Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Power of the Read Aloud

Several days ago our All In! 2017 title was revealed: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. It's a haunting tale about Stalin's lists and the deportation of millions of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. It's beautifully crafted, incredibly well-researched and exceptionally important. You should read it. More on the book and our reveal later, we promise!
All In! 2017: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
As part of our kickoff, we hosted a book fair at our local Barnes and Noble; for the first time, we performed a read-aloud as part of the evening's program.

On the hour, an announcement was made and people moved to the back of the store.  Fathers sat down next to daughters. Younger siblings settled in beside big brothers. Some people didn't even sit. One mother stood next to her two teen aged children, her eyes filling with tears as Mary began. Busy toddlers stilled and looked up as we read - it didn't matter what we were reading, just that we were reading. Due to one of those unforeseen, serendipitous CRL twists, we each got to watch the other as she read.
Mary reading aloud from Between Shades of Gray

And while we can't take credit for how positively transfixed our audience was by the first three chapters - this due entirely to the extraordinary storytelling abilities of Ruta Sepetys - we can profess the power of the read aloud, a practice oft-forgotten in a world of "turn and talk" collaboration and "teaching on your feet" dictum.

Reading aloud is typically associated with elementary school. Erin talks about her pre-CRL years - the ones she spent teaching first and second grade. And she ended every single day with a read aloud.

The kids packed up a full thirty minutes early, only to surround me and listen as we read The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Henry and Ribsy, and The Indian in the Cupboard. Looking back, I'm shocked to realize that we probably got through eight or ten books each year. Together.

It was sacred; we finished every book we ever started.

One year on the last day of school, my administrator appeared in my doorway, ready to usher us off to the Prize Day assembly.

I had three pages to go until the end of Frindle.

My pace picked up as she began signaling me that we had to leave. I looked up at her and tried to communicate, "Please. Not yet." The last few pages of the story are when Mrs. Granger writes to Nick. He's all grown-up now, but at the end he gets a letter and he finds out that his fifth-grade teacher has been rooting for him and his word all along; he learns that she's proud of him. We had to finish. Of course we finished. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't about a thousand times more relieved than I was embarrassed at being the very last class to file into the assembly that day.

The power of the read aloud is no secret to the teachers who spend their days with emergent readers, saying things like "Circle time" and "Criss-cross applesauce!" but for whatever reason, we forget about it in middle school.

A read aloud to close out Pajama Day
But reading aloud is a tool that no teacher should ever permanently remove from their toolbox.  Mary remembers, from her days in the classroom, that spending a day reading aloud can result in a hoarse voice and exhausted person...after all, as school progresses the chapters get longer and the classes rotate.  Reading aloud a 20 page chapter is four times harder in 8th grade than it is in 5th.  But it also leads to greater engagement and improved comprehension.  If you don't believe us, take it from Brianna.  She's now in 11th grade, and when asked what book changed her, she talked about To Kill a Mockingbird.  She shared that Ms. Cotillo read almost all of it aloud and that she still thinks of that book every day.

Yesterday, we Crazy Reading Ladies were invited to read Between Shades of Gray aloud to about fifty 6th graders. It was pajama day. When Erin got downstairs, desks were pushed out of the way, kids sat on the floor or lay sprawled out on their winter coats. One boy lay on his back staring up at her, his mouth hanging open.

"They took me in my nightgown," she began.

Ever seen sixth graders so quiet?
No one moved. No one went to the bathroom or needed a drink. No one said anything, except to whine each time she paused to look up at their teachers and inquire about the time. Everyone was sad when it ended - sad for the school day to come to an end.  On a Friday.  At the end of Spirit Week.  

As students get older, the adults in their lives mistakenly assume they don't want to be read to anymore. After all, they know how to read now. The events of this last week made something abundantly clear to us: our adult assumptions can add a dose of bitter to one of childhood's sweetest milestones. Proclamations of "You can read on your own now!" often lead to the end of time spent together reading aloud.  And parents are eager to regain those twenty minutes at the end of the day that could be spent doing dishes or laundry or simply putting ones tired feet up and enjoying a moment of silence.

But before we walk away from bedtime stories, may we ask: now that you can cook, isn't it funny how everything still tastes better when your mom makes it?

