Chatting about ACROSS THE ALLEY by Richard Michelson

Picture books have layers. (Like onions–and yes, Donkey, like cake and parfaits.)  We learned that this week as we read and discussed Richard Michelson’s Across the Alley.

As we head to the end of the year, there is not enough time for partners or groups to start and finish novels for discussion. I decided that the best way for us to practice and build our conversation skills is to use provocative picture books.

We read Eve Buntings Your Move earlier in the week, then moved on to Across the Alley.  We started with a read aloud–students did some Stop n’ Jots in their notebooks and also turned and talked at certain points. Each students then came up with a big idea question they wanted to discuss with a partner. (Big questions tend to start with Why…? What…? Should…?) These partners/trios then broke out around the room, each taking a copy of the book.

The conversations were awesome.

Coming back together, we charted some of their great questions and then voted to see which conversation we would have. The students circled up on the carpet to discuss some of these questions.

  • Why wasn’t the Grandpa mad when he found Willie playing the violin instead of Abe? Why did his opinions seem to change so quickly?
  • Why did the people in the temple move to the other side of the aisle when Willie and his dad sat down? (This grew even more interesting when I helped the students gain some cultural and historical perspective–that this was NOT the time of segregation, it was the North.)
  • Why did it take so long for the boys to discover their true talents?
  • Should the boys have switched?
  • Is the Grandpa racist?
  • And many more…

I mostly stood outside the circle as the students discussed. I would occasionally help clear up a confusion or get things quieted down, or whisper conversation ideas in a reluctant student’s ear.  I did explain that stories have layers. A third grader could read the book and get it. They as sixth graders get it a little deeper because they know more of the history and are more mature. As an adult, I understand it differently (especially the adult characters.) But I don’t understand it on as deep a level as someone would had he lived through that time

I’m pleased with the growth my students have shown in their conversational abilities this year. I’m looking forward to beginning this earlier in the year for 2012-13.

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If you are interested in reading the author’s ideas behind the book (fascinating!), I recommend this interview.

The Case for Reading Partnerships and Clubs

This is a dual post–also posted on the PolkaDotOwlBlog.  Mrs. P, (@polkadotowlblog), my partner in the #rdgPartners chats, asked me some time ago if I would guest post on her blog when she reached 100 followers. She has been dutifully keeping me apprised of her numbers. Now she is at 105 followers and the time has come. 

I’m always impressed with Mrs. P’s thoughtful posts, and I’m sure you will enjoy them as well. Click the picture to the left and give her a visit. I’m looking forward to working with Mrs. P and her classes in the future.

Forming reading partnerships and book clubs with young students is challenging. How do I partner the students—By interest? Reading level? Friend requests? And once they are in these groups, how do I help them to set reasonable goals? How can I keep their conversations moving forward? What do I do about the student who doesn’t do his reading.

Surely, there are many questions. But I’m persevering in my book clubs plan because this I believe: Some of the most powerful reading we do is partner reading.

(These pictures are the students reading on the first day after they choose their books. After this first day, reading and preparation is done independently.)

I read for myself all the time. Oftentimes my reading is to find that next great book I can recommend to a student at just the right time. (And with the NerdyBookClub, there are so many options.) But the books that are most memorable to me are the books I’ve had the opportunity to discuss.

My colleague, Brent Peterson, and I read Dead End in Norvelt in patnership. We kept a simple goal of about 100 pages a week (we were doing other reading, of course) and got together during a free period to discuss. These were awesome discussions.  [You can follow these links to see our conversations… if you’re really interested. Talk 1. Talk 2. Talk 3.] We came prepared with some Post-it notes and lists of things we wanted to talk about and off we went. The half hour was barely enough time. It was great how we each brought different ideas and insights to the conversation. Brent saw things that I never would have on my own. Discussing a book brought it to life and made it more interesting than it would have been had either of us read it independently. (Who else would have laughed with me about paraffin wax hands and deterring deer with bodily functions?)  I think these conversations are why, though the public response to Norvelt has been lukewarm, Brent and I liked it so much. You can get more of a summary of our conversation on our Nerdy Book Club Blog post.

Brent and I also read and discussed Wonder a lot. And then we started passing it along to others to read. My mom read it. Then my dad. Then my sister. Then her book club. Then other reading teachers at my school. Students and their parents. And we read it aloud to our students. (And finally my wife is reading it.) And it was like Wonder became part of the social fabric of my life. It was something I could talk about with anyone around me. Family dinners were filled with conversation of Auggie and Daisy and Via. Being able to then talk with the Maker of these characters and this WONDERworld was awesome.

And this—THIS—is why I want to persist in pushing my students into partnerships and clubs. As I’ve told them, book clubs are social opportunities wrapped around a book. (Hmmm… good pearl analogy there.) I want my students to experience the joy of a book coming to life. Of understanding a book better together because they talked about and cleared up confusions and saw things from different points of view. I want my students to know the richness of literature.

So I’m willing to spend an afternoon with the book partnership/club letters they’ve written to me (Name; why I would be a good partner to someone else; my approximate
reading level [GRL]; five classmates who would be good partners for me and why) spread out all over the living room floor or dining room table. (“Dad, what are you doing?”)  I’m willing to deal with a slacker reader/partner who doesn’t come prepared with the reading complete or Post-it notes ready to discuss. Because I see so many other students benefitting from rich conversations and thought building that they wouldn’t have if they only read independently.

I’m looking forward to next year and getting these partnerships and clubs underway earlier in the year. We are already discussing how to scaffold them—giving students smaller texts with which to practice before diving into a novel. I can’t wait to see my students blossom in their book discussions.

We have a great year of book conversations behind us, a better one ahead—and the state of Book Clubs is Strong.

Your turn:  Have you experienced reading as part of a partnership or club? How did it add to your reading experience?

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