Hello everyone! I’ve got a great new unit to share with you, posted on Teachers Pay Teachers. It is a Dystopian Fiction unit, which will fit into your curriculum nicely as Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. As a Literature Circle unit, everyone will begin by reading the same anchor / mentor text (I suggest “The Giver,”), then each student can select his/her own second novel from the selection provided. This self-directed unit was designed for my Gifted & Talented 7th graders, so I think this unit would be a great fit for grades 7+. The goal is to independently explore the Dystopian Science Fiction genre, then come together to discover and discuss the genre features.
This 5-6 week unit combines Reading and Writing Workshop into a Literature Circle Genre Study of Dystopian Fiction and hits on a wide array of reading, writing, speaking, and listening standards.
This unit has been classroom tested and student approved! My students really loved this unit, largely because dystopian / science fiction is of major interest to them, and because they got to pursue their own reading selection and reading style. This unit helped us to discover how literature can be used as a critique on society and a metaphor for our deepest fears and dreams.
* Detailed Lesson Plans
* Independent Reading Checkpoints
* Cooperative Genre Study Activity (Dystopian Fiction Formula)
* 2 Essay Options including:
* Model Essays
* Optional / Alternative assignment: Book Trailer
Click here if you want to download the lesson plans for free as a product preview!
Now that we’re a family of 3, I’m always thinking of fun new traditions to start and enjoy for decades to come. As I was passing through the dollar section of Target (aka a Mom’s Vacation), I came across these adorable felt envelopes. At a dollar a pop, I just had to snatch them up! They are very large and can fit quite a bit of goodies, including books. In the same section, there were also some felt hearts, which inspired me to personalize the envelopes (I created the felt letters myself). The extra one is for our puppies, Rocket and Ruffy, and yes they got some treats, too!
This was Elaine’s first Valentine’s day eating solids, but that didn’t mean I wanted her to have all of the traditional teeth-rotting sugary sweets of sticky candy and chocolate. I settled upon a book and some fun, special treats that we don’t get very often. She went straight for the Lucky Charms, and picked out all of the marshmallows (just like her mommy, sheesh!)
At 1.5 years old, I’m sure she was pretty confused by this new tradition. Nevertheless, she loved opening her envelope and getting presents, so that is a win! My sweet husband filled my envelope with various chocolates that he knows I love and a thoughtful card. I filled his with chocolate and beef jerky.
Can’t wait to bring out these envelopes again next year to continue our tradition!
I picked up all these great new books at the WSRA exhibition center!
I had the privilege of attending the WSRA Wisconsin State Reading Association again this year. I wish each and every teacher could have this experience!
Keynote: From the Cocoon to the Butterfly: How Readers, Writers, and Good Citizens Are Made, Not Born
The convention began with an invigorating keynote address by none other than the famous children’s author Mem Fox. She honored us with a passionate and joyful reading of several of her children’s books, including Possum Magic, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Whoever You Are, Tough Boris, and Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge. A common thread throughout her presentation was that children deserve to be read to (yes, all ages, even the bigs!), and they deserve to hear the glorious language of real writing. She is saddened to think that children believe basal readers are real books (no wonder they say they hate reading!). She called basal readers “loathsome rubbish” and “banal words dragging themselves in single file across an arid page.” HA!
More important than selecting a book at a student’s current reading level is selecting a book at a student’s interest level. Mem encourages teachers to lift their students up by exposing them to beautiful language and books that have a ‘reward’ – students deserve literature that inspires them to laugh, cry, think, and wonder. “Great art communicates before it is understood” – T.S. Elliott.
She shared with us an interesting anecdote about a time she was working on publishing a book through Scholastic. Her language had read, “I adore you.” and the publisher asked her to change the word ‘adore’ to ‘love,’ which is more common and readily recognized by students. But what a mistake that would be! Give students new and beautiful words to consume. They may not understand them right away, but they can by the end of the book or through repeated exposure. And this is how students learn! We need to use language to give students wings.
Session 1: Dyslexia: Definition, the Research Base, Perspectives, and Points of Contention by Donna Scanlon
This session was very eye-opening, especially since my school is in its first year of recognizing and addressing the needs of students with dyslexia. We previously only offered comprehension intervention, and this past year we have adopted a program that we are using with small groups and 1-on-1.
