Some of My Fondest Memories of High School were Read-Alouds

You could hear a pin drop in my classroom when I read aloud. It is their favorite time of the day. They beg me to read aloud to them.

-What a teacher recently shared with me



I still remember when I got hooked on reading. My 3rd-grade teacher started reading aloud Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. The humor and plot hit home for me, also being an older brother like Peter, the main character. After hearing that book read aloud, I became a voracious reader. I now associated reading with both pleasure and with learning more about myself (“Would I have reacted to my younger brother like Peter did to Fudge?”). Bill Wallace and Roald Dahl were favorite authors, along with comics such as Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield.

As I progressed through the middle grades, I remained an avid reader in spite of the fact that my teachers did not read aloud to us. This is before the advent of smartphones, television-on-demand, and ubiquitous wireless. Reading was the only game in town. However, as I became more involved in high school, books started to become less important. Sports and other extracurriculars monopolized my time. I didn’t complain. It was great to be involved in the many opportunities. But my reading life suffered.

That’s why I am thankful that a high school teacher took the time to read aloud to us. He taught English and wasn’t shy about bucking the current thinking that reading aloud to secondary students was a waste of time. Read-aloud was leveraged as a tool both for instruction and for engagement. To be fair, what we participated in would be termed “shared read aloud”. We all had copies of the text and were expected to read at least some of it independently during class and at home. Here are a few snippets of what I remember from his classroom.

  • While reading aloud Lord of the Flies by William Golding, our teacher would reread dialogue out loud that gave clues to the personalities of each character.
  • While reading aloud Flower for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, the teacher asked provocative questions about the nature of science and perceived benefits.

As much as the lesson objective, I recall the very act of being read aloud to in the classroom. Getting to hear the cadence and prosody of an expert reader was an invaluable model for secondary students like myself who still hadn’t yet mastered the art of reading. The joy in literature was evident as our teacher read aloud to us. I cannot recall one peer stating that this type of activity was a waste of time or boring.

Through our community-based literacy experience mediated through read-aloud, I had rediscovered the importance of reading. I was more likely to pick up a book to read for pleasure, or even force myself to read a required text in another classroom and not defer to the Cliff Notes or the movie (if applicable). The typical life of a high schooler still held my focus. Yet my interest in reading was renewed. I once again viewed literature as a lifelong activity instead of another subject to be completed in school.



What should you do when students have already read or heard the book?

This seems to be a constant in just about every school: You have that favorite read aloud you have been waiting to share with your students. When you announce the read aloud, students say, “We already read that book.” or “Our teacher read it to us last year.”


What do you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read it aloud anyway.

Readers reread books if they were a favorite and/or had something profound to learn. Explaining this to students should help with any disgruntled listeners. A main point of the read aloud is for students to hear the written word spoken. If it is an excellent title, there should hopefully be few complaints. It might be wise to ask first before forging ahead, such as offering a choice between the book they know and other acceptable titles.

  • Read aloud parts of the book.

Selecting some passages to share with students who have already heard the book offers multiple benefits. First, it is a nice compromise with the kids. We can show that we are listening to them and value their opinion. Second, reading aloud selected passages is an opportunity to notice author’s craft. Teachers can point out what made the author’s writing so good and worth reading again. Finally, it is an opportunity to…

  • Select a new title to read aloud.

Excellent titles that would make for great read alouds are published every year. By being open minded about what books to share with students, we discover new books together.

If you would like a book that is similar to the title you had planned but the kids already heard, check out Amazon. Put in the title into the search bar, and Amazon will share other books readers have purchased in addition to the one you listed. For example, when I looked up Charlotte’s Web, Amazon suggested Stuart Little (also by E.B. White), Pippi Longstockings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. These are all classics for a reason.

(Note: Whenever possible, avoid Amazon and buy local. Click here for reasons why.)

You can also connect with your school’s library media specialist (and what a crime if you do not have one). Going with the Charlotte’s Web example, he or she would likely steer you to titles of the same genre and topic, such as Babe: The Gallant Pig and Owls in the Family. Your library media specialist may also suggest newer titles such as Flora and Ulysses and The Cheshire Cat: A Dickens of a Tale.

If you do not have library media specialist (again, a crime), check out the E.B. White award winners for best read alouds from each year. You can also purchase a copy of The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It was my go-to guide when I taught 5th and 6th grade. I have the last four editions, as Trelease would update the treasury of book lists. He also offers suggestions on his website.

An essential element in reading aloud is what you choose to read.

-Jim Trelease

Whatever approach you take when kids have already heard the story, the more important point is reading aloud to your students every day.

Recommended Read Alouds During the Winter Months

I shared this content with my staff in my weekly Friday Focus today. Thought it might work on the ol’ blog too.  -Matt

When it’s this cold outside, I find reading aloud a good book to my kids to be even more inviting than usual. Here are some favorites from home and the classroom. Several were suggested by Mary Lou Manske from Book Look in Stevens Point. Maybe you will deem them worthy of sharing with your own children and/or your students.

