Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Reaching Readers

I had the opportunity to interview a 5th grade teacher recently about how she gets her kids engaged in reading. 

Gail’s students are what experts call “economically disadvantaged.” The school has a 94% free/reduced lunch rate and 36% of the students have “limited English proficiency.” The teachers and students have their challenges, and Gail says they're also the most hardworking and eager-to-learn students she’s ever taught.

How long have you been teaching?
I've only been teaching for four years. I've taught one year in fourth grade and three years in fifth grade. (Note. This is a second career for Gail.)
Tell us a little about your school.
My school has a rich heritage in cultural diversity. We’re located in the Southeast and our demographics are about 49%  Hispanic, 35% White and 12% Black, 4% Multi, with a total population of 565 students. In 2015, we were designated as a low-performing school, with our test scores the lowest 10% in the system. We've worked hard to improve student achievement and recently exited that list. We continue to show great progress. Congratulations to your students and faculty!

What’s the biggest challenge you face in getting your students to read?
Many of my students have a story at home that is unbelievable. Today I had a student fall asleep in the bathroom because his home life is in such turmoil. He probably doesn’t ever get a peaceful night’s sleep. Another challenge is the fact that many of our students’ families are just trying to survive—have enough to eat and pay their rent/mortgage. Many don’t have books in their homes or have parents who don’t read books themselves. Students often don’t see a reading model at home. 

What have you found gets your students excited about reading?
My students love to hear a book read aloud to them. I think many of them were not read to as toddlers and preschoolers. I’ve read several books to my 5th graders this year and they have loved every one of them. Lots of books have a theme of survival, and that theme resonates with my students. 

I’ve read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and one of my reluctant readers begged to hear Brian’s Winter by the same author. I really didn’t want to read it because I knew it would be so similar to Hatchet, but with an alternate ending. But the kids were really into it (the boys especially because of the gory hunting parts). They also enjoyed Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtiss. I think many of my students could identify with the main character running from the terrible conditions in a foster home and trying to find his dad. Many of my students have a similar story to tell. 

What types of books do they like most? Do you notice differences among girls and boys?
My students really enjoy historical fiction. I read I Survived the Nazi Invasion, 1944 (I Survived #9). The book is lower than fifth grade reading level, and I usually try to read a higher level book aloud, but someone in my class recommended it. I obliged, and I’m so glad I did. The kids really got into this book because we had just studied WWII in social studies.

Currently, I’m reading Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. Everyone is so glued to this book!  They are hanging onto every word. I have one boy who you would never think would be so into this book. He’s one of my poorest and lowest readers, and he wears camo every day. He asked the media specialist to “please order the sequel.” I would have never imagined that he’d be interested in Stargirl. He seems more like a Hatchet kid. But maybe he's connected to Stargirl's unique style and desire to be her own person. I think all of my kids like the book’s hint at romance and are interested in the high school type of drama.

Are you able to find books with characters similar to your students? 
I try to find books with characters that are similar to my kids. Last year, I read A Week in the Woods about a rich kid moving to a new school. It was hard to feel sorry for the main character who had everything anyone could ever want, just not the attention of his mom and dad. My kids didn’t relate and didn’t seem to connect with the story. 

The teacher next to me is reading Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan. She said her kids absolutely love it. They talk about it at recess. The teacher said they connect to the strained relationship between the once absent mother and daughter and the mother’s problem with alcoholism. Sadly, this is something our students encounter in their homes.

This is just my opinion, developed over these few years with my students, but I think my kids are most hungry for a book with a main character going through the same struggles as them—a changing family structure, money problems, overcoming challenges, etc. This engages them in the story perhaps even more than the main character physically looking like them. Of course, they always want to be entertained as well.

How do you get your students excited about writing?
I’m not sure if I’m successful at this. We recently wrote an opinion essay about whether or not President Trump had a successful 100 days. My kids were very engaged and everyone had a strong opinion on the matter. We also watch Flocabulary’s Week in Wrap each week, and my kids love to see what’s happening in the world. They enjoy writing about topics like that. 

What do you wish authors knew?
This is a tough one. I don’t know if there’s anything I wish authors knew. I wish more people (parents, teachers, and other adults) knew that kids of all ages love to be read to. I love to be read to. 

Thank you, Gail! It’s always insightful to take a peek into different classrooms to see what’s going on with students.

If you're interested in reading more about the benefits of reading aloud to children, see these previous Reaching Readers posts: Teaching by Reading and Read to Them Aloud, At Any Age

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