Read Alouds in Middle School

Have you ever considered doing a read aloud with middle school students? This is an immensely popular practice in elementary schools, but I had never heard of it being done in my 6th – 8th grade building. Since I am providing reading interventions for students with learning disabilities and dyslexia this year, I decided why not give it a try? These are students who are highly intelligent, but for whom reading is laborious. If I could read an engaging text out loud to them, they could finally relax and simply enjoy being swept away in a story!

My first step in each of my 3 intervention classes was to pitch a pile of books and have my students vote on a favorite. Here were our selections:

Middle School Read Aloud choices

  • 6th grade: Choose Your Own Adventure, and Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz
  • 7th grade: Sounder by William Armstrong
  • 8th grade: Bruiser by Neal Shusterman

After we selected our books, I selected goals for each grade level. These goals would guide our reading and discussion every day. Below are our learning goals for each grade level:

  • 6th grade: Read 15 mins daily. Ask questions. Discover new vocabulary terms. Rediscover a joy for reading.
  • 7th grade: Read 15 mins daily. Develop background knowledge. Summarize each chapter by writing a new chapter title. Rediscover a joy for reading.
  • 8th grade: Read 20 mins daily. Track character relationships, personality traits, and details. Rediscover a joy for reading.

Then, we just began reading! I told my students to find a comfy place in the room and relax. Many closed their eyes. I have beanbags, lounge chairs, and office chairs for the students to choose from. Each day, we read for our allotted amount of time, pausing once per page to discuss or add notes to the board. My students never had to do more than simply listen or talk – no writing or assignments involved. I wanted this to eliminate any burdensome activities and simply focus on what we enjoy most. Here is how each grade level went:

6th grade

My students had never heard of “Choose Your Own Adventure”, so I felt a social obligation to expose them. I had ordered quite a few of these for 75 cents each off of, and we chose to start with Terror in Australia. The students – most of whom have been self- or peer-branded as ‘poor readers’ – really, honestly enjoyed this experience. They got to pretend they were the main character and make choices that impact the outcome of the book. Whenever we came to a decision, we democratically voted and flipped to the correct page to continue our adventure. When the students didn’t like how quickly the story ended, they requested that I go back to the beginning and make some different choices to steer us toward an alternate ending. This second round WAS much more fun, since we had a better idea of what was going on. Students even noticed how the two timelines of the simultaneous stories somewhat overlapped.

We finished this book in 3 days, so we then moved on to Scary Stories. I let the students select 2-3 stories a day, and we turned off the lights and sat in a circle as if we were telling ghost stories at overnight camp. They couldn’t get enough! Even though, as we agreed, the stories were cheesy and not that scary at all, they were still really fun.

For both of these books, vocabulary was a major factor in our conversations. We had to build background knowledge on so many things. What’s an undertaker? Why do cars need high beams? Who are aborigine people? Lots to discuss.

7th grade

This class selected to read Sounder. It is a short book, however the Lexile level is over 900L. I did not steer them away from this book because, as I reasoned, we were going to slog through it together and discuss it as we went. We needed to activate (and fill in) quite a bit of background knowledge as we progressed through the book. First, we had to set the stage of the post-slavery South, with sharecropping and extreme racism. In fact, it wasn’t much better than slavery for so many. What really confused my students was how much the main character coveted books and wanted to read. We had a great discussion about how reading is power, and why that knowledge would be a game-changer for the main character (and anyone, really). We came across many vocabulary words as we read that prompted discussion. Occasionally, perhaps once per chapter, I would choose a very difficult sentence to break apart and analyze with the students. Here is an example from page 89:

“Feeling defeat in the midst of his glee because the boy had not run but stood still and defiant, sucking the blood from his bruised fingers, the guard stopped laughing and yelled at him…”

First, we would have to define defeat, glee, and defiant. Then, we’d have to discuss… WHO is feeling defeat? Who has bruised fingers? Then, WHY would the guard feel this way? Why would the boy act this way? These are text-based questions that are worth our time to stop and analyze.

Finally, I did find myself making a few text modifications as I read out loud, simply for clarity’s sake. I might switch the order of dialogue to make it clear who is speaking. For instance, instead of saying,

“Hello,” said the boy.”

