June 10, 2014

What My Students Learned from our Last Read Aloud

I have written so many posts professing my love for Read Aloud.  This year, one of our read alouds definitely deserves a post all of its own!  Besides helping my kids fall in love with reading, I try and select read alouds that will allow for interesting class discussions and help expose the kids to topics and themes they may not be familiar with.  When we read Wonder, we talked about what it means to be brave, and how sometimes it means standing up for what is right even when it's not easy.  When we read The One and Only Ivan, we talked about the rights of all living creatures.  When we read Because of Mr. Terupt, we talked about how sometimes when bad things happen, we blame others or ourselves.  When we read How to Steal a Dog, we talked about right and wrong and the gray areas in between.  So many deep and beautiful discussions.

This year, I decided to choose Out of My Mind for our last class read aloud.  Here's the goodreads summary in case you're not familiar with this wonderful, thought-provoking book:
Eleven-year-old Melody has a photographic memory. Her head is like a video camera that is always recording. Always. And there's no delete button. She's the smartest kid in her whole school - but no one knows it. Most people - her teachers and doctors included - don't think she's capable of learning, and up until recently her school days consisted of listening to the same preschool-level alphabet lessons again and again and again. If only she could speak up, if only she could tell people what she thinks and knows . . . but she can't, because Melody can't talk. She can't walk. She can't write.

Being stuck inside her head is making Melody go out of her mind - that is, until she discovers something that will allow her to speak for the first time ever. At last Melody has a voice . . . but not everyone around her is ready to hear it. 

I chose this book because I wanted to help open my students' minds and challenge them to think differently about individuals with disabilities and special needs.  Because of the way my school clusters our students, and because I have the ELL cluster in my room each year, my students don't have many opportunities to interact with individuals with special needs.  I decided to read Out of My Mind to start some conversations about the topic, and hopefully help them see that there is so much more to everyone than what we can see on the surface.  We talked about special needs, Cerebral Palsy, and communication devices like the one Melody eventually gets that allows her to finally share her voice.  We watched youtube videos of kids using communication devices, and our speech path even brought in a couple for my students to try.

One conversation that we had to have right away was about the R-Word.  Melody occasionally refers to herself as "retarded" when she is feeling frustrated and angry about her situation.  Doctors also use the word in Melody's presence.  Like most teachers, especially those who have fallen in love with students with special needs over the years, I hate this word.  At first, I was skipping the word or substituting something different.  A few of my kids who had gotten the book from the library to follow along noticed, though.  One came up to me and mentioned something.  Here's how our exchange went:

Student: "Miss Teacher, I noticed something as you were reading..."
Me: "Did you notice I was skipping a word?"
Student: "Yes."
Me: "You're right.  I did that because I really don't like that word.  It makes me uncomfortable to say."
Student: "What if the kids are confused though later in the book because you skipped it?  What if it's important?"

So, since my job as a teacher is about so much more than math and literacy, I decided to use this as a teachable moment.  I told the class that I had been skipping a word because it made me uncomfortable.  I shared what it was, what it meant, and its unkind connotation.  We talked about why the author may have chosen to use this word even though it is unkind--does the author think the word is appropriate?  Is there another reason?  In the end, it was a powerful, positive conversation that reminded me that so much of the unkindness in the world is due to ignorance.  As teachers, one of our jobs is to fight ignorance with knowledge in the hopes that our students grow up with open minds and hearts.  It can be hard to find the time to teacher these things in the midst of standardized testing and the Common Core, but I will always find time during read aloud.

Here's how I knew this read aloud was successful: There is a point in the book where the narrator, Melody, is trying out for the school Whiz Kids Quiz Team.  Outside of her family and neighbor, no one in a million years thought Melody could even form a coherent thought, much less learn, so when she wants to take the quiz team test, expectations are low to say the least.  There is so much build up and anticipation in the chapter where the Quiz Team is announced.  As I read the anticipatory pages, I looked out at my third and fourth grade class to find them sitting on the edges of their seats, fingers crossed in eager hope that Melody's name will be announced as a winner.  And when it is--they clapped and cheered.

Another reason I knew my goal had succeeded: My students became irate and angry when Melody was treated unfairly by classmates and teachers and when doctors sell her completely short.

And the last reason: On the last day of school when we found ourselves with almost 100 pages left to read, my students begged me to continue reading aloud, even when I gave them the option of playing games instead, and sat in rapt attention until we finally finished the last page, just 5 minutes before the closing bell.  While I wished we'd had more time to process the emotional ending, I know that this book will become a favorite for my students, and I hope its message is one that stays with them for a long time!

What were your favorite read alouds this year?


  1. That makes my heart melt!! I have been teaching 2nd grade for 3 years (after teaching learning support for 6 yr and being a librarian for 4 yr) and read aloud time is my most cherished time of the day. This year my class read 10 books aloud. Some I read because they tie into our curriculum, but all are chosen because they are wonderful. This year our highlights were Charlotte's Web, The Year of Billy Miller (by Kevin Henkes), and Flora and Ulysses (by Kate DiCamillo). DiCamillo's books always pull at my heart, and this was no exception. We had some really great discussions about families and feelings while reading that book - no small feat with the group I had this year! I am headed back to the library, this time for 4-6 graders so I am excited to read some of the books you mentioned this summer. I will definitely miss my students and the read aloud time I carved out each day. Happy Summer!

  2. The One and Only Ivan is most favorite of all time read aloud. I teach third, and sometimes it's hard to find the right balance of "hook" and "meaty" for that age group. I loved reading "Wonder" when I taught fifth but I don't feel it will have the same impact at third and so I resist reading it. I am wondering how the titles you mentioned in your post will fly with a class of all third graders. They sound like wonderful books and I am resolved to do more read alouds this year.

    1. Hi there! I teach a 3rd and 4th multiage class, and at first I wondered if my third graders would be able to handle books like Wonder and Because of Mr. Terupt, but I feel like they did great with them! We processed a lot of the heavy stuff together, but they loved all of the books. I'd say Wonder is doable for 3rd grade!

  3. I'll have to try this. We finished the year with Everyone Can't Be A Rattlesnake. Well written and some good lessons also.


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