What makes a book the perfect read aloud?

For the past week, I have been "sitting with" A TANGLE OF KNOTS by Lisa Graff.  When I say "sitting with", I am referring more to the feeling that is left behind.  The one where you want to hold the book close to your chest in a tight embrace or find yourself lost in thought reliving a scene or two or thinking about what might happen if you used a line from the book as a snappy comeback.  Graff's newest book left me wanting to live in the world of talents and wondering about all the connections between peoples lives that are out there.

As I was having dinner last night with Kellee Moye, Nerdy Book Club friend and awesome educator, we chatted about read alouds.  I shared with her that last year I had read aloud THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate to at last 3 classes and how every class loved it.  What makes one book the perfect read aloud and another book simply one that we recommend a lot? Is it a feeling that one gets? Or is it something more.

Several years ago now I read aloud AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Choldenko to a class.  At that time, I can honestly say I probably didn't have a good reason for why I picked the book.  Luckily, it turned out to be a great read aloud choice and the class & I had a lot of fun.  A few years later, I decided to read AL CAPONE again, but this time I was much more intentional.  I clustered it together with TURTLE IN PARADISE by Jennifer L. Holm and BUD, NOT BUDDY by Christopher Paul Curtis.   As a class, the students and I could discuss the Great Depression and 1935 from the perspectives of Moose, Turtle & Bud.  I added in snippets of movies and music and comics from that era to provide further background knowledge for students.

Being intentional about books plays a large role in selecting books for read alouds.  However, before that there has to be something else.  Some stories seem to have a special element that just works for a certain class or group of students.  When I finished reading TORTILLA SUN by Jennifer Cervantes, I just knew I had to share it with my students who come from a predominately Latino culture.  Here was a story that they might resonate with at a completely different level than they have with other books. 

At other times, when I read a book, a class will come to mind.  It might be a little like Miss Mallory's (from A Tangle of Knots) talent for matching orphans with their perfect families.  Is there a talent for matching just the right story, or book, or character to just the right class?  When I read MARTY MCGUIRE by Kate Messner, I immediately knew that the I had just the right class of second graders who would love Marty.  After reading it aloud to them, I knew a perfect match had been made.

Sometimes while I am reading a book, I find myself asking if my __________ (fill in the blank with whatever grade or class I am currently working with) would be able to read and understand a book.  I have a lot of students that are English Language Learners who often struggle with books with complicated vocabulary or ones with lots of imagery that they may not understand.  When I read GOBLIN SECRETS by William Alexander a few months ago, I realized that I must have mentally asked myself 5 or 6 times how I could make the book accessible to a class of fifth grade English Language Learners.  I realized that most would likely miss the meaning of many of the words and phrases leaving them with a less than satisfactory understanding of the book.  If I wanted them to appreciate the story and enjoy it as much as I had, then I would need to read it aloud.  Sharing a book through a read aloud can provide teachers with a means of making a wonderful book accessible for their students when it may be beyond their current independent reading level.

So back to A TANGLE OF KNOTS... as a read aloud.  Sometimes, a book just feels right for a read aloud.   You don't always need a super special reason for why you want to read a book aloud.  And right now this beautiful story is begging to be shared with a class of students.

What are some of your favorite read alouds?

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Reading Aloud to Children: What I Have Learned

Several years ago, I started doing classroom read alouds.  Those of you who are teachers or librarians might be asking what is so special about that?!  We do it all the time you might say.  However, as a principal, it was easy to think that I didn't have time to go into a class and read aloud on a regular basis.  Yet, three years ago, I asked two teachers if I could come into their classrooms and read to their students weekly. At that point I couldn't tell you why I picked the books that I did or even what I hoped to get from the experience or what I expected children to come away with.  I just had this sense that I needed to read to them.  What I discovered about reading aloud is changing me as an educator and instructional leader.

Here are 5 things that I have discovered while reading aloud to children:

Reading aloud to children builds relationships. - When I go in 1 or 2 times a week to read with a class, I get to know the names of the children, and their personalities.  I have become a part of their learning community, and the books provide us with a shared history.  Even a year later, I can hold up the sequel of a book I read the previous year and we can all celebrate together.  We develop a common language and references from the books that we read with one another, and I have credibility when asking about other books they are reading.  I cherish the relationships I have built with my students from the time we have spent exploring books.

Reading aloud to children helps me identify student strengths and areas of need. - I have learned more about children's learning styles and abilities from reading aloud to them than I have in almost any other activity.  I have had children surprise me with these incredibly insightful comments when I had mistakenly thought they weren't "getting it".  I have sat in teacher - parent conferences and been able to speak often with incredible accuracy about a child based on the observations I have made when reading aloud.  I have also been able to advocate for services for children based on what I have learned as well.  One of the unexpected benefits of reading aloud or leading a Literacy Café for a class is that I can also identify gaps in learning.  This year I discovered while doing a Literacy Café on the Harlem Renaissance that some of our upper grade classes were struggling with timelines.  This enabled me to have a conversation about number lines and the gaps students had in math which were showing up in other areas.     