I’d say:

The boy said, “Hello.”

In this way, it would be clear to the students who was speaking the dialogue right away. I’d also find myself defining words in context as I read. For example, I might add the part in parenthesis: “The men were stooped over white-washing (or painting white) the stones along the path.”

I was surprised at how much the students loved this book and requested it at the start of each day.

Since none of the chapters have titles, our reading activity was to name each chapter. This prompted a pointed discussion about summary and main idea, which was our goal. We couldn’t always pick our favorite title, so we recorded several for a chapter.


8th Grade

My 8th graders voted to read Bruiser. We began by reading the back of the book and watching a student-made book trailer on youtube. This helped to pique their interest and lay the groundwork for a somewhat confusing plot. We also leafed through the book and discussed how it is organized – each character (Tennyson, Bronte, and Brewster) gets sections of the book to tell from their own perspective. This means that the point of view or perspective on events shifts throughout the story. We discussed the benefits and limitations of this unique form of story-telling.

I personally LOVE this book for a read aloud. It’s very fun to read and act out – the characters are very vibrant and realistic. Their sassiness is perfect for 8th grade. They are very intelligent characters, raised by literary professors, so they often speak in advanced vocabulary and make literary references that require brief explanations. Yet, at the heart of all the verbosity are characters with very relatable emotions and concerns.

We have been mapping out characters on the board as we read, adding details that we learn along the way.


The other activity I have really enjoyed doing is creating a 3D character map for Brewster. Since he’s sort of a mystery, this has been perfect to record our unfolding knowledge. I rescued this little white board guy from a rummage sale for 50 cents – he was part of a Pictionary Junior game. We haven’t heard many physical details about him yet, but we will add them as we learn more (especially the physical injuries he displays throughout the story).

white board character map man


So, have you done a read aloud with middle school students? How did it go? What did you do? Was it well received?

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Welcome to Room 112!

Tomorrow, the students will arrive. Not all of them, just the 6th graders. We are trying a new thing this year – slow integration and transition. The rest of my students, 7th and 8th graders, will come on Friday.

I am so excited for this new school year! So much is new. I have a new room, a new position (Reading Specialist), a new student population (6-8th grade, not just one grade level), and a renewed sense of drive and purpose.

I’d love to show off my new room! Flexible seating was a major goal this year. Usually, I have 8 table groups for up to 33 students. But this year, I’ll be working with about 5 students at a time. To honor their different learning preferences, I created different seating options within the classroom for them to choose what works best.

Come on in – I’d love to give you the tour!


Building relationships is THE most important aspect of my teaching practice. I get to know my students, and I let them know that I love and appreciate them. Humor also helps.


Here is one flexible seating option in my room


Here is the second flexible seating option. I anticipate using this one the most with my groups of 4-5.


Here is a remake of my Instagram Reading Bulletin Board. It was such a big hit last year, I had to bring it back in the new room! By the end of the year, it will be filled with pictures of my awesome students being awesome 🙂


Here are our individual computer work stations. Each student has his/her own iPad, but as you can imagine, a desktop is preferable in some instances.

Fridge Worthy Bulletin Board

I am very proud of this new bulletin board: Fridge Worthy. Since my students (Tier 3 for Reading Interventions) need a major boost in confidence and a huge dose of love, I decided to incorporate this ‘praise board’ of sorts. They can post ANYthing they are proud of – it doesn’t have to be for reading. I’d like them to come into the room and have a feeling of pride and recognition.

Secondly, I have also posted my learning goals and targets for the year. I’ll have another set from which I will select the target(s) of the day and place them prominently on the front board. There aren’t many in my program, but they are all critical.

Oh, and you might have noticed that I chose a name for my new room: THE READING LAB. Zing. It’s gonna be a great year!

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Summer Bucket List 2016

As any teacher will tell you with a wide, genuine smile and a sparkle in their eye, summers are the best part of our profession (well no, students are the BEST part, but summer is a close second!).

