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.