It was a Friday afternoon before a long weekend. I had my sixth grade library class last period. Students were chatting, exchanging Thinking Putty, applying lip gloss, and fidgeting but not doing a lot of listening. We have all found ourselves in similar situations when students have better things to do than engage their minds and turn their full attention to their teacher.
When this happens to me, I open a book. Reading aloud has the quieting, calming effect on students that focuses their attention, engages their minds, and prompts an emotional response. In this class, we were reading Flipped by Wendelin van Draanen, published 2003, in which two teenagers give their perspectives, in alternating chapters, on their friendship, their families, and how they change over the years. Slowly but surely the perpetual motion of the class settled into a quiet stillness. Even the coloring meant to help students listen slowed and then colored pencils stopped moving, hands poised over pieces of paper, when a tense moment occurred in the story. Suddenly students were invested in the story and listening intently and that’s when it felt like I had cast some magic spell over them. I was conscious of the fleeting nature of this moment and almost observed it from a bird’s eye view.
Switch gears to a kindergarten library class with twenty students and one teacher: me. Five year old students vied for the spot on the fluffy carpet closest to the teacher’s chair and tried to squeeze into too small spaces to be close to a new friend, still unaware how their bodies overlap with others and wondering why they don’t fit. Some students lied down and stretched out, some rolled backwards and crashed into a neighbor behind them. Some were picking the loose carpet threads out of the rug and collecting them into balls of fluff and still others were chatting happily with whomever would listen to them in what was definitely bear voices (not mouse voices).
After a few deep, slow, class breaths and a body check, I launch into the story of the day called Sunrise Summer by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, a picture book about a girl whose family travels four thousand miles from her home to spend the summer in Alaska. Summers in Alaska meant waking up at midnight to be a part of the salmon fishing crew, taking on new challenges and responsibilities that are not a part of her life back home. The tasks asked of the girl seem daunting and frightening and difficult. Imagining themselves in that role gave the kindergarteners a thrill. Once again, the vibrating energy of the class settled into stillness as students made meaningful connections to the girl’s experiences in the story. Could they do this someday? Did they ever have to wake up in the middle of the night? They remembered how that felt and were able to imagine how the character was feeling. The kindergarten students were ready for a challenging story that engaged their minds and prompted them to feel empathy for the character.
Reading aloud, as we know, is not only for the young. I still love it when someone reads aloud to me and though I like to think I am still young, my students will tell you otherwise. As long as (young) people will listen, we should be reading aloud to them. And let’s be realistic, not all read alouds work like magic. Some days still feel like a struggle but finding the right book at the right time is worth it. I am grateful for the opportunity to share stories whenever I can.
Feel free to share your reflections on reading aloud in the comments.
World Read Aloud Day is February 7, 2024. For information and resources, go to https://www.litworld.org/learn-more-about-wrad
For read aloud recommendations from fellow HVLA members, go to the shared HVLA Fall Meeting Notes, section on Storytime Hits: Children and Librarian Favorites