Though I always look forward to summers, I was a little nervous going into this one. I mean, I have a 1-year-old now. This is new, unchartered territory for me. And thinking back to last summer with my newborn – that was scary. I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and depression, I had just moved into a new house, I felt socially isolated, exhausted, and I was plagued with all the new parent fears. I was scared to leave the house with my baby because it always took me 1-2 hours to get out the door, I was pumping, and I was afraid to leave the comfort of our safe, climate-controlled house with a baby. I was a wreck!

This summer was SO different. And it was honestly the best summer of my life! I feel like I am finally getting into a groove as a mom (which means life is about to throw me a curve ball, right?). I am not afraid to leave the house with my daughter. In fact, I insist we leave the house at least once a day, even if it is just to go to the post office. Anything can be an adventure!

To help ease the transition into summer, I made a bucket list. It was important to me to set goals for things we could do together, and things that I needed to do for myself. Of course, as I expected, the list was very ambitious and I wasn’t able to complete everything. The silver lining here is that I now have items to earmark for next summer!

We did have SO much fun. I loved seeing the world through her eyes, taking in all of the new places and textures and people. I learned that my daughter LOVES the water, and would swim daily if she could. However, she HATED the beach! All the sand was a total disaster, and she was miserable. I wish we had gotten to the animal farm, because she is obsessed with animals. When she sees any creature, from dog to goat to raccoon, this strange shriek of pure joy comes out of her – an alien sound I never hear otherwise.

I loved learning about my daughter this summer and making it my mission to help expose her to new experiences. I became her ‘summer school teacher.’ And all those naps and cuddles? BLISS. I felt like I had won the lottery every day.

I also set personal and professional goals for myself. I needed to keep my mind sharp, and I always need to be working toward goals. I didn’t manage to learn as much about AIMSWeb as I had hoped, but I have made it my mission for this first week back to school, our In-service and Professional Development days, to seek out the information I need for the school year.

I hope you had a wonderful, relaxing, purposeful summer, and that you are recharged and ready to hit the ground running this week for back to school! As a teacher, I am grateful for the summer time to re-center myself, thwart burnout, and be the best version of myself that I can for my students each year.

Summer Bucket List 2016 (c) Kristen Dembroski

This template was designed by My Love for Words

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Surviving The Color Run with a baby/toddler/stroller


Yesterday morning, we completed The Color Run as a family. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, and this meant bringing along our 1-year-old baby/toddler (I’m not sure what to call her!). I thought I might share our experience, in case it might help others. I have completed (and LOVED!) The Color Run before, so I knew what to expect going in. It was a new experience with a baby, however, but I felt prepared.

Even though The Color Run peeps say the coloring is safe, I still didn’t want to expose my daughter to it. What can I say, I’m a paranoid First Time Mom. I was worried about it getting into her lungs and her eyes, so I knew I wanted to protect her as best I could. I asked around, and some people suggested goggles, face masks, hats, the whole 9 yards. I couldn’t imagine my daughter tolerating all that, nor did I want to deal with it, so I went the simpler (read: cheaper and lazier) route. I invested in a stroller rain cover similar to this one.

I did bring our Tula baby carrier, but it was much too hot to wear her for 5K (in cooler weather, I totally would have just worn her and saved quite a bit of hassle). We brought the stroller and kept the Tula in a garbage bag in the storage area (I couldn’t bear to see it ruined by color staining! But I wanted it just in case). As it turns out, I was actually able to avoid each of the color stations by going around them. I simply met up with my family on the other side. And as far as getting colored myself? I opted not to, because I wanted to be able to hold and comfort my daughter if she needed it, and I wanted to stay ‘clean.’

I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this taking all the fun out of it? Why bother doing a Color Run if you’re just going to skate through and come out lily-white on the other side? Well, I did actually have a lot of fun. I enjoyed seeing my family members get messy and silly, and my daughter enjoyed looking at all the fun colors, bubbles, and clouds of color dust. The excitement is palpable, so much fun music, smiling faces, and lots of high fives! It’s a great atmosphere, and truly is the happiest 5k on the planet.

I know many other moms give their babies the true Color Run experience and have no problems, but I know that’s just not my personality, and I’m okay with that. You do you, and feel free to use the info in this blog post to make the best decisions for you and your family.