Dr. Scanlon shared several interesting conclusions that she has drawn from her reading and research. Most eye-opening to me was that Scanlon would like to retire (or at least redefine) the term ‘dyslexia’ as a lack of response to intensified, appropriately targeted instruction. Let’s break that down. Within research, the terms ‘dyslexia’ and ‘reading disability’ are often used interchangeably. Research has projected that approximately 20% of the population has dyslexia, which has been traditionally defined as a phonological processing disorder. As we know, the purpose of reading intervention is to help these students improve their reading abilities and bring them up to grade level. Theoretically, intervention should be effective for the majority of this 20%. If a student is able to improve his/her reading abilities and function productively in the classroom, what is the purpose in labeling them as having dyslexia? We should reserve the term ‘dyslexia’ for the few students with reading difficulties who do not respond to effective reading intervention. Overusing the term ‘dyslexia’ is not only non-inclusive and may serve little purpose or benefit to the student, but it can destroy a student’s motivation and their willingness to do a task (reading) they are told is a challenge for them.
So let’s talk about effective reading interventions…
Scanlon had several important criticisms of the one-size-fits-all Orton Gillingham based reading interventions that are widely used by school districts to address the needs of students with significant reading difficulties. Many of these programs teach phonics and phonemic awareness in isolation. They prevent or discourage students from relying on contextual clues to decode words (a strategy that students with weak phonological processing skills often rely heavily upon), and yet this is an important strategy that students will need to use to be effective independent readers. There is also a lack of consistency across different teachers and different programs, and students may become turned upside down with different approaches and terms (ex: capital letters vs. upper case letters, naming conventions, or sequencing of sounds / skills).
Readers vary on a continuum of abilities and need different levels and types of support in becoming strong readers. What works for some doesn’t work for others. The traditional OG-based interventions are used as a one-size-fits-all approach, which can’t meet all the needs of all of our students. These methods can also be quite laborious and cumbersome, when we can simply teach students that there are – for example – 3 ‘a’ sounds (long, short, schwa), and if one doesn’t make sense, try one of the others! No need to overcomplicate things with so many rules and processes.
What Scanlon does recommend as effective is explicit instruction in phonological awareness coupled with reading strategies that help students to transfer these word attack skills to their reading in the classroom (she calls this method “Interactive Strategies Approach”). This method relies on the teacher’s knowledge and professional judgment to make thoughtful decisions about what students need. This method could include pre-teaching a word attack strategy that students will need in an upcoming independent read, so that he/she can immediately apply the target skill. It also involves explicit modeling and coaching as teachers guide students in working through difficult reading obstacles. Instruction should also focus on acquiring high frequency sight words and gaining automaticity in decoding. Overall, instruction must be responsive to student’s needs, and canned programs don’t cut it for everyone.
If you’re still reading (I know this part is detailed and dry), and you want to know something you can do right now to help every student in your class, Scanlon recommends hanging up this simple sign (but please note – letter reversals is not the defining characteristic of dyslexia, and many young students struggle with letter orientation).
Session 2: Dishing Up Dialogue: Discussion-Based Strategies for Student-Centered Learning by Suzanne Porath
I chose this session because I want to learn more about supporting my students in becoming stronger, more critical thinkers. I know that can’t happen readily in a lecture-based setting, and it’s so critically important that teachers allow students the time to process big ideas through collaborative discussion.
Porath began by defining dialogue as when people come together to construct meaning and seek to understand (not just respond to) one another. Dialogue requires follow-up. For many of us (adults AND students), dialogue has become about waiting for our turn to speak, and not taking the time to listen and understand – and that is a skill that we can model and help our students to acquire!
Do you use Lucy Calkin’s units in your classroom? If you do, you probably make the anchor charts for your classes. Consider – what if you actually invited students to help you make the anchor chart? What if you did the lesson backwards, and had the students deduce what it is you are highlighting in this lesson? That would certainly spur more discussion!
Porath also encourages you to really consider what you need students to write/record, and what you can simply have them discuss. That traditional assignment of reading a book, picking a character, and having them write up a personality trait with evidence – couldn’t we have more FUN by talking it out with a partner? And you know that traditional assignment where you read a book and have to answer a set of written discussion questions – couldn’t we invite the students to develop and answer their own discussion questions in small groups? All of this would help them to develop interpersonal, collaborative, and discussion-based skills of listening and responding thoughtfully.
To have an effective, productive, purposeful conversation, the following need to be in place:
Create a physical space that encourages interaction.
Set expectations of respect.
Teach active listening strategies
Provide scaffolding (sentence stems, anchor charts, templates, graphic organizers).
To model and practice these discussion skills, a fun idea could include listening and responding to a storybook read by a professional actor, presented on http://www.storylineonline.net/
And finally, discussion should have a purpose to move you forward as a person. It shouldn’t be a performance, but rather an experience. After a discussion, ask your students to reflect on whether the discussion changed them, challenged them, or confirmed their thinking (from Reading Nonfiction – Notice & Note Stances Signposts and Strategies).
