Teacher Tuesday

I first “met” Will Strait when he arranged a Skype visit with a few of his classes at Spartanburg Day School, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The school serves K-12 students, but Will primarily works with K-6. I had a thoroughly delightful cross-country conversation and, though I didn’t forget Will, I promptly forgot where he was teaching. So, when I arrived to present at the South Carolina Association of School Librarians conference a year or so ago, I was completely surprised to discover that Will would be introducing me! He is even more fun in person.

Will was a bit hesitant when I first approached him about participating in Teacher Tuesday, but he was inspired by Colby Sharp’s kick-off interview about read-alouds, specifically Fig Pudding, by Ralph Fletcher. Like Colby, Will is equally passionate about a particular title — but I’ll let him tell you about that himself. 

First, a Teacher Tuesday tradition: a peek into Will’s past!

Little Will looking forward to his first read-aloud!

  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: My mom packed my lunch for years, and I loved a particularly southern delicacy: peanut butter and banana with mayonnaise. Some people think that all mayonnaise is created equal, but most from South Carolina will assure you that the only true kind is Duke’s.
  • Best friend in grade school: Craig Wactor–1-4
  • Times you were the new kid in school: Just once. When my family moved from the town/suburb of West Columbia, SC to the genuinely small town of Moncks Corner, SC. Most of the kids had been attending school with one another since kindergarten. There was a bit of culture shock, but I think any new school would have been difficult for  I was a shy, bookish kid.
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch:I had a number of teachers who sought to push me. Most were not overly successful because I was able to skate by with minimum effort for quite a while. There were a few who managed to succeed in getting me to push myself, mostly by getting me excited about a topic I was already into, such as history or literature/reading. I think one of the most inspiring teachers was a college professor, Dr. Gordon Ross, I had at Winthrop. He was, seemingly, one of the happiest people I have ever met, and he cared so much about English literature and his students that it made me only want to turn in my finest work to him.
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: Snap my fingers. Sadly, I did not master this essential skill until I was in college.

Will, you agreed to be interviewed after reading the Teacher Tuesday post with Colby Sharp, in which he talked about his favorite rea
d-aloud, Fig Pudding. You are equally passionate about your favorite read-aloud for 4th graders, The SOS File by Betsy Byars, Betsy Duffey, and Laurie Myers.
How and where did you first discover this title?
I found this book because I was searching for read-alouds for a particularly jaded group of fourth graders I had my very first year as a school librarian. Several of the books I had read them had fallen disastrously flat. I was looking for something that would be interesting to a 4th grade class and the variety of interests that it contains. I think I discovered it in one of those Amazon lists that someone had made. I knew Betsy Byars from her fantastic, Newbery-winning Summer of the Swans, and I thought I would give the book a try. I started reading it to students my second year as a school librarian, and it has been a standby ever since.
Obviously, a book needs to speak to you in order for you to want to read it to your class. Talk about the ways in which this book spoke to you.
What I appreciate about this book is how authentic the characters’ voices in the book are. I also really enjoyed how it is quite simply a fun book. The book doesn’t pretend to be a masterpiece or have some grand theme. In direct and clear language, the book tells entertaining stories about a variety of kids. There is one serious story stuck in the middle, but it is a happy story, rather than a sad one. My biggest complaint about The SOS File is that there aren’t a hundred books out there just like it.
Most 4th graders are very competent readers and could read The SOS File on their own. Why do you believe in reading aloud to students?
I believe in reading aloud to students for a number of reasons. One of the main ones is that it shows an adult enjoying a book in a very obvious fashion. It’s one of the reasons I try my hardest never to read something I don’t find highly enjoyable, because it shows. I want students to have as many pleasant memories tied to books as possible.
Aside from the touchy-feely aspects of why I like to read aloud to students there is a significant amount of literature that shows its benefits for attention span, listening skills, and vocabulary acquisition. Anecdotally, I have seen all of these benefits in my daughter.
Do you have particular read aloud methods/techniques?
I vary my techniques depending on the book I’m reading and who I’m reading it to. I do a lot more stopping and starting and questioning with younger readers and picture books. With longer works, I tend to stop a lot less, only on a part that might be confusing to students. With older students, with a chapter book like The SOS File, I work very hard to establish eye contact, to not spend all my time staring at the book. It’s something that has taken a great deal of practice to improve, but hours and hours of reading to my daughter have helped.
What impacts does this book have on your students? 
I think the main thing most students take away from the book is the excitement of wondering what the next story will be about. The students all study the cover and notice the shark first. “Will the next story be about the shark?” they always want to know.  In the past, when I have taken a break from the book, they always try to check out my copy or get me to tell them about the other stories.
You extend your students’ experience with this book through a writing exercise. Tell us about that exercise.
It is a simple creative writing exercise. Students get to write their own entry into the SOS file. We spend a library session writing our own entries. The next week we take turns reading them aloud and sharing them with one another. It is always an entertaining time. They really enjoy the opportunity to write a story without worrying about whether it will be graded or not. This year I had stories ranging from having a bad MineCraft experience to almost being thrown from a horse.
We know that The SOS File is your favorite read aloud; what other books do you read aloud to your students? Recommendations, please!
That’s a surprisingly tough question. I could literally go on all day. One of my particular favorites for K-1st are the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems. These books are a towering achievement in children’s literature: incredibly simple, yet sublime. Two of the best are We Are in a Book and Can I Play Too? Last year, with 4th graders, I had a lot of
luck with The Christmas Genie by Dan Gutman. 

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen has been a hit every time I have tried it, with multiple age groups. I had several eighth-graders fighting over our copy the other day, when they had the opportunity to read to some four and five year olds.
Publishers have released a lot of fantastic non-fiction picture books in the last few years. Some of my favorites, from a read-aloud perspective, are Queen of the Falls by Chris van Allsburg, Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet, Into the Deep by William Beebe, and Strong Man by Meghan McCarthy. It is very easy to extend all of these books with multimedia, additional reading, and research.
Let’s see, don’t forget some of the classics that still work today: Robert McCloskey’s books still hold up, in particular, Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal. If you haven’t explored the odd wonders that are William Steig’s picture books, lately, you really should. 

Books with just the right amount of grit that do not talk down to kids.
What else would you like to tell us about reading aloud and/or about reading aloud this particular title?
I’m sure everyone reading your blog probably has a similar opinion, but I will share it anyway. If you have children, take the time to read to them every day. You will not regret it.
And, as we are heading into the holiday season, you can make it even easier to read to the kids in your lives by gifting them with some brand-new books*, perhaps even one or two of those Will has recommended above! 

Thanks to Will for a lively and thoughtful post. I love his suggestions for read-aloud techniques; similar ideas can be found in Mem Fox’s wonderful book, Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever.
 * if you are looking for some great book gift ideas, check out Mother Reader’s blog!