You should be aware that a very real hazard, much more dangerous than the color dye itself, was the loud volume of the event. In the start up line, there were booming speakers that made my daughter scream. And at the end, the after party was a loud, bumping base full of Zumba fun. I love loud music, and it was really fun, but it is also very dangerous for such young ears. I would say to do your best to avoid areas with large speakers.

A few other tips I have.

  1. I brought extra towels (to cover our car seats), changes of clothes and shoes, and garbage bags to put all the dirty stuff in afterwards.
  2. Bring your cell phone or camera, for sure! If you are really concerned, you can put it in a clear baggie to protect it from dust. But you won’t wanna miss these pictures!
  3. At the finish line, there are people with leaf blowers at a “blow station.” If you got dust on your stroller (and yourself for that matter), this is a great opportunity to remedy that. Also, we’ve found that blowing off the color is MUCH more effective than rinsing it with water, which just serves to spread it around.
  4. Bring water. Make sure you have a cold sippy for your baby. I also brought a frozen lunch bag with cold milk and fruits.
  5. Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, etc. And if your baby is too young for sunscreen, try a muslin blanket and stroller clips (I like these)
  6. If you have color treated hair, or really blonde hair like me and my daughter, the coloring might temporarily dye your hair. Hats are a great multipurpose solution.
  7. Laundry wasn’t a big deal for our clothes, but light colored shoes and anything made of terry cloth did pose a problem. Blow off, pre-treat, bleach, and sun dry.
  8. Drop a pin in Google Maps when you park your car so you can easily find it again!
  9. Dance, sing, have fun, and make memories!

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Have you heard of Newsela? Maybe you already use it in your classroom, or maybe you’ve heard me discuss how I have used it with my intervention classes. Whether you’re brand new to it, or you’ve been using it for years, you might like to take a look at this comprehensive online tutorial I created called “Using Newsela Like a Pro.”

This tutorial will show you how to use Newsela to target reading strategies through text annotation, writing prompts, guided text reading, reading with a purpose, and text sets.

Newsela Thumbnail

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Lucy Calkins Teacher’s College Writing Workshop


Well folks, I have officially been Lucy-Calk-i-fied. I am now a converted, true believer.

I spent my 2nd week of summer at a Writing Workshop retreat held in Verona, Wisconsin by Wisconsin Education Innovations. For 3 days, we learned about Mini-lessons, conferring with students, teaching points, positive language, student ownership, independence, assessment, and every single awesome thing you have every wanted for your students.

The best part is, nothing was incredibly new or earth-shattering. I didn’t hear a single buzz word or idea that I haven’t heard of (or even tried!) before. The Teacher’s College methods just happens to provide a very systematic scope and sequence, as well as a flexible structure to follow. Truly, they were all things I’ve already been doing in my classroom, but without consistency or structure.

I’ll never be a believer in canned programs, so I was glad to learn that this method has so much room for flexibility and personalization. When you say you are “doing Writing Workshop”, to me that means making a commitment to keep your teaching points brief and do-able (10 minutes or under), provide the students with most of the hour to work (40 minutes daily), to confer daily with students and give them immediate, positive, and doable feedback that they can work on right away, and to closely monitor student progress in order to personalize their education. I especially loved the positive language component of our workshop discussions.

Writing Workshop doesn’t mean everything is spelled out for us, and any monkey could teach this class. It will still take an incredibly amount of knowledge and teacher craft to design mini-lessons, choose reading materials for your particular students, know best literacy practices, guide students to become strong readers and writers, and pace your lessons appropriately.

The best analogy I can give you is that Writing Workshop provides you with the ‘kitchen’, but you need to know your patrons, choose the recipe, select the ingredients, and learn to wield the tools effectively.

By the end of the workshop, I left with an excitement to get back to the classroom and try this out. I’m perhaps most excited about the daily conferences with students. This is what was missing in my curriculum. Conferring with students will allow me to personalize their education and differentiate for individual strengths and needs.

I also left the conference with a huge wish list of books. I just can’t decide which ones to buy first!