Reading aloud to children allows me an opportunity to expose them to new book titles. - Though I might love Sarah, Plain & Tall or Charlotte's Web, teachers and children need to be exposed to new titles and more diversity in the types of books that they are exposed to.  Whether it is a collection of books from the same historical time period, a new adventure novel, or some amazing character that they must meet, read alouds help me to introduce children to books that they would otherwise never find.

Reading aloud to children gave me a way to build a culture of reading at the school. - My students know that I value books and reading.  The parents know that I value books and reading.  My staff know that I value books and reading.  And as a result, my students are slowly developing a love for books and reading too.  They are beginning to recognize titles and authors.  Students will stop by my office to see what books I might have for them. They are now checking in with our part-time library tech to look for a title that I mentioned.  We may not have arrived yet, but we are certainly on the right path.

Reading aloud to children provides me with an opportunity to model for teachers how to create a passion for reading and learning with their students. - Whether it is through reading aloud, or during a Literacy Café, I have had opportunities to demonstrate new or different ways for celebrating books.  When I spend time reading or teaching in a classroom, I have to practice what I "preach".  If I expect teachers to make reading or learning relevant, then I must demonstrate it too.

As I share these observations, I want to remind everyone that I am still on the path to learning.  If I were to write this post in another year, I know I would have new observations or examples to share. I would also love to learn about the discoveries that you have made while reading aloud to children.      

Book Review - Tortilla Sun

Author: Jennifer Cervantes

Publisher:  Chronicle Books (May 5, 2010)

Reading Level: Grades 4th to 8th

Source: Personal Copy

Rating: 5 Stars

Description from GoodReads:

A tender, magical story about 12 year old Izzy Roybal who is sent to spend the summer in her nana’s New Mexico village where she is soon caught up in the foreign world of her own culture, from patron saints and soulful food to the curious and magical blessings Nana gives her tortillas. In Nana’s village she meets Mateo, the adventurous, treasure seeking thirteen year old boy who lives on the other side of the bolted door in Izzy’s bedroom and six year old Maggie who is raising her cat, Frida, as a dog and sees marshmallow ghosts float out windows. When the wind begins to whisper to Izzy, she is soon led on an adventure to learn about her father’s mysterious death, who she really is, and to connect the hidden pieces of her past.

Several months ago, I signed up to participate in The Story Siren's 2010 Debut Author Challenge.  I will add admit that Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes was a late addition to my list of Debut Authors.  However, I am so thrilled that I found this absolutely lovely book.

If you hang around me for any length of time, you will know that trying to find books that my students will relate to is a big concern of mine.  The majority of my students are from Hispanic backgrounds.  Many are Mexican American.  There are some but not enough stories that feature Latino characters.  I was barely a chapter into Tortilla Sun when I knew that this was a book that I not only wanted to share with my students but that I would use as a read aloud with my fifth graders.

By now you may be wondering, what is so special about Tortilla Sun? Cervantes has created a story filled with well-developed characters, a vibrant setting, and a message of loss, love, family, and hope (pull out your tissues when reading this - I sobbed for nearly the last 1/4 of the book).  Twelve year old Izzy never met her father who died before she was born.  Her mother and she have never settled into one house or an apartment for any extended time.  After moving into yet another new place, Izzy uncovers a box of things that belonged to her father including a baseball with the worn words "Because____ ____ magic".   Shortly after this discovery, Izzy's mother is called away on a research trip and sends Izzy off to spend the summer in New Mexico with her grandmother.  At first Izzy is unhappy with this decision but shortly after arriving she discovers that the summer may be a time where she can learn about who her father was and what are the missing words rubbed off from the baseball.  From her Nana, she discovers the magic of homemade tortillas, and learns that the past needs time to be revealed.  From 13 year old Matteo and 6 year old Maggie, she learns about friendship, adventure, and caring about others.  From the adults that surround her in this small village, she learns to embrace the magic around her and discovers who she is.  Cervantes also weaves together Spanish words and phrases along with wonderful references to food and activities that further embrace the Latino culture.

This coming of age story is beautifully and masterfully told.  Cervantes has hit her own home-run with this debut offering and I am eager to read any future books from her.

You can find out more about Jennifer Cervantes and her book at: http://www.jennifercervantes.com/

You can find Jennifer on Twitter @jencerv or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/jennifercervanteswriter?ref=ts

You can purchase a signed copy (while they last) of Tortilla Sun at Borders Glendale:  http://www.borders.com/online/store/StoreDetailView_149

Read Aloud - May 2010

In March 2010, I read AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Choldenko to my fourth graders. The students were fascinated by the book. Most of them had little knowledge of the 1930's. By reading the story, we had an opportunity to discuss the differences between current day behavior (language, dress, actions) with what would have been the norm in 1935. Additionally, our school has a significant number of students with Autism which also means we have a number of students that are siblings of a child with Autism. Moose's (the main character) struggles with his sister, Natalie, was touching but very real to many of our children. When we finished the book, everyone was eager to find out what happens to Moose, Natalie, Theresa, Piper and the others.

Note: Review to follow when we are finished.