How Does a Kick-Butt Reading Teacher Start the Year?

The reason people emphasize how important first impressions are is because, funnily enough, first impressions are actually important.  Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different instructional strategies in readers workshop.  I have nine months to smooth out my fifth grade readers’ rough edges, knowing they are moving out of the learning-how-to-read portion of their lives and into more complex reading tasks.  The clock is ticking (at least in my brain), telling me that the window for making lifelong readers is CLOSING.  Yeah, I know that’s not necessarily so, and yet…maybe it is so for some of my young readers.

So how do I start the year in terms of reading?  There are so many important lessons, but I think it is important to start and end with one teaching point that endures, that connects the fifth grade reading year together.  So my first and last lessons in readers workshop are pretty much identical.  The teaching point:  reading is powerful–one of the most powerful things in the world.  There are lots of ways that I thread this message through the year, in stories that reveal how the ability or inablity to read, the access to or denial of the written word, have changed lives–have changed history.  But to start, I want my students to see that reading can be personally powerful–that what we read and how we read impact us in ways both large and small.  So I do something kind of scary, at least as far as first day lessons go.

I read a story that is powerful to me.  The story I choose every year (so far) is Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco.  There are plenty of good reasons for a fifth grade teacher to read Pink and Say.  It is set during the Civil War.  It is a family story handed down to Polacco, and history is the primary focus of fifth grade social studies.  Polacco is a Michigan author, and that is where my class lives and learns.  But the real reason I read Pink and Say as my first lesson is because, no matter how many times I read it, it tears me apart.  As I read the last pages, I openly weep, I pause to dry my tears, then weep some more.  There is a little snot involved–that’s how they know I’m not putting them on about the lesson, I suppose.  The kids have known me as a teacher less than a few days, and I am coming a little bit apart before their eyes.

It is scary for me to be so vulnerable before I really know these people.  In past years, I’ve looked out at their faces during these moments, and many are surprised, some even shocked.  A few laugh nervously.  A few have tears in their eyes, too.  And I explain to them why I chose the story, how it makes me think and feel intensely every time I read it.  How reading is deeply personal, deeply powerful, and how we will spend the whole year learning this most important reading lesson.

And we move on with our day, our year together.  They will see me laugh out loud, and cry out loud, and get angry and confused and even occasionally bored as we read together through the year.  I want them to be open to the power of story, of text of all kinds, and I try very hard to show them how that looks and sounds every day.  And at the end of the year, I’ll read Pink and Say again, and I’ll weep again.  Because reading is, at its best, powerful.  Which means that teaching reading is powerful too–radically, rebelliously, joyously powerful.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andrea
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 00:56:21

    What a powerful testament to how important reading is! I love the way you describe the urgency to create lifelong readers. Your students are lucky to have a teacher who so openly engages them in such conversations. Thanks so much for giving me a peek into your classroom!


  2. Maureen
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 01:25:19

    Heather, your blog really relates how much you love reading. I love your introduction, I have always felt the power of reading involves emotions that show you have invested in what you have read. I haven’t read this book but plant do so immediately. Maureen


  3. KevinHodgson
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 09:47:14

    I read Rikki Tikki Tavi to start the year off — good story for plot, setting, protagonist/antagonist, foreshadowing, etc. But more important — it’s a fun story with lots of suspense. And they get to “hear” a story before we dive into novels.


    • hloney
      Sep 01, 2011 @ 23:30:47

      Great choice, Kevin! I loved that story as a kid, and you’ve made me want to revisit it with my students.


  4. Louise
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 13:17:23

    Thanks for keeping the window open for us 6th grade teachers! And keep ‘kicking butt’ in reading. This helps me get fired up about starting my literature classes. I hope you’ve had the pleasure of hearing Patricia Polacco speak – wow! She IS a powerful voice. As for myself, I can’t get past the first few pages of Where the Red Fern Grows before the tears fall and I have to hand the book over to a student to read until I pull myself together! You’re dead on about the power of the written word.


  5. Cammie
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 14:13:55

    You know my “happy note” self is so impressed with your willingness to show the power of literature by demonstrating your own vulnerability! That emotion, that “being there” feeling, that moment when you fall into a book and don’t notice anything else but the world the author has created with you. That’s what I seek for all my 4th graders because when that happens to them, they understand the power of reading as a fascinating, thought and emotion provoking, life experience instead of a “my teacher made me do it” moment. Such good stuff, Heather.


  6. Erin Brambilla
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 21:26:07

    I found your post after you stopped by my blog, so thank you.

    As I was reading this I had visions of my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Kalinowski. She read and reacted to stories in much the same way you described (much longer ago than I care to admit). I have to say that while I consider myself someone who has always loved reading, Mrs. K. really made me see it emotionally. It was kind of a running class joke about whether or not we’d need to pass her some tissues, but I give her credit for showing that to us. I hope your students take away a life-long love of reading after your class, I know I did after Mrs. K’s.


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