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Gather Round the Read Aloud

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Last spring, teaching online with no preparation was an exercise in trial and error. Video lessons, live lessons, using document cameras, holding papers up to screens – it was basically a hot mess most of the time (at least for me). I loved a sentiment I heard from Natalie Louis at the Phonics Institute a few weeks ago: “It wasn’t remote teaching, it was emergency teaching.” We were in the middle of a global pandemic. We were asking so much of our students and of ourselves. Both kids and teachers were giving it their best, but as the weeks dragged on, engagement suffered. Of course it did. We were all exhausted. 

Yet out of all the things I tried, one simple online opportunity repeatedly drew a good crowd: Snack and Story. I’m the literacy specialist for kindergarten through second grade, so I offered drop-in story time twice a week when teachers weren’t hosting lessons. I’d start a Google Meet nicknamed snackandstory, and one by one their tiles would pop up.  Kids were usually still in their pajamas, munching on leftover breakfast or the beginnings of lunch, with little siblings squeezing into the tile to catch a glimpse of the pictures. I often saw a harried parent whiz by in the background – no doubt taking advantage of the brief respite to grab a shower or make a phone call. I’d welcome children as they logged on and ask them what they were eating. “Oh! Josh has goldfish, too!” I’d exclaim. “I love strawberries!”  I tried to establish some kind of connection through the screen. Then I’d introduce the books I’d brought, turn on my document camera and begin. 

As I read, I’d feel that magical bubble that happens during read aloud. The tiled grid of little faces would bulge in and out, as kids tried to get a closer look at The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld, That is NOT a Good Idea! by Mo Willems, or Snip Snap! What’s That? by Mara Bergman. Once in a while I paused to make a comment, but on the whole I didn’t want to interrupt the magic and just let the story wash over them. When it was done, we’d talk about what they liked and then I’d ask if they’d like to hear another. We’d usually get to three books before they’d start to tucker out. Then one by one, they’d shout, “Goodbye!” or “Thank you!” or “See you next time!” and then their tile would disappear. Many times one child would wait for everyone else to log out, then share his thought or her snack, or just say hello. It was my favorite part of the week.

This summer as my family has practiced social distancing, we’ve gotten a lot of use out of our and our friends’ firepits. We place the chairs at least 6 feet apart around the fire and join together after dinner for a drink and conversation. We’re all so tired and worried and filled with all the feelings that have come with the world around us this year. And yet, with the fire burning, there’s a peacefulness to the conversation, a gratitude for just being together, the warmth of connection. The area around the glow of the firepit feels like a protected cocoon, where we can escape from all the weariness.

Perhaps the read aloud is the firepit of the classroom. The time and place where we gather around to feel the warmth and beauty of story and connection. While wrapped up in the magic of a read aloud, we can take a break from all that worry. Teachers have long known that the read aloud is magic. We all have that pile of books we can reach for when there’s time to fill or a need to resettle the group. It was reassuring to me that with all that felt unfamiliar in online teaching, every way that I fumbled and misstepped, this one element stayed true. The read aloud is still magic – even through a screen. 

I have no idea what my role will be in the coming school year. I might be coaching, providing intervention, or have a classroom all my own. I might be full-time in person or remote teaching from my bedroom. Very likely, I’ll think I have a plan and then it will change. Nothing’s for certain. But through all that uncertainty, I feel sure that the read aloud will be something I can rely on. It’s elemental. When our world goes haywire, we’ll pull our chairs or our screens up to the pages and feel the magic of story. 

if everybody did

If I am in the classroom, here’s my favorite first day of school read aloud: If Everybody Did by Jo Ann Stover. I’ve used it every year from my first year of teaching in 1997 and I still love it. You can hear it read by this pair of teachers from St. Peter’s Catholic School on You Tube.

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