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz

If you liked Charlotte’s Web and Babe, you will enjoy this story. A pig named Flora is looking for an adventure. When the opportunity presents itself to join a team of sled dogs for a trip across Antarctica, she takes advantage of it. Little does she know that her purpose on this adventure is not what she initially had in mind. Finn and Violet keep wanting me to read the next chapter.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

An essential read aloud for classrooms grades 5 and up. The story is told through the perspective of Joey Pigza, a student who suffers from ADHD. Many discussions around the topics of school discipline, the human brain, and empathy can be facilitated through this story.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman

From Goodreads: “Introducing Isabel, aka Bunjitsu Bunny! She is the BEST bunjitsu artist in her school, and she can throw farther, kick higher, and hit harder than anyone else! But she never hurts another creature . . . unless she has to.” It would be a great read aloud for those short moments during school. Each tale has a life lesson to offer. Very funny and full of wisdom.

Jackaby by William Ritter

This young adult work of fiction, the first in a series, is a lot of fun. The pacing of the narrative, along with references to classic mysteries that came before plus the supernatural aspect, made this a challenge to put down. Jackaby is a Sherlock Holmes-type character with the ability to sense people’s auras and “see” creatures in human disguise. It will keep you guessing.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

In 1976, Sunny visits her grandfather in Florida. But why? The authors go back and forth in time to tell an important story about family dynamics and our vulnerabilities. An accessible text for a wide range of readers. The Holms also include lots of humor related to this era and demographic. My favorite scene is when two of “grampa’s girls” tell Sunny to take home that extra roll from the restaurant. “In case you get hungry later.” Spot on!

Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee

A sparse text describing a memorable time in a young girl’s life, this everybody book works well as a mentor text for teaching small moment writing. The illustrations serve as a companion to the language, providing clues about the main character’s feelings about the roller coaster. With some modeling by the teacher first, students can take their personal experiences to create small moment writing.

Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills

This middle level novel offers a compelling situation – a successful student who accidentally brings a paring knife in her lunch is considered for expulsion because of a zero tolerance policy about weapons. I could see this book sparking some good conversations in class about discipline and the decisions we make in school. The suggested age range is 8-12, but I would recommend it for students 5th grade and up due to the content and language.

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts

From Goodreads:

“Hardly anyone noticed young Sally McCabe.

She was the smallest girl in the smallest grade.

But Sally notices everything—from the twenty-seven keys on the janitor’s ring to the bullying happening on the playground. One day, Sally has had enough and decides to make herself heard. And when she takes a chance and stands up to the bullies, she finds that one small girl can make a big difference.” 

“Harvest” a Good Book – the @BookItProgram Principal Challenge #youngreaders #cpchat

Today is November 9, 2015 – the first day of the Principal Challenge. It is part of National Young Readers Week, sponsored by Pizza Hut.

Last year I went “hunting” for a good book. Students gave quick book talks for me, and I documented their suggestions for the whole school. This year, our theme is to “harvest” a good book. Our artist-in-residence is a local author, Lisl H. Detlefsen. She wrote a children’s book about a cranberry harvest, a top industry in Central Wisconsin. Lisl and her family run a cranberry marsh. Her book is accurate, engaging and fun to read aloud.

I started the week off by coming into school with my gardening gear – gloves, seeds, my hat, rake, ho, and some locally grown produce. I referred to myself as “Farmer Renwick”, although the students’ first impression was that I was a cowboy. I’ll have to work on my costuming for next year’ theme.

IMG_3942Once I shared a little bit about my own hobby, I tied it the concept of harvest to a book I read aloud to classrooms. Teachers signed their classes up for half hour slots during the day and met me in the LMC. Each book was selected for its gardening/harvest theme and its age level appropriateness.

Grade K-1 selections:

Grade 2-3 selection:


Grade 4-5 selection:


Inviting classrooms to sign up for a read aloud with me for the Principal Challenge had a number of benefits. First, the students got to see me in a different light. I was out of the office, dressed up like a farmer/cowboy, and able to share about a hobby of mine (gardening) that was connected to authentic literature. Second, I modeled instruction in front of my faculty. They observed me teaching their students. They also witnessed me making teaching mistakes during the read aloud and discussions. Finally, we set the stage for our artist-in-residence coming later this week. (Not to be forgotten is also qualifying our school for possibly winning 101 copies of the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book!)

IMG_3940 (1)Principals: It’s pretty simple to set something like this up for your school. The best part is you have the rest of this week to make it happen!

