Teacher Tuesday

It hasn’t been intentional on my part, but so far, Teacher Tuesday interviews have primarily featured elementary school teachers and librarians. So, I’m very pleased to bring you the thoughts of middle school teacher Andrea Payan. She works with seventh and eighth graders at Morgandale School in Milwaukie, Wisconsin. And she has terrific things to say about read alouds for middle schoolers so let’s dive in!

First, a peek into Andrea’s past: 

  •  Favorite school lunch as a kid: Salisbury Steak.  I almost never brought my own lunch so I had to get used to eating school lunches.  This one was the one I looked forward to every month. 
  • Best friend in grade school: Maureen Ryan.  She lived two blocks away from me and we spent countless hours exploring the neighborhood and imagining big adventures. 
  • Times you were the new kid in school:  In 7th grade we moved because my father got a new job.  Luckily, the middle school where we moved started with 7th grade so I didn’t stick out so much.  Then I moved again in 11thgrade and was the new girl.  My stepbrother was a senior that year so I at least knew him and his friends. 
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch:  I had so many great teachers — I was truly blessed!  There are three teachers who stand out as inspiring me in some way. Mr. Szudy, my first grade teacher, read aloud to us every day and gave us silent reading time. He even had a loft in his classroom. I remember how happy it made me when it was my turn to be able to climb up there and disappear into a book.  Mr. Fuller, my high school English teacher for both junior and senior years, taught the advanced and AP classes and was a tough grader. In every paper written for his class he gave a point for every well-supported argument. He added up the points and that was your grade on the paper (the goal was 10 points). Students were allowed to revise as much as
    needed to get the points.
      I worked my butt off in those classes and learned so much about refining arguments. Ms. Babcock, my Spanish teacher in middle school, worked so hard to make classes fun for us.  She also cared about us deeply.  The summer after my eighth grade year my father passed away.  The only sympathy card that came just for me was from this teacher.  I was so touched that she took the time to reach out to me in that time in my life and that has really inspired me to make sure that all of my students know I care about them each and every day. 
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved:  I could never solve a Rubik’s cube.  Eventually, I ended up moving the stickers I think.  I still can’t get more than one side figured out. 

Andrea, several other teachers and librarians have shared about the importance of read alouds with their elementary students. However, you work with middle schoolers. Let’s explore how read alouds work for older students. Most middle schoolers are fluent readers–why read alouds for this age groups?

Adolescents are not always very excited about reading.  In fact, more and more of them come into middle school grades convinced that reading is boring.  The right book for read aloud can convince a classroom full of students that reading can be rewarding and is not boring.  Getting them hooked on a great book helps me to convince them to read independently and find the same pleasure in a good story.

Hearing a good book is such a community building experience.  Having a book that you know everyone has read because you read it aloud makes it easier to have discussions about literary elements.  Everyone in the class remembers the characters and the situations in the books we read so we can constantly make reference to that story to help understand the concept we
are studying.
Also, it is not always true that middle school students are fluent readers.  Yes, there are many students that read fluently, but there are also many students who are still struggling.  Read alouds provide an avenue for think alouds that help students become aware of their own thinking processes.  This in turn helps them to comprehend the books they are reading independently.
How did you come to realize the value of read-alouds with older students?

Read alouds were such an important part of my classroom community when I was teaching younger students that I couldn’t imagine NOT reading aloud.  Being a reader, I turn to professional books for advice when I am facing new challenges.  I spent a lot of time reading about teaching reading to middle school students before I moved to this grade level.  What seemed to jump out at me was that it was going to be important for me to be able to do think alouds to bring my thinking out for my students and to help them understand that reading is thinking.  I always have so many books I want to share with my students and this seemed like the best way to share some of those titles. 

