If you plan to build walls around me, know this — I will walk through them.
Reading teachers are a devoted, dogged, stubborn type, aren’t they?
Last week, a fifth-grade teacher in our building led a nonfiction text discussion about sugarcane with her students. The text explained that sugar is actually derived from a plant, but it is cut and processed to create the sugar we use in cooking. The teacher, Stacey, showed many images of sugarcane and explained that it can be chewed to extract the sugar; afterward, the rough, stringy fibers are discarded as waste. Yet, despite her descriptions, her students couldn’t seem to grasp that the sweet white stuff they sprinkle on their oatmeal comes from… that.
So Stacey embarked upon a quest to find some sugarcane. She visited three grocery stores, drove on a wild-goose chase of Latino and other markets, and called produce departments all over the city. When she looked at each manager and asked if they had sugarcane, they hesitated or looked at her with a blank stare. “Uh… no, ma’am. We don’t carry sugarcane. Never have.”
Stacey refused to give up. After a week-long search, she finally found a high-end market that stocked sugarcane. She’d called ahead, so the produce manager was expecting her. He greeted her warmly. “We’ve been waiting for you,” he grinned. “We don’t sell much of this.” He handed her a six-foot stalk, then paused. “Can I ask? Why are you buying raw sugarcane?”
She explained. “I am a teacher. My students read about sugarcane last week, and I want them to touch and taste it so they understand what it really is.” She added, “I have a question for you—why do you stock sugarcane? Besides reading teachers, who buys this stuff?”
He thought a moment, and then laughed. “Just other reading teachers,” he said. “That’s about it.”
As Stacey recounted the tale of her sugarcane search, I couldn’t help but remember back to my days of teaching language arts. I also searched relentlessly for real-life examples to support texts. In one case, my class had read a story in which a Civil War era soldier sustained himself by eating only hardtack and salt pork. I told my students that these were staple foods given to soldiers all through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries because they were a cheap, fatty, and filling meal; better yet, they were virtually non-perishable. I tried my best to describe the taste and texture, but I knew my students didn’t truly understand what living on these foods could possibly be like. But I wanted them to really understand, so I searched for genuine hardtack and salt pork.
Ultimately, I got my salt pork from a local meat vendor, and had to make the hardtack myself from an online recipe. It was worth the trouble. After a taste test, my students were in a position to grasp how living on these two items as an exclusive diet would be a pretty tough way to go.
That’s the joy in teaching comprehension, after all: the tiny little thrill that we all feel every time our students say, “Ohhhh!” and begin to expand their thinking about a concept. When we truly connect words to meaning, we’ve met our goal.
This week we consider ways to improve read alouds. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Contributor, Choice Literacy
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Franki Sibberson has suggestions for Making Time for Nonfiction Read Alouds:
The texts and authors for this year’s Global Read Aloud are being selected now. You can read details here and make plans to participate in the fall:
Brindi Anderson at the Nerdy Book Club is Letting Go of the Reins as she hosts read aloud volunteers in her middle school classroom:
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Katie Doherty Czerwinski finds read alouds are a valuable tool for developing middle school writers in Researching Like Writers: From Read Alouds to Notebooks:
Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris are using read alouds as an intervention strategy with struggling learners:
Melanie Swider discovers that Whole-Class Conversations for Read Aloud Closure are a wonderful way for students to remember and retain the learning from shared texts:
In this week’s video, Tony Keefer reads Percy Jackson to his fourth-grade students:
New PD2Go: Stella Villalba is Integrating Vocabulary and Retelling into Read Alouds with her first- and second-grade English language learners:
This video and workshop guide fulfill Common Core State Standard
RI.1.2: Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.
That’s all for this week!