Session 3: Sneaking in Social Studies: Fusing Social Studies and English Language Arts
I was very excited to attend this session, because next year our district is moving toward perosnalized learning and ‘blocks’ of classes to allow for more flexibility. An exciting organizational outcome of this will be combining English Language Arts and Social Studies into a “Humanities” block. Therefore, I wanted to learn as much about this concept as I could.
I had a few important takeaways from this session to share with my colleagues:
Consider what we are already doing in ELA that is actually Social Studies based (ex: reading primary sources, engaging in debate, analyzing society and/or human environment interaction, etc.) – you are already heading in the right direction!
Reorganize the curriculum around themes, not events
Focus on essential questions (Wiggins & McTighe) to guide your curriculum
Reconsider the materials you are already using, and consider making some swaps
Adopt project-based learning strategies
Sacrifice breadth for depth
Delve into CER: Claim, Evidence, Reasoning
Consider what you can afford to cut from your ELA and SS curriculum
A final takeaway that I treasure from this session is the concept that there is a wider spectrum than the traditional FACT vs OPINION dichotomy. Instead, consider
verifiable information (instead of facts. this information can be corroborated or proven true.)
inferences (instead of opinions. these are conclusions based on evidence and/or reasoning.)
judgments (are sensible conclusions or evaluations that are personal opinions.)
Example: My mom’s birthday is on Friday (verifiable information). She loved the cookies I made her last year (judgment). This year I’ll surprise her with dinner at 6pm, because she usually gets home from work at that time (inference).
Leading up to the holidays, I wanted to create a fun school wide reading activity to keep students engaged right up until break. It’s realllllllly tempting to want to reach for a fun movie to watch or other ‘fluff’ activities in the last few days, but I’ve found that more often than not, this backfires. You want them to watch a movie so you can quietly get some work done (and not have to take any of it home for the holidays!), but they are full of energy and antsy, or completely bored into a coma because they are watching movies in every.single.class.
I created this quick little video, as well as a google form, which was really easy to push out to students via email or google classroom. They simply have to watch the video, then submit their response in google forms.
This is the message I emailed out to my colleagues: “Reading activity for ALL grades and subjects – here is a link to a school-wide reading activity that will be available for the next 2 weeks. This could be a great option for students who are ‘done,’ for the To Do List workday, for a pinch-hit or sub day activity, etc. All are invited to participate in ANY class! No prep required, just share the link with students (via email or Google classroom)”
The video was really easy to make – I just used Quicktime to record an audio file (on my desktop as “incoming message”) of just me talking. Then I used Quicktime again to do a screen recording, in which I played the audio recording (to give it that cool tin can sound). Just be sure to have all the pictures and tabs loaded that you’ll need. The final unnecessary touch was importing into iMovie to add the explosion and color screen in the end. From iMovie, you can upload directly to youtube. The whole thing took me about an hour.
What I like about this activity is that it encourages students to do some self-directed research. They can spend as much or as little time on Newsela looking around as they need. They get to practice their citation skills (article title) and summary skills. They also have to provide a pretty thorough argument as to why the article they chose should be widely read by our entire student body. And, the article they chose could have a real impact at our school! There will be a Part Two of this activity, once we’ve selected the top 3 student submissions (this part is still in the works). Students will have a chance to promote their own topics of interest and engage the whole school in a grass roots kind of way. Yay reading with a purpose!
If you are looking for some other meaningful, engaging, and powerful activities to do leading up to Winter Break, I highly recommend this article by John Spencer. Students are craving something engaging and meaningful to get them through these long days before a much needed break!
I’d love to hear what you are doing in your classrooms in these next 2 weeks. Please let me know in the comments!
Okay that’s an exaggeration. I know we can’t really stop using AIMSWeb MAZE. For the time being, it is the best option we have, and there are no alternatives. But someone, PLEASE, make an alternative!
Let’s back up and do a quick overview of AIMSWeb MAZE, which you probably use in your school district if you have any kind of reading intervention program. AIMSWeb is a benchmarking and progress monitoring system used widely in schools across the nation. If a student is receiving an intervention, they are likely being monitored once a week with AIMSWeb to make sure they are on track and making gains. If they ARE making progress / gains, then this data is used to prove that the intervention is working. If they are NOT making progress / gains, then this data is used as evidence that the child may need a different (form of the) intervention.
Weekly data points are necessary to make sure everyone is staying on track. Think of it like weighing yourself every week you are on a diet. You don’t want to weigh yourself daily, because you will likely see too much variation. But on a weekly basis, you are more likely to see an accurate trend over time.