The first time I realized the value of read alouds for older students was the first time that they groaned in protest when I was going to stop reading.  It is amazing to hear kids who started the year with outspoken protests that “reading is boring” start to beg to hear more of a book.  It is also awe-inspiring to hear the silence that falls in a classroom when a group of students is really interested in a book.  They may not say it out loud, but I hear it in their silence while listening to the story…that is when I know they’re hooked. 
Do you have strong memories of being read to as an older student? Could you please share about those?

 I was incredibly lucky in that I attended an amazing elementary school.  I was read to in every grade and have very strong memories of silent reading time in the classroom with cozy surroundings and even a loft in one of the classrooms. 

I remember my fourth grade teacher reading books to us that resonated with me into adulthood.  When I became a teacher, I actively sought out the books I had heard in fourth grade so that I could share those titles with my classes.  I remember vividly being so moved by the book The Island on Bird Street by Uri Orlev that I asked my teacher to leave the classroom one day during a particularly tough scene. This book is about a Jewish boy trying to survive in hiding in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII and his story sucked me in so completely that I could not stand it.

The librarian at our school was also passionate about reading.  Our library was my favorite place in school and the librarian was one of my favorite people.  Read alouds were always a part of our library time and I have a special place in my heart for Tomie DePaola books because the librarian loved them. 
How does being read to impact your students?

First and foremost, being read to helps my students to gain access to books that they may not have otherwise read or understood.  I try to
pick out books that bring a message to my students and teach them about life lessons.  When a book is powerful and speaks to the soul, students learn to focus and stay in the moment with the story.  They also get to see that even the most fluent readers sometimes make mistakes and need to correct themselves.  It is also important for them to hear fluent reading with good inflections so that they can learn to read orally with expression. 
What do you think they learn about reading for themselves from being read to?

 Students learn that there are good books out there with stories that they connect to.  They also learn a little bit about their own tastes in books.  Every student in the class is not going to love every read aloud, but they are exposed to different genres and that helps them to understand what they like.   A big part of my read aloud time is spent in thinking aloud and engaging students in discussions about the books.  This helps them in their independent reading because they learn to think deeply about their reading and hopefully start to discuss their books with others. 
What are some favorite titles? How did you discover them?
Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick
Nightjohn, by Gary Paulsen
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen
Miracle’s Boys, by Jacqueline Woodson
Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko
Most of these books were discovered on lists put together by other educators.  When I was moving to middle school, I tried to make sure I was reading books that would be relevant for my students.   Some of the books were ones I knew other educators had used successfully as read alouds, and a couple were books that I took a gamble on because I enjoyed reading them.  I have found that shorter books work better for middle school attention spans, especially in the beginning of the year. 
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 one or two of these books spoke to you.

Wonder was a book I discovered because of the constant praise it was receiving on Twitter from other teachers and librarians.  This book touched me because it really spoke on a deep level about what it means to be kind to others.  I was particularly drawn to this book because I used to live with my stepbrother who was physically disabled.  I have seen the types of looks that Auggie talks about getting.  I have felt similar feelings to what Via feels.  The author did such a good job of realistically portra
ying this life and I was glad to share that perspective with my students.
Do you have particular read aloud methods/techniques?

Read alouds are the foundation of my teaching.  I use the read aloud to teach a lesson about the particular skill or strategy we are focusing on.  Students have their reading notebooks out during read aloud and they are actively practicing a strategy while being read to.  For example, when we focus on making inferences, I will stop multiple times while reading to share with students an inference that I am making.  Their job is to write down the inferences in their notebooks along with any inferences of their own.  After a few days of this, students are mostly writing their own inferences while I am reading.  In this way, students practice thinking while reading and I also have their notebooks for accountability to make sure that they are really listening to the read aloud. 
What else would you like to tell us about reading aloud and/or about reading aloud particular titles?
Another great idea for read aloud is to read the first chapter of a book as a way to get students excited about the title.  I love whetting their appetites for certain titles by reading these short excerpts and then watching them as they clamor for that title. 
Andrea, thank you for this testament to the power of reading aloud, no matter the age of the listeners! If you want to learn more about Andrea’s work, you can follow her on Twitter, @payanar.