My first 20 years of teaching were spent in elementary school. Over that time period, from a few years at lower elementary to 16 at fourth and fifth grade, one thing remained the same at every age: the importance of read aloud. I remember organizing World Read Aloud Day for my district and getting the middle school and high school teachers on board. The day afterward, I had emails from those teachers of older grades, commenting on how much their students had enjoyed the read aloud, lamenting that they couldn’t do it on a regular basis.
I couldn’t understand how they would leave out read aloud in their classes.
As my parents often taught me growing up, you should never judge others when you aren’t in their shoes. It wasn’t until I became a middle school teacher myself that I realized how difficult it could be to find time for read aloud. Whereas in elementary school I had many options for how we spent our day, in middle school we are ruled by the bell. I can’t snag some minutes from one subject or another during the day, read in the weird small blocks between specials, or before or after lunch. I get a set amount of time each day to teach everything I need to for reading and writing with my classes, no more, no less. My first year I struggled, knowing read aloud was important, but lamenting that I had no time to do it.
I tried reading aloud novels, giving the last 10 minutes of class each day over to it. Even when I picked short novels, it took forever to get through one. In elementary school I had a 20- to 30-minute read aloud slot a day. I flew through books, and the kids were engaged. With only 10 minutes, the books dragged and interest lagged. I needed shorter books or more time.
About this time an educator friend named Jillian Heise began touting the benefits of reading a picture book a day in her middle school classroom. She got this idea from Donalyn Miller’s Book a Day initiative for teachers every summer. You can learn more about this on Jillian’s blog. I considered this idea. Although a novel would last weeks, surely I could read aloud a picture book each day. I decided to try it.
I could not have predicted how the students would react to classroom book-a-day, or #classroombookaday if you are on social media. They love it. We read a picture book a day, every day. Sometimes the books are geared toward a unit we are doing, and sometimes they are just because I like the book. There is no grade for this part of class, and there are no expectations beyond listening to and enjoying the book. Through the course of the year we share around 180 texts together. Read aloud becomes part of the shared history of our class and provides reference points for us all year long.
Some comments my students have made about the read aloud portion of our class:
I like this so much because it is a time where you don’t have to care at all about anything. Just sitting there chilling out and stress free. —Chloe
I really liked classroom book-a-day because it gives you time to just relax and listen to a picture book. Usually since I’ve gotten older we don’t really ever get to read many picture books, but I like them. —Sylvia
I did like classroom book-a-day. I liked that I was able to relax. At first, I thought that it was for little kids, but then I realized that they aren’t. You can still enjoy books even if they are pictures books, no matter your age. —Charlie
What I noticed in two years of reflections from my students time and time again is that they talk about how read aloud time is relaxing. I think that is something to ponder. In my experience of moving from elementary to middle school, one thing I’ve realized is the amount of pressure my young teens are under. Puberty is no joke. They are dealing with whirling hormones, social media dramas, friendship stresses, and extracurricular demands, and we are asking them to make school a priority. Giving them time to sit in class and enjoy a story is a blessing. If you could be in my class when I call them all to the front of the room for our book-a-day, you would see those large bodies visibly relax as I read to them. I’d be willing to bet that if you took their heart rates before and after the story, they’d be lower afterward. Many of them have told me it is the most important part of their day.
Some of our favorite picture books this past year:
After the Fall by Dan Santat
Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal
The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael Lopez
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick and Sophie Blackall
Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera and Lauren Castillo
Love by Matt de la Pena and Loren Long
Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
Under My Hijab by Hena Khan and Aaliya Jaleel
What If . . . by Samantha Berger and Mike Curato
Although I knew the kids enjoyed our daily read aloud, I didn’t realize how much until I had to be out of the classroom for two days last fall. When I returned and came in from hallway supervision, my homeroom students all started talking at once. Calming them down, I learned that the substitute, not my normal sub, had skipped reading the picture book both days. They were incensed. I held my hands up and promised we’d read three picture books that day to catch up: the ones he had skipped and the one I had planned for the day. They all grinned.
Read aloud can happen at every level. And although I miss diving into a novel to read aloud over and over through the year with my students, the picture book read aloud we do each day has allowed me to have that experience of a shared story with my students again. It is certainly part of the day that we cannot miss.