(Picture: Previewing Time for Cranberries with my son’s 3rd grade class)

Three Books I’m Considering Reading Aloud to 5th Graders

This is one of the hardest parts about reading aloud: Selecting the title! One of the 5th grade classrooms invited me to read aloud in their classroom in November. As a former 5th grade teacher, I’ve scoured past and present titles. Here are my top three candidates, listed in order by author’s last name:

  • The Secret School by Avi (Harcourt, 2001)

This story takes place in a one room schoolhouse in 1925. Fourteen-year-old Ida Bidson wants to graduate from high school. Unfortunately, the teacher leaves and the school is set to close for the remainder of the year. While the rest of the students seem resigned to this fate, Ida’s determination to continue her education takes her from student to teacher, secretly taking over the classroom represented by many age levels and personalities.

Why I’m considering it: School has become an entitlement in the present day. What if school meant more to students that something compulsory? How might students today rethink these opportunities if public education was no guarantee? I would look forward to having these conversations with 5th graders if this book were selected.

  • The Landry News by Andrew Clements (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

A once-effective and now jaded educator, Mr. Larson, is going through the motions as a 5th grade teacher. Cara Landry is not settling for less regarding her learning, so she creates a classroom newspaper that highlights the issues in her classroom. As you can imagine, humor and drama ensue. The principal, Dr. Barnes, looks to use Clara’s reporting as a way to oust Mr. Larson from his current position.

Why I’m considering it: Freedom of speech is at the forefront of conversations today, especially with social media and other ways to communicate online. Tweens and teens need to have deep discussions about the importance of balancing “truth with mercy”. Stories like The Landry News, along with thoughtful questions and a teacher’s guidance, can facilitate this type of classroom talk.

  • Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

Joey has ADHD, and his medication isn’t working like it used to. The title for the story reveals an example of his situation: During class, Joey kept swallowing his house key, then bringing it back up via the string it was attached to…until the string broke. Gantos tells this story through Joey’s perspective, which includes living in a single-parent family. His situation at home, including a father who “doesn’t believe in meds”, makes life for Joey a challenge.

Why I’m considering it: As another educator once told me, you could throw a ball in the hallway at school during passing time and probably hit someone with ADHD. But what is school life like for someone with this condition? If I were to read aloud this book, I would look to build empathy and understanding for learners with all sorts of challenges.

Whichever book is selected, I am confident it will be well-received by the 5th grade class. Maybe you can help. Leave a comment on this post that includes the title we should enjoy in November and why. I’ll share your opinion with the class on November 3rd, when we vote on which one to read. Better yet, join us next month by reading aloud the same text to your intermediate/middle level classroom. Maybe we can connect online and share our thoughts with each other as a larger learning community of readers and thinkers.

In Praise of Nonsense and Nonfiction

In the wake of the Common Core and the call to read more complex texts, I fear that some genres and titles may get lost in the shuffle. I believe our more light-hearted texts such as the ones I list below should stand side-by-side with the nonfiction titles in our classroom libraries. Here is a post I recently wrote on my school’s blog about some of my favorites.

I recently shared with a group of parents some of my favorite books for reading aloud to kids. Because it can be hard to decide where to start if you have not read aloud to your child before, I thought I would recommend two types of books, nonsense and nonfiction. Both genres are high interest and fun to read.


Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

This picture book is about a boy who gets his kite stuck in a tree. He starts throwing items at the tree to get his kite down, but instead they also get stuck in the tree. The boy continues to find new things to throw, which get larger and more strange with each page. This is an enjoyable book to predict with your child what will happen next.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

The bear has lost his hat. He asks many of his animal friends if they have seen it, but they have not. One animal is not being truthful, though, and soon the bear realizes who the guilty party is. The ending is very funny and allows for the reader to determine what really happened.

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

This anthology of poems is a classic. It may have been around when you were in school. Some of the poems use nonsense words even in the title, such as “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too”. Kids (and adults) at any age level love hearing these poems over and over. That makes this book a great choice for families with more than two kids to read to and not a lot of time.

I Must Have Bobo! and I’ll Save You Bobo! by Eileen & Marc Rosenthal

Bobo the monkey is a favorite stuffed animal of the main character. Unfortunately, Earl the cat is also very fond of Bobo. He works hard to steal him away from his owner at any opportunity. The facial expressions of Earl are hilarious. The illustrator also does a nice job of giving you clues about what that cat is up to before it happens.

Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin

Ever wanted to host a dragon party? Then you must have tacos! Just don’t bring any spicy salsa. This everybody book gives the reader step-by-step instructions for feeding and entertaining dragons. Of course, someone didn’t check the label on the salsa, which contains jalapenos. Can you guess what might happen next?


Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz

The author describes his four dogs and their jobs on his family farm. Rose, Izzie, Freida and Lenore all fulfill different roles, like guard dog. But what does Lenore do? This question is asked throughout the text, as her job is not as clearly defined, but it is just as important as the others.