Why should that landmark thrill of learning to read result in the loss of a comfortable lap (or parka) and the warm embrace of a good story?

Middle School teachers: read aloud to your kids.  It will pay dividends you cannot measure on educator evaluation rubric (though you *can* use it as evidence for I.A.1 and II.A.2 if you want to). Parents: read aloud to your kids.  Even the big ones.  Even the ones who can read for themselves.  The snuggles and feelings of peace will bring more satisfaction than an empty laundry hamper.  Promise.  

Monday, October 3, 2016


A few of our cherubs. 
"But what'll we do for our Three-Peats?"

"We'll take 'em to Chatham! All we need is us and a bus." 

"Okay, when you just said 'us and a bus,' I started to get choked up. That's perfect."

Five years ago we wondered if the administration would let us take our readers to see a movie. This year, we sought permission to take 58 middle-schoolers to Chatham, Massachusetts.

And they said yes.

Chatham, a quaint, touristy beach town nestled on the Atlantic coast was the setting for The Finest Hours, the real-life story of the most daring rescue in US Coast Guard history...and it is less than a two-hour drive from our middle school. Sometimes life hands you a gift and you need to smile and accept it with gratitude. We Crazy Reading Ladies knew what we had to do.
One of the best days, period.
Kids remember the wonderful stuff. In their time at HMMS, our 8th graders had watched Three-Peats attend the Boston premiere of Divergent and have their very own luau in honor of Unbroken's Louie Zamperini. Now it was their turn.

Waiting to climb the lighthouse.
Crafting a special experience for our Three-Peats has - very quickly - shot to the top of our yearly to-do list. We need to honor the kids who stuck with us for three years. We need to validate the 8th graders who deemed reading a book worthy of their time and social risk. We need to celebrate their success and show them what they mean to us. This year yielded fifty-eight Three-Peats. We were ridiculously excited to plan this for them and managed to keep it under wraps for months.

Though the trip itself was a surprise, the kids knew something big was coming. In our school "Three-Peat" is part of the kids' vernacular. Bestowed on the 8th graders who have gone All In! each year of middle school, it's a title which many strive to attain - some even set it as a personal goal from the time they enter our building and step into the midst of our crazy. Occasionally, when we walk the halls of our neighboring elementary school, kids will stop us and say things like, "I can't wait to go All In!" or "My brother is a Three-Peat! And I'm gonna be just like him!" Our kids deserved this.

So on May 20, we loaded a bus and took 'em to Chatham.

The weather was picture-perfect summer-gorgeous. We visited the Atwood House and Chatham Historical Society where we became the very first to view the Rescue of the Pendelton exhibit, made especially to commemorate the events surrounding The Finest Hours.

We marveled at a three-hundred year-old house, viewed collections of seashells and pottery, and fingered shoes and dresses worn centuries ago - by obscenely tiny women.

We picnicked on the beach, where the sight of 58 teens tossing their shoes aside and racing to the ocean made tears fall silently behind our CRL sunglasses. We watched kids skip rocks, turn cartwheels, and play football. We saw them take selfies and examine crab shells and write "All In!" in the sand.
Three-Peats hit the beach in Chatham.
We pointed out the Chatham bar where, in the middle of a nor'easter sixty-four years earlier, Bernie Webber and his crew braved the breaking waves and rocky terrain to cross into the open ocean and save those stranded aboard the lifeless Pendelton.
"36500 this is station Chatham, do you read me?"
Don St. Pierre - keeper of CG36500 - came to meet our kids.

We visited the US Coast Guard station and touched the walls and walked the floors where the real heroes had lived and breathed and worked. We climbed the lighthouse steps, conquering fears and feeling - if only for a moment - like we were at the top of the world.

There she is! CG36500.
And we saw the boat. Through a beautiful twist of fate - perhaps we have Bernie himself to thank - the CG36500 was in Chatham that day getting a new coat of paint for her upcoming summer outings on the Cape. We spoke to men whose names and faces we recognized from the book and let our hands hear the story again as we walked around the boat. For real.

To our Three-Peats: we love you.
It was one of those days spent in celebration of good. There was magic and joy and laughter everywhere we turned that day. And it was another for which we had no words. Without verbalizing it, we both felt like there was so much wrapped up in that day. Another year, our fifth successful All In!, Mary's new administrative position, and the sight of her daughter taking her place among the Three-Peats.

