Newbery Honor Author, New York Times Bestseller, Time Traveler
Heather Jensen is another of those generous people who said yes when a complete stranger reached out to ask about participating in Teacher Tuesday. (In fact, not one person I asked said no!) Heather teaches fifth grade at Hillside Elementary, in Harrison, Michigan. She and I chatted about read-alouds and about finding that one book that turns a student into a reader. But first, a peek at Heather’s past!
Favorite school lunch as a kid: The pizza that was shaped like a rectangle. We usually had it once a week.
Best friend in grade school:Koralynn (Eve) Wright
Teacher who inspired you to stretch:My high school Contemporary American Literature teacher. Mr. Hannah showed me the strength of reflection and showed me multiple perspectives to the world.
The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved:Find the love of reading. I remember struggling with learning how to read and being in a group while the rest of the class was reading.Then came the SRA kits and book reports that I fumbled through. It wasn’t until sixth grade that I remember falling in love with reading.My Side of the Mountain brought me into the world of reading. I became a member of the Nerdy Book Club and fell in love with YA literature. I think of elementary school as my lost years as a reader.
Heather, you told me that you wanted to chat about choosing the right books for read-alouds and about finding that book that turns each kid into a reader. What were your experiences being read aloud to as a child?
My mom and dad read to me as a young child. I remember going to the library for story time. Read-aloud time for me was when I did not have to struggle with words and I could finally understand what was happening. It gave me access to new worlds, new friends, and new perspectives.
Why do you think it’s important to read aloud to your students?
I still love being read aloud to. It is important to read aloud to my students because it gives them access to all types of genres and books that they may not be able to access just yet. The conversations that are generated after reading aloud often give me goose bumps and bring tears to my eyes. I see my struggling readers sharing their thinking and feeling a part of our reading community. It is very powerful! Plus it is so much fun to read aloud!
What skills/abilities do you think hearing read-alouds strengthens in your students?
The main skill I think a read-aloud strengthens is listening comprehension. I also think our ability to have a conversation and discuss books is a life-long skill. It also gives students the confidence to voice their thinking without having to struggle through a text.
How do you know which read aloud is right for your class?
I try to pick books that will help my students grow as people. I choose books that give different perspectives. I also try to pick books from several genres to introduce them to something different. Plus sometime you just need a really funny book to read and laugh with your students.
How can the right read aloud turn a kid into a reader?
It gives them a view into new worlds. I like to read the first book in a series. I like books that showcase kids around their age doing extraordinary things. Students often start asking for my read aloud book when I am close to finishing it. We start a sign-up sheet as to who to pass the book to next.
How do you show your students your own love of reading/books?
I talk to my students all the time about my own reading. They all know what genres I love and what my reading gaps are. They buy me books from my favorite genres. They recommend books to me and I move those to the top of my to be read pile so I can validate their choices. I show them my Good Reads page and share my progress. We write letters back and forth each week about our reading and I share my struggles with books as well.
Can you share a specific anecdote or two about a wonderful connection between a kid and a book?
One for The Murphys was a perfect read for one of my boys who had been in a foster care home earlier in his life. He was able to open up to me in his reading letters about his own experiences in foster care. I do not think J. would have told me those details otherwise.
Hattie Big Sky brought one of my girls, T., into the world of historical fiction. Now she reads that genre whenever she can. T. was jumping with excitement when I brought in Hattie Ever After.
Out of my Mind changed C’s life profoundly. She realized she was not respectful to students with disabilities or anyone who was different. Melody gave her a new perspective and opened C’s mind. Shortly after reading the book, she came to me one morning and told me about two adults who had been making fun someone in a wheelchair at the football game. She told me she turned around and told them that their behavior was disrespectful and they needed to think before they speak. Imagine an eleven-year-old and the adults’ reaction. Priceless.
What advice might you give/do you give to the parents/guardians of your students regarding reading aloud at home?
My advice to parents/guardians is to read every day
with your children. If you do not currently, get started and never stop even when they are teenagers.
It seems that with standardized testing and other demands on a teacher’s time that read-alouds are going the way of the rotary dial phone. What can other teachers/librarians do to resist this trend?
I feel teachers and librarians need to be forceful and stand united. We cannot back down. We need to educate our School Boards, government, and the public on the benefits of reading aloud to our students. We have to make the time for reading aloud every day.
What kinds of outside resources, if any, do you employ (Skype, author websites, guest speakers) to generate interest in books/reading?
I use author websites and Twitter to generate reading excitement and interest. We write letters to authors. I am fortunate that my school brings in authors (at least once a year). I would love to do more Skype visits with authors.
What do you wish I’d asked you that I neglected to ask?
I wished you would have asked me about the reading community in my classroom. We are an active community talking and sharing books every day. We have students from every classroom in the building stopping by our room to check out books. My students get to know their interests as well as their own and hand them books when they walk in the door. We know our strengths and our gaps. We use this knowledge to grow ourselves as people and as readers.
Readers — I imagine you are as moved as I am by Heather’s story — growing from a struggling reader to powerful reading advocate. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to stick with reading if it hadn’t been easy for me as a kid. I can only imagine how Heather’s experience helps her empathize and encourage all of her students. You can tap into more of Heather’s thoughts about reading by following her on Twitter:@hmjensen31