My current wish list:

  1. Core Six: Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core
  2. The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo 
  3. DIY Literacy Video Series by Kate Roberts & Maggie Beattie Roberts
  4. Falling In Love with Close Reading by Christopher Lehman & Kathleen Roberts
  5. Teaching Reading In Small Groups
  6. Writing Pathways by Lucy Calkins
  7. Assessing Writers by Carl Anderson
  8. How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
  9. Conferring with Readers by Jennifer Serravallo
  10. The Power of Grammar by Mary Ehrenworth
  11. Catching Up on Conventions by Chantal Francois and Elisa Zonn
  12. Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst 
  13. In The Best Interest of Students by Kelly Gallagher 

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Argumentative Writing

Well, we are down to the last 9 days of school. I know, oh do I know, how tempting it is to fill in those last few weeks with ‘fluff’ and ‘fun stuff.’ But I was having none of that this year. I wanted to end the year strong. I noticed that we had not made time for argumentative writing this year, and I know how critically important that is in 8th grade (and… life), so I developed a 9-week quick tour of the argumentative genre. Believe it or not, I think my students appreciate this. I am not having the mutiny I expected, and everyone seems fairly engaged and productive :: knocks on wood::

Argumentative Writing Informational Posters

I began by presenting a menu of options to each of my 4 classes and allowing them to choose their top 2 or 3 topics. I do have one advanced English class, and I gave them the option of “genetically modified babies,” which I did not offer to my other classes. Here were their options:

  • Cell phones in school
  • Physical Education class in school
  • Death penalty
  • Junk food in school
  • Gun laws
  • Changing the legal driving age
  • Legally assisted suicide

I had all topics pre-approved by the principal, and I did a few quick searched on my own to determine if there was enough credible and student-friendly material available on the internet for them. As you can see from the picture above, the top picks in each class were legally assisted suicide and cell phones in school.

The first step was teaching my students what evidence is (FEAST-ExO) and how to appropriately perform a google search to get some background information on their topic. I gave each small group a post it and asked them to post 5 indisputable facts about their topic that they found in their research. Then, I had each small group generate sub-questions that they still wondered about their topic, divvy up the questions to group members, and perform further research to add to the posters. This gave us a good foundation of knowledge about the topic before proceeding.

Following the internet research, I had the class generate a list of stakeholders in the topics and then assign each student to a stakeholder position (e.g. doctor, parent). They then created a mini profile on their stakeholder including name, age, occupation, stakes, etc. Their favorite part was drawing their stakeholder’s likeness 🙂

Our next steps were to investigate and practice writing claims, which culminated with them writing a claim for their own stakeholder based on his/her most logical position on the topic. Over the weekend, they gathered evidence their stakeholder would use to construct their argument.

This week, they will be engaging in an online threaded discussion on Google Classroom, posing as their stakeholder and defending their claim with credible and logical evidence. The final activity will be a collaborative one – they will work together to generate a solution or compromise for their topic. They will have to submit a detailed explanation of the compromise, including pros and cons.

Does this seem like a lot for a 13 year old? Not my 7th graders 🙂 They are doing fantastically. For some of my struggling students, I did offer assistance such as printed research for them to highlight and use. In general, though, I’ve been mostly hands-off and allowing them to explore this genre as independently as possible. I’ll be sure to report back once we have finished the unit to let you know how it went!

Update 6/3/16

We have now finished our Online Threaded Discussions, which went very well (done on Google Classroom). Having them do much of the legwork up front, researching and familiarizing themselves with the topic and evidence, was the most useful strategy. They came prepared to discuss! Below are some snapshots of their online discussions.

Topic: Physician Assisted Suicide

Topic: Physician Assisted Suicide

Topic: Changing the Legal Driving Age

Topic: Changing the Legal Driving Age

Topic: Genetically Engineered Babies

Topic: Genetically Engineered Babies

If you are interested in learning more about the activities we are doing this week, here are links to the products that I have modified to create this mini-unit: Internet Research, Argument Unit, and Argumentative Writing Instructional Workbook.

So how are you spending your last few weeks? I’d love to hear!

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Instagram Reading Bulletin Board

At the beginning of the semester, I decided that I needed a reading bulletin board to celebrate catching my students reading. I wanted to fill my room with positive images of students filling their hearts and their brains. The initial blank board looked like this:

Instagram Reading Bulletin Board (c) Kristen Dembroski

The hashtag at the top reads #wmsreads. Note: This was never posted on actual social media – this is for my classroom use only.