To track student progress in reading, AIMSWeb offers two types of progress monitoring tools. R-CBM tracks a student’s progress in reading fluency; the student reads out loud for 60 seconds, and we would record the number of correct words per minute (CWPM) and errors.
MAZE, on the other hand, is a tool used to measure comprehension. Comprehension is a much more complex construct than fluency. The following information is taken from the Pearson AIMSWeb Training workbook:
“Maze is a multiple-choice cloze task that students complete while reading silently. The first sentence of a 150-400 word passage is left intact. Thereafter, every 7th word is replaced with three words inside parenthesis. One of the words is the exact one from the original passage.”
The students in an intervention take one AIMSWeb MAZE probe ever week. They are given 3 minutes to circle as many correct responses as they can.
As the title of this post suggests, I am not a fan of MAZE. As part of my teacher education, I am trained to be skeptical of any assessment tool and analyze it for purpose, benefits, and limitations. When I see that a tool claims to assess comprehension, I am even more critical and skeptical. I know that comprehension is a complex, multifaceted construct that is nearly impossible to assess in multiple choice or scantron format. Comprehension should be a conversation, not an assessment. This isn’t a critique of just AIMSWeb, but of all tools that claim they can assess comprehension in just a few short, simple questions.
Unfortunately, I see only one benefit to MAZE: it is easy to score. The following are the limitations as I see them with the AIMSWeb MAZE assessment.
1. The format is confusing for students and negatively impacts their performance.
Putting the response choices within the sentence (as opposed to a question at the end of the sentence) interrupts the flow of reading. The student has to pause and consider all 3 options right then and there. If they choose the incorrect option, it will negatively impact how they comprehend the rest of the sentence or passage.
Consider the following: “Most mornings he just tapped a (all, bit, more) of food into the bowl…(6.26)” In this example, I’ve had students get confused and circle 2 answers (bit more) and read it that way, because the words occur together in line, and this made sense when the student read it out loud.
Now consider this example: “This is happening (in, to, for) you,” the fish proclaimed. (6.26).” In this excerpt, I personally think there are 2 options that make sense (to and for).
Some common and effective comprehension assessment questions include text-dependent questions, inferencing, close reading questions, questions about the text or author’s purpose. Never in the history of ever has Cloze Reading been considered an effective measure of comprehension. Cloze reading is a sentence-level, low level skill that does not require the reader to build a mental model and comprehend the meaning of the text.
3. Comprehension should never be timed.
MAZE allows 3 minutes. Imagine what our students could prove they know and understand if given a bit more time. Think of how many 504s, IEPs, and student plans you have read that have included ‘extended time’ as an accommodation.
4. MAZE doesn’t align to instruction.
If your intervention is guiding students with adopting and applying reading strategies, as so many good comprehension interventions do, then MAZE won’t give you any usable information to modify your instruction to meet student needs.
5. You don’t need to comprehend the passage to ‘pass’ MAZE
Students don’t actually have to comprehend the passage to answer the questions. If they have an adequate grasp of English syntax and grammar, then they can simply answer the questions by selecting the correct part of speech or most sensible option for that sentence or even phrase.
6. The distractors are not appropriately challenging.
AIMSWeb claims that, of the 3 response options, 1 is the correct answer, 1 is a near distractor (a word of the same ‘type’ or part of speech), and 1 is a far distractor (randomly selected, dissimilar part of speech).
Consider this example from 6.9: (Was, Jim, Day) stopped playing and ran to the (root, door, thus). Do you think ‘Day’ and ‘root’ were appropriately challenging near distractors? And, back to points 1 and 3 above, this tells me little to nothing about my students’ ability to comprehend the text, and gives me little to nothing to go on to adjust my instruction to help them improve their scores.
So in all, you can gather that I am not a very big fan of MAZE. And yet, it is a piece of data. ONE piece. We need to be triangulating student data and making sure to never make high stakes decisions based on solitary data points. Consider classroom evidence, Fountas & Pinnell benchmarking, MAP or STAR scores, and any other data points you can to obtain a whole picture on a student.
I’d love to hear what you think of AIMSWeb MAZE. I understand that many, many teachers and administrators love it. What are your thoughts on this tool – good, bad, or other?
Curious to learn more about dyslexia? I thought I knew what it was (switching b/d, right?) but I had a major education this summer. I created this 16 minute presentation as professional development for my colleagues. Enjoy!
I have this awesome whiteboard stop sign that I place outside of my classroom door. I try to greet my students each day / hour with a funny pun. It’s turned into a truly remarkable experience for everyone this year. My students will let me know if the joke isn’t funny, and this often turns into a teachable moment where I can share with them a finer point of the English language, or a colloquialism.
