Teacher Tuesday

Warning: If you are a teacher or librarian and you email me about one of my books, I just might lasso you into a Teacher Tuesday feature! That’s what happened to Gary Edwards, who wrote me from the beautiful hill country of Texas to share his students’ reactions to Hattie Big Sky. Gary teaches at Hunt School, a PK-8 school about 80 miles northwest of San Antonio, Texas.  Hunt is a one school district with 180 students. Gary says, “In a small district you teach a lot of different things. This year I teach 6, 7, and 8 Social Studies, a reading elective which our school calls Book Club, Speech, English as a Learned Language, and I coach cross- country, basketball, track, and tennis.  I also drive the bus.” That’s flexibility!

Here’s a peek into Gary’s past:

Young Gary facing the future with a big smile!
  • Favorite school lunch: Going to my grandmother’s or great grandmother’s house.  I grew up surrounded by relatives.  The Snack Shack (junk food heaven-frito pie, burgers, candy) was also across the street from the school, so I really spent very little time in the school cafeteria.
  • Best friends: They were two years ahead of me in school, but we played together all the time. Living across the street was Gary Don, and beside me was Gary Steven. When it was time for lunch, it was very important for our moms to be sure to use our middle names to avoid confusion.  Three Garys leaving beside each other can be a really big problem.
  • Time you were a new kid: Never! I grew up Muleshoe, Texas (in the Texas Panhandle), surrounded by all my grandparents, great grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins and other relatives 70 miles in any direction.
  • Most inspiring teacher: My high school speech teacher, Kerry Moore.I did not go to college to become a teacher, but in the back of my mind, I thought of all the fun Kerry Moore seemed to have and he got paid for it too. The kids asked me quite often will I still teach.  Easy answer-I like teaching. I have been teaching for 41 years and Mr. Moore is STILL teaching at Muleshoe High School in Muleshoe, Texas.  The last time I emailed, we discussed the possibility that he might retire so I would not feel like a slacker if I retired. He still inspires me.

Let’s get to the heart of this interview: your passion for connecting middle school students and books through an elective class, aptly called Reading. How did this come about?

I have always wanted to teach social studies using literature.  About five years ago we were talking in class and I had some students that liked the idea. The students got together and presented a petition to the administration; however, instead of social studies through literature, it became an advanced reading class for high level students and we read from the high school Pre AP list.
How have things changed in the past five years?

From those first four students, Reading has become one of the most popular electives in the school averaging 15-20 each semester that I teach the class. We usually have 35-40 students in seventh and eighth grade so that is a huge percentage.  The class is no longer for advanced readers–it is open to all.  The kids know that if they want to read and have fun, this is the class to sign up for. This year we even added the sixth graders to the mix.  
Give us a feel for what the class is like:

I start the semester with a read aloud, Half-a-Moon Inn by Paul Fleischman. 

The kids love this book. The twists and turns keep them on the edge of their seat. Even those who take my class for the second or third time always want to hear it again. After Half- a-Moon Inn, all books are chosen with class discussion. We make a plan at the start of the semester and decide what we want to read.  Over the 5 years I have accumulated 20 classroom sets of novels with a wide variety of reading levels and the administration has always been eager to add at least one new set per year. In addition, I have available all of the novel sets that come with the Literature books and
I coordinate with the English teacher.
Sometime during the middle of the semester, I read aloud another book, Notes From a Dog by Gary Paulsen. 

About a young lady with breast cancer, this book shows the power of a person’s positive outlook on life and what it can do for others. 
Can you recommend books that have worked with your class?
Hattie Big Sky comes in number one with no close second (This means the world to me! K.)
Here are a few more favorites:

We decided to try True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi,this year–kids loved it.
Depending on class make-up and reading levels, I might use Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, or I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven. And we read nonfiction, too; 
A Night to Remember, a classic book about the Titanic by Walter Lord, is a huge favorite. 

The most popular futuristic book is The Giver, by Lois Lowry.
Our typical class day starts with a discussion of where we are, what we want to do and where we are going.  We may talk about vocabulary or discuss some historic reference in the books.  I am always reading at home, and I keep students updated on what is going on in my reading and they often discuss books they are reading. The book we are reading is always read in class, not at home, and that is never a problem.  (By the end of the third week I can usually tell how far we can read each day, so it is really easy to stay together-I think that is very important.)  Everyone reads and when they finish reading the assignment for the day they read something else. Most of the students are already reading and as the others get into the routine, reading just snowballs.  Three or four students go to the library every day to get new books, others bring Kindles. Reading becomes part of what they do every day. As the class comes to a close we discuss what we read, talk about any vocabulary problems, and questions they have about what they read. As we come to the end of a book, we start planning our end-of-book projects. Everyone does something about the book.  That is the best way to explain it.  They come up with their own ideas, which are far better than any I could come up with.

End-Of-Book Project Examples:
  • I have a very large cow’s tail hanging from the ceiling that a student made as a prop for telling about her favorite part of Hattie Big Sky. Another student brought her chickens to class, but she used a rubber chicken which she dunked in a bucket of water just like Hattie.
  •  My classroom is full of stuff, like model ships, German tanks,  submarines,  sharecroppers’ cabins, dioramas—I think the reason the janitor doesn’t complain is because her daughter (the chicken dunker) took the class twice.
  • Posters and reports on things students found interesting in a book, for example, the Spanish Flu, Holocaust, etc.
  •  One of the favorites-write a new last chapter. When we read No Promises in the Wind, someone always writes a last chapter and Howie is always alive and miraculously  survived being run over by a train
  • We have eaten all of Hattie’s recipes and lots of food from the depression.
  •  And one of the best: When we finished reading A Night to Remember, we recreated the last night on the Titanic.  recreated the meal, dressed in costume, danced to waltz music.

What has most surprised you about teaching this class?
One thing that I will never forget: The second semester we had the class, it was still small. In fact my ELL class was the same period as Book Club. I thought that a reading model might be good for my ELL, so they worked on their ELL assignments while the reading class was reading. I noticed one of the ELL kids had checked our book out of the library. I would see him reading during ELL every day trying to “catch up.” After a few days, he came to me and said that he thought he would just read with us for the rest of the year.  AND HE DID (with lots of help). It was fantastic.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m sold! I love the idea of reading being an integral part of a student’s school day. Way to go, Gary!