After a year filled with so much change, it was beautiful to know that some things stay the same. We wiggled our toes in the sand and looked around. The Crazy Reading Ladies aren't going anywhere. We'll always have each other. As long as we have our kids and a good book - as long as we have us and a bus - we'll all be okay.

Sunday, July 10, 2016


  The International Literacy Association conference is in Boston this year, something that made us squeal with excitement last year. There's just something fun about playing host to thousands upon thousands of book lovers. 

We arrived yesterday mid-morning and, after locating the rooms for our various sessions and checking out the technology set up (2 years running of last-minute tech disasters makes a CRL a little twitchy...) we hit the exhibit floor. After reuniting with a lifelong friend, meeting a woman with whom we've exchanged dozens of emails, and meeting Snuffy, Mary sighed to Erin, "I love it here."

More than once yesterday we found ourselves explaining: during the rest of the year, we're excited. We're giddy and wound up and overwhelming. But we're always a little bit off. When the world around you doesn't respond to life with the same level of enthusiasm, you sorta feel like there's something wrong with you. But then we get here. These are our peeps. This is our tribe. And everything slides into place and we feel like we belong. 

Tricking out the badge in true CRL style. 

Have you met Snuffy!? She's got a great story to tell!

Ruta Sepetys. Play it cool. Stay calm. 

Dan Buyea!! Hmmmm...what's that box?! And Tad Hills! 

Bein' classy with Renee Ahdieh

Sigh. We love it here. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

You Told Me

We have a tradition at our school. Each 8th grader writes down something a middle school teacher said - a piece of information, an encouraging word, an inside joke - that has stuck with them. We compile the images, throw in some pan and zoom effects, add some music, and show it to a packed, already-weepy auditorium the night of 8th grade Promotion; the kids enjoy making it, and the teachers and parents love seeing it.

We call it "You Told Me."

Our inspiration came several years ago when we sat in on one of Darren Kuropatwa's sessions at the BLC conference in Boston. It spoke to the power of words and how - good or bad - we have a keen memory for how someone made us feel at a particular moment in time.

It's fascinating to watch the students think about their moment. Some of them make us laugh out loud, some make us cry, others require explanation (one of our colleagues apparently confessed how much she loved eggplants, and more than one child chose that as their middle school memory a full year later!) What comes together is a patchwork as brilliantly diverse as the children we teach. It's incredibly, beautifully, awesome.

The book that brought us together
This year, as we gathered the images, one in particular caught our eye. She's one of our beloved All In! cherubs, and when we saw her photo we gasped. Given over 500 days of instruction, and three years' worth of memories, she picked the moment we asked her about a book.

She is not a dormant reader by any means, nor does she struggle with reading. She's  a voracious reader - a girl who goes through multiple books a week and with whom a conversation can always begin with "Whatcha readin'?"  During one such conversation she answered with a familiar title, and we immediately started talking in the way all book lovers are familiar: "Oh, I LOVED that book!" "How far have you gotten? What do you think!?""We HAVE to talk about it!"  A few email exchanges with her mother, and we met our girl at Panera for muffins, hot chocolate, and an hour of wonderful conversation.

If we needed anymore proof that books are the way to build relationships with children, she just told us.  Her middle school memory came from the moment she realized that books have power to bring people together. It was the moment she felt validated. It was also the moment two Crazy Reading Ladies swarmed her desk during homeroom, but hey! She was reading a fabulous book!

We got another reminder later that same week as we welcomed our new recruits - the 5th graders who will come together as the Class of 2023 and will begin middle school this September. Giving tours to the newbies that day were sixteen superlative 8th graders. Before we let them loose to visit classrooms, one of the tour-guides approached Erin and said, "I remember when I came to visit in fifth grade. You asked me about my favorite book and I told you I had just read The Hunger Games. You told me you loved me already!"

It was a conversation that hadn't registered with Erin; a quick and friendly exchange that teachers can and do have multiple times a day.  But for this young lady, it was an important memory: her first impression of middle school.  Once again, The Crazy Reading Ladies come face-to-face with the power of books for building relationships.  We opined about it in this post; we preach it in our conference presentations: books bring us together. They provide generation-gap-bridging topics of conversation, transport us to different places and times to give us common experiences and friends, they are the things nervous 5th graders, reflective 14 year olds, and giddy reading teachers have in common. These are things we know, believe, and proselytize.  But when it comes from the mouths of our students, it has so much more power.