What’s great about middle school students is that many are finally starting to understand sarcasm and double meanings, along with symbolism and metaphor. I get to watch their brains develop right before me! It’s an incredible honor. When they truly get a joke and laugh, it’s a gift for both of us.
This experience has brought many new students to my door – students who aren’t even ‘mine’ – just to say hi, thanks for the joke, or share a joke that they’d like to see on the board. Many colleagues stop by and let me know that they miss the joke-of-the-day when I am too busy to make it happen. I love this new tradition! Here are my faves so far this school year (I’ll try to add more throughout the year):
This past weekend, I attended the Cardinal Stritch Fall Literacy Conference. It was a short but powerful conference with JoAnn Caldwell as they keynote speaker (heard of the QRI? Yeah that’s her!). I’ll keep this short and sweet, but here are some key takeaways I have from the conference:
Students SHOULD read frustration level texts.
And all this time, we thought we should be giving students texts at their instructional level. There are some inherent flaws in that arrangement, though. If we don’t model strategies and comprehension with frustration level texts, how will they ever progress? Secondly, if we are giving them only instruction level texts (which are below grade level for intervention students), then they will never catch up to grade level, and we aren’t using the same level of cognitively demanding material. Grade level material will have more complex sentence structure, vocabulary, content, and depth. THAT is what our students need.
Interventions need to focus on TRANSFERRING skills to the classroom.
It seems a simple enough concept, but how often do we actually acknowledge or work on this skill? What students learn in intervention should directly tie into the classroom learning. They should be reading a text at a similar level (but perhaps on a different topic), and we should focus on what Dr. Caldwell calls ‘concept free’ questions, or questions that aren’t directly tied to the topic at hand (ex: What is the theme of this story? How did the author organize this text?) I think LLI or Leveled Literacy Instruction does a great job of modeling these skills.
Students can’t just jump in to a Close Reading.
They need to get the gist of the story first. They need to recognize and acknowledge the topic, textual features, linguistic features, organization of the text, etc.
Intertextual connections is a critical skill we often gloss over in school.
This means making connections BETWEEN two or more texts. How do they overlap? Agree? Differ? This is a skill that must be explicitly modeled and taught.
There’s a new reading comprehension assessment, and you’re gonna want to buy it.
Have you ever given the QRI and thought, “This is such a wonderful tool, but it is so time consuming and laborious to give one on one. I wish I could give it to my whole class at once.” Well, you might like to know about JoAnn Caldwell’s newest tool, the CARA: Content Area Reading Assessment. It is an assessment of reading comprehension across the disciplines. At each grade level, there are 3 literature, 3 science, and 3 social studies passages. Yes, that means you can do a beginning of the year, mid-year, and summative assessment (Hello, SLO!). It is aligned to the common core, and it could serve as a wonderful modeling tool for teachers looking for assistance writing standards based questions from text.
The conference also had a panel discussing the major differences between the QRI-5 and the QRI-6. I own both, and I teach and use both, so this was very informative for me. I certainly can’t do the panel justice by replicating their wonderful Q&A, but I’ll summarize some key points I want to remember:
There is a new kind of passage called the Inferential Diagnostic Level passage. The passage type we are familiar with, Level Diagnostic, are still there as well. However this new kind of passage is designed to be read orally or silently in chunks. The reader pauses to respond orally or in writing to intermittent inference questions. The reader is allowed to look back at the text right away. Passages are a bit longer than we are used to, and readers provide a more concise summary at the end.
Level diagnostic passages from level 6 and up are no longer labeled as just ‘narrative’ and ‘expository,’ but now also include the discipline (i.e. science, literature, social studies, etc.). I asked Dr. Caldwell if that meant we had to give multiple expository selections to diagnose a student’s level, and she said no – either science or social studies would be fine. However, she also clarified that she might lean toward science, since it is markedly different from literature.
Self-corrections during the miscue analysis do NOT count.
To make room for the new passages, 11 ‘oldies but goodies’ had to go on a permanent vacation. I’ll miss “Pele” and “Octopus” most of all! ::sniff::
The prior knowledge questions now have sample responses to help with scoring.
There is no longer a prediction question prior to reading.
There is now an Oral Reading Prosody Scale adopted from NAEP.
The retelling section is shorter with fewer points – many shorter ideas were combined.
I truly enjoyed this conference, and plan to promote and attend again next year. I made a lot of wonderful new connections, and learned some invaluable concepts to enhance my classroom and university level instruction. And, I got to present my own research as well!
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:
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:
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 half.com, 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.
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.”
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.
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).
So, have you done a read aloud with middle school students? How did it go? What did you do? Was it well received?