I added about 2 – 3 photos each week. The students REALLY looked forward to seeing their pictures appear on the wall! I began by catching candids, but after a while, students came up with their own ideas and asked to pose for pictures. By the end, students were taking their own pictures and submitting them to me for approval and printing.

All in all, it was a very fun activity, and it helped spread a positive message about reading being ‘cool’ 😉

Here is the final product. And wouldn’t you know, the very DAY that I finish the board, Instagram went and changed their logo on me? Oh well, I like this one and I will keep it up for a long time!

Instagram Reading Bulletin Board (c) Kristen Dembroski

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I have a Teacher Challenge for you. Yes you! When is the last time you used manipulatives in your classroom? If you don’t teach elementary math or science, then you probably rarely use them. But the students LOVE them, and they increase their engagement, communication, and learning! That is why I am challenging you to find a way to use manipulatives in your next unit of learning.

A manipulative is a physical tool for teaching. They are things that we can physically touch, rearrange, alter, and, well… manipulate. Manipulatives can include blocks, money, puzzles, or any tool that you give your student to use to explore a concept or skill.

I love using manipulatives because the students love DOING. They are engaging with learning through listening, speaking, and movement all at once. Students can explore tough concepts and find new ways to express their learning besides traditional reading and writing. This is a great way to differentiate for various student populations as well.

Language Arts Manipulatives (c) Kristen Dembroski

Let me share some examples of how i used manipulatives recently in my 7th grade Language Arts classroom. During a novel unit on The Giver by Lois Lowry, I wanted my students to practice vocabulary words as well as demonstrate their reading comprehension in some non-traditional ways.

Character Ranking Manipulative

This activity is designed to (formatively) assess Reading Comprehension and engage students in a deeper discussion of the novel. I had my students get in partners and cut out tiles with all of the main characters’ names on them. Then, I gave them various tasks for reordering the character tiles based on their knowledge of the character. For example, I had them rank/rearrange based on the following traits:

  1. youngest to oldest
  2. least to most authority
  3. least to most likable
  4. unintelligent to intelligent
  5. ignorant to wise
  6. shy to outgoing
  7. deceptive to honest
  8. happiest to saddest

I wasn’t looking for any one right answer (except for #1!), but rather wanted to encourage my students to discuss, challenge one another, and delve deeper into their understanding of the characters and their roles in the novel. I’m always shocked at the wonderful ideas and interpretations they share with the class. It also provided a great opportunity for teaching various concepts such as authority, wisdom, ignorance, and deception.

Triangle Puzzle

We did a fair amount of vocabulary instruction in class, so this activity was simply for reviewing. I created a blank pyramid (you can buy one here in my TpT store if you’d like), and filled it in with the words/definitions we have been studying. Then, in partners, I had my students cut them apart, mix them up, and attempt to recreate the pyramid. We did this for several days, attempting to get faster each day. They started requesting this activity because they enjoyed it so much!

A few tips on using manipulatives:

  • I keep a bucket of scissors in my classroom for this purpose
  • You only really need one set per class, but you can also have one set per student so they can take it home and practice on their own
  • Save all your business envelopes from the spam you get in your mail. They are FREE and great for storing your manipulatives!

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The Compliment Train


I was very excited to introduce this new bulletin board in my room. Each of my 126 students got their own spot on the train, and I provided post-its and a set of guidelines.


It took only 4 DAYS to fill the train. Kids were flocking to my room to fill it out, including students I don’t even have in class! They were thrilled. I especially loved watching the more shy or quiet students meander by and slyly try to check out their spot, and then watch their face light up when they realize someone left them a compliment. It was the highlight of my year!

Below are some of my favorite entries on the train:

12799371_10105070543147767_5258077801420625768_n 12802861_10105070542429207_122929305139429536_n 12832501_10105071264586997_8752462968535841444_n 12821471_10105071263948277_2962314807891234213_n 12799155_10105070543966127_8609657414633917375_n

Obviously we need to work on your/you’re, but what a fun tradition! I plan to leave it up for 2 weeks, then let them take home their post-its. Then we will clear the board and start all over again!

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