Every year I get approximately 20 children who are already a tightly knit community. They come to me as a group from our 4th grade literacy room. Cathy, the teacher, does a remarkable job in bringing these young children together into a very caring community of learners. My job is to take them further.
I have researched how to do this successfully. There have been some “tried and true” resources out there that other teachers have used quite successfully, but I haven’t liked them. They are just a little too touchy feely and scripted for me. I have felt bad that I haven’t found these to be what I want for my classroom but if I’m being honest I must admit that they are not. I have found something different.
I have found the power of reading together, writing together, and sharing with each other to be just the things that build a strong, caring community. The carefully woven combination works like a charm in my classroom. This realization came last year when several reading experiences came together.
It began when I introduced our Book Talk readings. Our book talk readings centered around books that we all read just for the sake of enjoying reading and discussing. No written assignments. In previous years the kids had read a variety of books I provided for their reading workshop time. In addition, like most elementary classrooms, I chose books for daily read aloud time. And of course they also read silently everyday from books of their choice. Pretty typical reading opportunities. But my group last year really balked at this structure. They struggled with writing about their reading so I thought I’d take some writing off their plate in an attempt to help them rediscover the joy of reading. Since they also struggled to talk about what they read I thought we’d begin with a community classroom read. We began with, Because of Winn Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo. We would each read around 20 pages each evening, jot down questions we had or a favorite line. We then were scheduled to discuss our readings on Friday during a “book talk”. It was immediately obvious that the kids loved this. After the first day of reading the kids came to school excited and sharing what they loved and questions they had. They could not wait until Friday’s scheduled talk time. They felt tremendous relief from not having to write about what they had read. The focus was more on enjoying the story and sharing questions they had. And did they have questions! I watched as these kids, who claimed not to like to read, come together as a reading community. They helped each other make sense of the text. Not only did that made them feel great, it made their comprehension so much deeper. After Winn Dixie I continued to pull high quality literature from our book closets. Aquamarine and Indigo by Alice Hoffman were hits. As were Love that Dog and Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech.
But it was when I read aloud the Newberry Award winner, The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander that my class pulled together in a way much deeper than I had ever noticed before. There was something in the poetic sound of that verse text as well as the dual story line. My kids (and I) fell in love with it, with verse text, and more in love with each other.
Every year I choose a realistic fiction to read aloud and every year it’s that book that does the job of sealing us as a solid, caring community of learners. In the past I’ve seen this happen with any book written by Cynthia Lord or Jennifer Richard Jacobson. These two women are able to take some tough topics and present them to our kids in ways that is neither overwhelming or dark. Somehow, with their magical use of words and ideas, they are able to serve these deep topics that are common to many of my kids in ways that they crave for me to read, read, and read some more. And of course the discussions are deep, insightful, and hopeful. Hope is always something that comes out of such readings. Hope, empathy, and tolerance. Everything I want our classroom community to have, share, and strive for.
So if you notice your classroom community struggling, especially during this time of year that can be so very stressful for kids coming from insecure or struggling homes, do what my team leader told me to do my very first year teaching these little ones, “Just stop. Pull out a book. And read. Read, read, and read aloud some more.” The community will follow.