the fall.  Nothing is certain in this new world in which we are now forced to live.  Instead of living in the past or trying to plan for a future that may never exist, we should be trying to find a meaningful way to live in the present moment.  Right now, many teachers don’t know if they will be teaching remotely or in-person for the upcoming school year.  So, why not plan those activities, lessons, or units that can be implemented in either version of what the new school year will resemble?  We know that we will need to begin a new academic year, and that means creating a class community, protocols, and much more.  For me, one of those permanent fixtures in whatever form school takes in September, is the read-aloud book.  I need to begin the year with a read-aloud text that will unite my students and the curriculum.

Over the past month, I’ve done much thinking about which book I wish to use to begin the new, turbulent school year.  Will I stick with the one I’ve utilized over the past two years?  Wishtree by Katherine Applegate is a fine novel that has brought clarity to the Community unit with which I usually start the year in Social Studies class.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?  The students love the book, and it’s a wonderful model for teaching reading strategies.  However, as it was released almost three years ago, I’m finding that more of my students have already read it.  Also, I’m altering the Social Studies unit with which I’m beginning the year.  The unit is more focused on the entire USA, instead of simply the town in which the school is located.  Plus, Wishtree barely tips its toes in the pool of controversy and reality.  It hints at bias, prejudice, and immigration, but strays away from getting too ensconced in the pool of challenging ideas.

In this time of uncertainty, I feel that it is my duty to help my students peel away the layers of subterfuge and political correctness that have been held over their eyes for too long.  It’s time to get real with our students.  It’s time that we have difficult conversations in our classrooms about race, religion, immigration, policing, prison, and much more.  I’ve realized that I can no longer simply gloss over these vital issues with my students.  I need to tackle them head-first.  And so, I’ve chosen a new read-aloud novel for the upcoming school year: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson.  It tells the story of a culturally and ethnically diverse group of fifth grade students who learn to embrace their differences as strengths through telling their stories.  How perfect is that?  It addresses immigration, race, family dynamics, economic disparities, and so much more.  The prose grabs you by the heart at the very beginning and never lets go.  It’s relatable and will allow me to engage my students in conversation on numerous difficult issues. I’m very much looking forward to using this new read-aloud novel and I can’t wait to see how it will change me and my students.  To paraphrase the sage wisdom with which Henkes provided my son, “Last year was a difficult school year.  This new year will be better.”

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