As teachers, if we really consider how incredibly powerful our words are each and every day, it's paralyzing. There's the possibility a child will remember exactly what we said to him and then carry it the rest of his life. It's an incredible honor. And it's damn scary.  But when we talk about books, we aren't paralyzed by the overwhelming power.  We can put our fears aside and just talk, just BE with these kids, authentic and real. And that's what they'll remember.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Finest Hours

Inside the box: the title for Year 5.
Every year we find ourselves singing the same old tune - time is positively flying by. But seriously, how is it June? This year seems to be marching to an allegro all its own. We could spend an entire post telling you how many sticky notes fill our respective desks, how many times we'd send each other a quick text that says simply, "That's a blog post!" or how often BLOG! appears on weekend to-do lists.

So now it's the end of June, and it has somehow been way too long since we've posted an update. So we'll take our first step. And instead of listing all of the blog-worthy events of the last few months, we're going to start with one.

Stealing moments to read.
It's fitting that our title for Year 5 was The Finest Hours; we couldn't think of a better tag if we tried.

Even though we had settled in to our CRL-groove and felt pretty awesome about our fifth iteration, this year will perhaps be remembered for its extraordinary firsts.
  • This was the first time we let the students pick the title.
  • This was the first time we held a Barnes and Noble book fair, helping us fund our field trip.
  • This was the first time Mary was at the helm as a CRL 2.0, having accepted the position of Assistant Principal (!!!!) in December, the very week All In! 2016 was launched.
  • This was the first time our new Principal experienced All In!
  • The book that spread like wildfire.
  • This was the first time we cracked 300 student readers, resulting in our biggest turnout EVER.
  • This was the first time the author of the book contacted us and insisted on a visit, which led to the planning of a massive assembly in celebration of both the book and its real-life heroes. 

We hope you forgive us for our hiatus. We promise - we haven't gone anywhere! We are here to offer you the same kind of crazy we always have, to share our insights, thrills, and failures, and document our literary shenanigans. And we invite you to stick with us as we delve a little deeper into All In! Year 5: The Finest Hours.  Stay tuned...lots more CRL to come!
Our Literary Leader revealed the book live on the morning news.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Title for Year 5

All In! is five years old.

What started as "The Hunger Games Book Club" - fun fact, all of our documents are saved under that original name - morphed into the "School-wide Read," then became the educational non-profit All In!, and now here we are. We are so proud of our journey, and the five year mark feels momentous.
Students filled a banner with their guesses back in October.

Before we knew anything about this year, before we considered one title, before we wrote a single idea down on paper, we knew we wanted this year to be memorable. We wanted to mark the milestone. Five years! We have a lot to celebrate.

Truth be told, we started thinking about titles a year ago. There's no real starting date for us, we just constantly read and constantly talk. And somewhere along the line, things just click and an All In! title is discovered. For the last four years, it has been that simple.

This year was different. Nothing was clicking. We read all summer long and couldn't settle on a book. There were a few good ones, but nothing was great. We didn't LOVE anything. For the first time, we started the school year without having a title in mind.
This year, our kids waited longer than ever for the reveal.
But here's the crazy thing - we didn't panic. We knew a title and a plan would come to us. And we knew we were going to make it awesome.

We have several "unspokens" between us. One of them is that we are a literacy initiative. We choose books that we love. We choose books that get kids reading. And at this stage, we are confident that we can get students to buy-in even without a movie. We've earned their trust. As long as there is a field trip - and only readers get to go - we can sell it to our kids.

One idea that sort of came and went was the idea of student choice. Several people had mentioned it to us over the years and for one reason or another, we always left it on the table and went in another direction. It never felt right. This year, it fit. We couldn't decide on a title, so why not let the kids pick it?

Since we had the serendipitous tie-in of the election cycle we decided to (wait for it...) go all in. The book for All In! 2016 would be chosen by our students.

In late November, we aired this promo, which put our already desperate children over the edge. We'll put it up against any political ad out there.

Coming up, we'll tell you all about our campaign, debate, and election process - which featured not a single hanging chad.