The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story by Pegi Deitz Shea

Although this story would be found in the fiction section, it is based on the many stories of the Hmong people’s journey from Southeast Asia to the U.S. It is told in two different settings: The present time as Little Mai patiently waits for an opportunity to leave her refugee camp for America, and the past which details the hardships she encountered up to now.

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki

Similar to the last title, this book describes the internment camps the Japanese Americans were sequestered to during World War II. To pass the time, the prisoners create a baseball field and start to play games. Their sense of purpose and community helped keep their hopes up during this dark period in America.

Testing the Ice by Sharon Robinson

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Now retired, his daughter tells the story of her family wanting to ice skate on the frozen pond. The author shows a different and yet familiar side of Jackie, one who is deathly afraid of water, but goes out to test the ice in spite of his fears. This biography is a profile in courage.

Dreams: Listen to Our Voices by Regie Routman and 5th graders from Denver, Colorado

Immigrant students from Mexico share their aspirations, with guidance from Regie Routman, an expert in literacy instruction. Some of their stories are funny, some are sad. What all the students’ stories have in common: they are real, and they are full of hope. It is a very inspiring read.

Teaching Content with Read Alouds

In my last post Why I Hate Abridged Audiobooks, I expressed my frustration in listening to an abridged version of The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley. The author, a New Orleans native, astutely described the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Although a few of the details are for adults’ eyes and ears only due to their graphic nature, this event in our history should be a topic for discussion in our classrooms, especially with what just occurred on the East Coast.

With such a big focus on literacy and mathematics today, how do teachers keep science and social studies a part of the instructional day? I hear stories about content being taken out of the classroom because there just isn’t enough time anymore. While I can understand and appreciate all that is being asked of us as public educators, I don’t think these different subject areas should be mutually exclusive. In fact, I have long felt that they all can be taught in an integrated framework in order for each to be more relevant and to help students see the connections.


I have tried to apply this concept when I visited classrooms in the past to read aloud. Spurred by Brinkley’s writing, I found some age appropriate books that would help me convey the concepts of weather and change (I have shared or plan to share the following texts with second graders).

Hurricanes by Seymour Simon

With topics such as this weather event, I feel it is important to front load students’ knowledge base. This book, like many of Seymour Simon’s other nonfiction titles, combines easy-to-read text with real photos of hurricanes. There are many other books about the same subject, but few have this level of authenticity in their visuals. I may not read aloud the whole book, but I will share many of the sections in order to prepare the students for the next story.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

Upon first reading this book, I thought it was only a story about a person’s love for reading. However, if you read the back flap of this book, you will discover that the author was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. He spent his time after the hurricane distributing books to kids while they waited for their schools to reopen. With this knowledge plus the information from the previous book, students developed a better understanding of the story. When viewing the illustrations of Morris being blown around by a storm, plus the despair he felt afterward, we discussed why the author wrote this book and how it came to be through Mr. Joyce’s experiences. As a bonus, I showed the class the eBook version of this story on the iPad (I point out that this was a movie first, then an eBook before it finally took paper form). I also like the eBook because of the great audio and video affects that depict what the storm might have been like.

A Storm Called Katrina by Myron Uhlberg

This is a realistic fiction everybody book. It is about one family that did not evacuate before Hurricane Katrina hit and then follows their journey out of the devastation. When I compare this fictional story to the real accounts described in The Great Deluge, it appeared the author did his homework before writing this book for kids. What is also nice is the list of resources he referenced on the last page. It is a great example for kids to see how fiction and nonfiction can support each other.

Throughout all the titles I shared, I targeted key points to stop and reflect on. Sometimes I would share my own thinking out loud. Other times I would ask an open-ended question and have students turn and talk about it. If a student had a question, we spent time responding to it and asking follow up questions. Were we reading directly from a social studies textbook, I don’t believe that our conversations would have been nearly as engaging and thought-provoking.

I don’t believe kids should be only hearing great language from the books I share. A lot more of their instructional time should be spent reading and writing about topics of their own interest. This type of thematic study could occur within a Daily Five literacy framework. The mini lessons could be the opportunity to share these read alouds as mentor texts, with the intent of pointing out both content information and important literary elements from the text. Students could take that knowledge to their Read to Self, Read with a Partner, Work on Writing, Listen to Reading and Word Work areas, where they would find leveled fiction and nonfiction reading materials related to hurricanes and other weather events. The teacher could take things even further and turn the Work Work station into a science activity, such as making Tornados In a Bottle while labeling the parts of this weather event on a separate sheet.

To wrap things up, I plan to do a shared expository writing activity summarizing what we learned about hurricanes, within the overarching concept of weather and change. The hardest about this is, as a principal, I am not able to stay in the classroom and see these activities connect with everything else during the school day. How do you connect reading aloud and content instruction within your literacy block? Please share in the comments.