3rd Grade Read Aloud: The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins

In recognition of Read Across America, I am taking March to share some of my best experiences reading aloud to students in my school. As a principal, I believe it is imperative that I get into classrooms on a daily basis and model this lifelong skill.

The time I spent teaching third grade led me to believe that it is a pinnacle year for both student and teacher. As a student, the expectations in academics, especially in math, are raised. For teachers, third grade opens up a whole new world of literature to share with kids. This combination is a great opportunity to read aloud more complex literature that ties in the other content areas.

Before Reading Aloud

Ask students what they know about Dr. Seuss’ writing style. They may suggest he likes to rhyme, his illustrations are very colorful, he uses zany and made up words, and his writing is geared toward younger kids. It might be wise to write down their responses to refer back to later. Explain that The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a departure from Dr. Seuss’ other books. Ask students to look for these differences as you read.

During the Read Aloud

As Bartholomew starts racking up the number of hats he has taken off at the King’s request, use the running totals to pose some mental math problems. For example, “When Bartholomew arrived, Sir Alaric counted 45 hats in the Throne Room. The King and Bartholomew mentioned that there are an additional 90 hats in town. How many total hats are there?”. Give students time to process this problem before asking for responses.

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Let students talk to each other about their answers before sharing with the whole group. Ask for several responses before providing the correct answer. For those that got it right, ask them the process they used. Share your own, such as counting up to easy numbers. Continue to pose problems when the story presents them.

After Reading Aloud

Go back to the list students made about what many of Dr. Seuss’ books have in common. Contrast that list to this book and have students identify the differences. Ask students if they could relate to this story a little more than other books by the author. They might surprise you with a response of how the King reminds them of an adult they know who doesn’t listen to them (not you, of course).

Special note: When I shared this with 3rd graders last week, a student asked me how I read those weird words. I didn’t understand his question at first. Then I realized he was inquiring about the process I used to decode, understand and then speak the words aloud. I explained that when readers get better at reading through lots of practice, they can read the words ahead of time before they actually get to the word to be read aloud. This question reminded me to be more explicit about the process I use as a reader. Demystifying this skill and attributing it to doing lots of reading is what emerging readers need to hear.

An Open Letter to Judy Blume

*This letter was written by one of my fourth grade classrooms as a shared writing activity. As a school, we have focused on modeling writing for kids regularly. In this case, the class is responding to a book by Judy Blume. I told them I would share their writing with Judy Blume via Twitter. If you could, please comment on this post as the students would love feedback, even if your name is not Judy Blume!

Dear Judy Blume,

​We are fourth graders from Mrs. Sonnenberg’s class at Howe Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids. Our class really liked your book Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Earlier this year we also read Freckle Juice and The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo. Your books are funny and entertaining.

​In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing we thought Fudge was very hilarious. Especially when he ate flowers, played with socks, ate Dribble, and didn’t eat his food. He seemed like a normal two year old boy at times though. Like when he was banging on pots and pans. We did enjoy the ‘Eat it or wear it!’ part very much.

​Peter tried to act all mature. There were many times Peter wished Fudge was never born. Boy, we had a lot of connections with that. One time Peter was really annoyed when Fudge was lost in the movies.

​The book was totally awesome. We have a few questions for you.

Why did you decide to have Fudge eat Dribble?
How did you come up with all those good ideas?
Do you think you could make a 6th Fudge book?
​Can you write back to us?
Why did you make these books into a series?
When did you want to become a published author?
How many books have you published?

We thought your book was the best. We wish you could come over to visit us.

​​​​​Sincerely,

​​​​​Mrs. Sonnenberg’s Class

Kindergarten Read Aloud: Comparing Caldecotts

In recognition of Read Across America, I am taking March to share some of my best experiences reading aloud to students in my school. As a principal, I believe it is imperative that I get into classrooms on a daily basis and model this lifelong skill.

I have been a regular visitor to my kindergarten classrooms. One strategy I have found to be effective with five and six year olds is making text-to-text connections by pairing different books. It can be the same author, a similar genre, or just pairing two books that have something in common. In this post, I describe how kindergarteners developed criteria for what makes a Caldecott winner so special.

Before Reading Aloud

I show students the cover of the book I am about to read them. I ask, “What do you notice?” This type of question, suggested by reading expert Mary Lou Manske, allows all students to participate without a lot of risk because almost anyone can notice something. Right away students point out the title, the author and the cover illustrations. Once a student spots the shiny gold circle, they ask, “What is that for?” I respond by telling them that it is a symbol for an award the book won, the Caldecott medal. It won the award because it was considered the best book published that year. We compare the award to something they were recognized for, such as in sports or being on the Wall of Effort at school.

During the Reading Aloud

The first book I read aloud is Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes. Before starting the book, I remind students that while we are listening to the book for enjoyment, we are also thinking about what makes this book special because it won the Caldecott. (I believe you can use a variety of award winners for this read aloud plan.)

As I read, we stop a few times to notice the illustrations and the writing. Students may already observe that the pictures are a) in pencil rather than color and b) not in the same format from page to page. For example, some illustrations have several panels; others have only one small picture. Also of importance is the repeated phrase, “Poor kitten!”. As students make these observations, I write them down on the whiteboard, seen here:

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With the second book, I chose to read aloud A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Phillip Stead. There is a purpose to this pick; the book also uses pencil in its illustrations in addition to being a Caldecott winner. Before reading, we review as a class the criteria we developed for the first book.

Amos McGee normally visits the animals at the zoo, but cannot today because he is home sick. The animals take it upon themselves to visit Amos at his home (via bus), to take care of him in the same way he took care of them. While reading the story, students are more apt to notice the similarities between the two books. Having the criteria displayed on the whiteboard while I read aloud is a helpful visual.

After Reading Aloud

Once done, we go back through the second book to determine if A Sick Day for Amos Mcgee has some of the same qualities that we listed for Kitten’s First Full Moon. Not surprisingly, the books are very similar in many areas. For example, even though one book is black and white and the other is in color, both books are unique in that they use pencil for the illustrations. Plus, neither book has the blaring colors that so many other picture books contain. The illustrations with these two books are more subtle.

Subtle – too big a word? I don’t think so. If kids can remember the Latin names of several dinosaurs, the terms “subtle” and “criteria” should be a breeze. Even if they all don’t fully understand the concepts, they have had the terms used in context and will hear them again in the future. What’s even better, their classroom now has a list of criteria to help them select books for their next visit to the school library.

Surrounded by Nonfiction

In my first year as an elementary principal, one of the many nice things I inherited with my new school is a drive by staff to utilize every minute for instruction. This is evident as I observe classrooms during instructional rounds.

Taking this philosophy another step, what about student down time when kids aren’t in class? An opportunity arose from what at first seemed like a problem. When students arrive at school in the morning, they are directed to the cafeteria whether they are having breakfast or not. As you can imagine, this time has been mostly crowd control and not the best way for students to start their day. See Example A:

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Being an educator, you may have noticed that the panels on the bottom of the wall are totally being underutilized (what 20% rule?). To fill this gap, metal magazine racks were ordered from Amazon at $13 a piece. They are what you might normally see hanging in a bathroom. Keith the custodian put them up in a jiffy.

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Next step was to order the books. Knowing that time was limited to start a novel, nonfiction easy readers were purchased from Scholastic. What is nice about nonfiction is kids can pick them up and read them in short bursts, perfect for the morning wait time. Also important is that most reading students will do as they get older will be nonfiction.

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*This side of the cafeteria is where all K-2 students sit. Books displayed are at their reading level.

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*Grade 3-5 level books displayed by the older students’ side include biographies and history.

Before I even had time to announce the new materials to the school, students were asking me, “What are those metal things for?”. Having the books displayed at their height caught their attention right away, similar to how grocery stores shelve all the sugary cereal at the bottom. After explaining the concept of reading during down time, students forged ahead:

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For around $500, we created a nonfiction library in our cafeteria. Next step: Little Free Libraries

Word Work vs. Spelling Packets

(I was asked by another building administrator my opinion regarding using word work in classrooms rather than tedious spelling packets. Not having an extensive reading background, other than I taught reading at the elementary level for seven years, I try to tread lightly when giving my opinion in this area.)

Tedious spelling packets are just that, tedious. In Chapter 4 of Teaching Essentials (Focus on Meaning First), Regie Routman stresses making curriculum and standards relevant and authentic. I cannot think of anything more irrelevant or inauthentic than a packet of worksheets. Word work such as word sorts are the opposite. They are visible everywhere, in the Jumble puzzle in the daily paper to board games such as Scrabble. Today, they are fun apps to play on mobile devices such as Moxie and Words with Friends, all using the framework of sorting letters to make words. People pay money and spend hours doing word work (including me). Would anyone buy an app or a board game that asked them to complete worksheets?

The thinking required to complete worksheets is pretty low level. Read the question, find the correct word on the list, write the word in the appropriate space, repeat. Word work, on the other hand, encourages students to compare/contrast, categorize and make new connections with word patterns, all on the upper level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Word work may not be limited to the 10-20 words given to the student in a spelling packet, none of which are chosen by the student. As well, word work promotes independent learners, another focus of Regie’s, because they depend on the student to create the words, not the worksheet. Students working on spelling packets are compliant but probably aren’t as engaged.

I could go on, but it would be me just venting because I used spelling packets almost exclusively for seven years as a teacher. I think I knew better at some level, but I never took the time to reflect on my own practices and ask, “Why I am doing this?”.

The caveat is, if the district expects teachers to use spelling packets because it is part of the board-approved language arts program, then spelling packets should be used in classrooms. They are not terrible, and probably do help students at least remember and maybe apply the word pattern of focus. That said, could they be taken home for parents to do with their child? Done together on the document camera? A workaround like this could allow the teacher to use better practices such as The Daily Five during the literacy block.

Speaking of which, there a number of good resources out there to help teachers develop more effective practices when teaching students spelling and vocabulary. Besides The Sisters’ resource The Daily Five, I recommend having a copy of Teaching Kids to Spell by Gentry and Gillet on your shelf. Although it is almost twenty years old, it contains some creative ideas for differentiated spelling activities to use with students. Janet Allen talks about work banks for older students in her book Yellow Brick Roads. Debbie Diller’s resource Literacy Work Stations has an appendix thicker than some novels filled with reproducibles for word work stations. What is a favorite word work resource of yours? Please share.

The Writing Principal?

As an elementary school principal, I conducted my first writing activity with a class. It was a poem that piggy backed off the book I read aloud to one of my kindergarten classes, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. I had already read them this book at my prior visit, so I followed up with The Little Fireman by the same author to start the writing lesson. This was good on two notes. One, we were able to point out how the author uses patterns when writing her books. Plus, she collaborates with other writers to make new stories. Second, the fireman book gave some inspiration for the kindergarteners to come up with ideas for a topic for our Important Poem.

One of the more active students suggested fire trucks, so I jumped on that opportunity to praise him for making a text-to-text connection. I used my Moleskine book journal to model how to write the shared writing poem, with the help of the document camera. (At first, I thought I could also give the kindergartners a template to try these poems on their own once modeled. Their teachers showed me the errors in my thinking). We used the same format as the author did to write this poem about fire trucks:

The most important thing about fire trucks is that they have a ladder.
They are on wheels.
They are also red.
But the most important things about fire trucks is that they have a ladder.

I provided the majority of the sentences, with the students helping me come up with words to describe the fire truck. Once we were done, we attempted to take a picture of the poem we wrote using the document camera. Between the teacher and me, all we have is the picture below. I’ll have to do it the “old fashioned way” and scan the poem to print off. The teacher will have that poem in one of her literacy centers for her students to reread. I had a lot of fun writing with the students!

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My First Blog Post

An email response from Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook

Dear Matt,

Thanks for the email and the photo. Terrific!

I am presently working on the 7th and my final edition of the Handbook, so
your email was a vote of encouragement that I needed this morning.

I just finished the technology chapter (who’d have ever though such a
chapter would have been in the book 30 years go when I started) and I’m
attaching it here as a preview. The book probably won’t be out until Sept.
2012, so this is well in advance and will probably have some revisions due
to changing technology between now and then. But there’s enough to bite into
here with some sobering stats, including the stuff about where the silicon
valley folks send their kids to school and the candid conversation between
Gates and Jobs just before the latter died and their views of education
software.

Keep me posted on your experiences during these early days as a reading
principal. I’m very interested.

Best, Jim