“Bonding a Classroom Over Books: Read Aloud as a Community Builder”
My third year of teaching, I welcomed my fifth-grade class back from mid-winter break by revealing Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons as our next read aloud. Immediately, an excited titter spread amongst the table groups of my classroom. A student raised his hand with a grin and asked, “Are you going to cry? I heard when you read that book last year, you cried … in front of everyone!” The students exchanged excited looks, shocked by the boldness of the question-asking kid and eagerly waiting for the answer. I smiled and nodded.
It was true—I would cry. Walk Two Moons always makes me cry. Always. It did when I first read it as a fifth grader, curled up on the couch in the formal living room of my childhood home (the only place to escape my three younger siblings for quiet reading time), it did every time I read it aloud to one of my classes as a teacher in my twenties, and if I read it today … you guessed it, blubbery mess. That’s what evocative writing does to me, and Sharon Creech is a master.
Over the course of weeks, I read the book aloud to my class and we dissected it together. We made predictions about where Phoebe’s mother had gone, about what would happen if Sal did/didn’t reach her own mother by her birthday, about who the “lunatic” might be, and what, if anything, would happen between Sal and Ben. We discussed our favorite and least favorite characters—writing scenes from their perspectives, really getting into their heads—and when we got to THE SCENE (Walk Two Moons is an older book, but just in case I’ll avoid any spoilers!), my eyes weren’t the only wet ones in the room.
Did all my students cry? Of course not. But no one mocked those who did, which, in the world of tweens, showed a level of respect and empathy I always worked hard to build into my classroom. Whether they were moved to tears or not, they had shared an emotional experience, and they understood that that meant something. They were more than just classmates; they’d gone on a journey together.
This is the power of books.
Not all my read aloud choices were “crying” books. I made sure to read a wide variety of authors and genres to my classes, and I also let them propose read aloud books for the group to vote on. Listening to students explain why they loved a book and why they thought the whole class should read it always gave us insight into them as a person. And the more insight students have into each other, the more tightly knit a classroom becomes. We read scary books, mysteries, historical fiction, funny books, on a student’s recommendation I even read Brian Seiznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (a heavily illustrated novel) under the document camera so we could all experience the magic that happens when a well written story and beautiful illustrations combine.
Whenever it was time to choose a new book, inevitably there would be questions about which books I had found sad, scary, or funny when I was a tween. The kids were always delighted if I named a book they’d read and enjoyed—books were sometimes my best “in” with struggling students. If you’re curious, some of my top answers were Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows (sad), Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Til Helen Comes (scary books are my personal favorite—I still have the battered copy of this book that I received in third grade!), and Louis Sachar’s There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom (funny, though that book really runs the gamut).
I made sure to have copies of all these books in my classroom library, and almost without fail, any book I endorsed quickly became a hot commodity. Students would discuss with me and with each other what their own takes on my recommended books were. Then, they’d suggest books they thought I might like, which is how I discovered Mary Downing Hahn is still the queen of ghost stories. (I can only hope to still be publishing books when I’m in my eighties!)
The five years I spent in the classroom showed me that not only is reading a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon (or the last ten minutes of lunch), books have the power to forge connections. I loved spending my days with the delightful, witty (and yes, sometimes sassy!), tween students in my class. When I left teaching to raise my young children and write, I thought of my former students often and my desire to write was refined into a desire to write books for them—for middle grade readers.
My debut middle grade novel, The Wicked Tree, is first and foremost a creepy tale, but there is humor, grief, mystery, and a lot of friendship woven in. I can’t wait for Tav’s story to be in the hands of middle grade readers and their teachers, and it would be my greatest joy to hear that it sparked a classroom discussion that helped bring the students and teacher closer together.
The Wicked Tree
Author: Kristin Thorsness
Publication Date: October 8th, 2019 by Month 9 Books
About the Book: Deep in the woods, a gnarled tree grows. Its thick, black trunk twists angrily up into the night sky. Held in place by the magic of a long-ago patriarch, it has waited centuries to lure a descendant into its trap.
Eleven-year-old Tavorian Kreet hates it when money troubles force his mom to move them in with his great-grandmother – though the historic house and grounds are pretty awesome. Tav is told to stay out of the estate’s woods, but he can’t resist the chance to explore.
After Tav’s first trip into the woods, he begins to have strange dreams about a supernatural tree. The dreams start out pleasant, but soon grow dark and menacing. On a dare, Tav ventures further into the woods with his new friend Harper, and they meet a mysterious, mute boy named Edward who lives in a decrepit cabin there. Though he’s unable to communicate where he came from or why he lives alone, in clear distress he scrawls two words: Bad Tree.
Tav knows what it’s like to be afraid. If he’d been brave enough to act four years ago, he could have saved his dad from the fire that took their home. But he wasn’t, and he’s been trying to redeem himself since. Now Tav is determined to help Edward. He enlists Harper, and together they search the estate for clues to Edward’s identity and how to help him.
While searching, Tav and Harper find antique photo albums, ancient diaries, and a secret laboratory. They piece together the Kreet family history, and discover a curse that’s been waiting generations for an heir. Tav’s dreams grow more ominous, and he realizes time is running short. To save himself and his friends, Tav must go to the heart of the woods, find the Bad Tree, and confront an evil magic before it consumes him completely.
About the Author: Kristin Thorsness is a former 5th and 6th grade teacher who lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, their son and daughter, and two spoiled dogs. She likes dark chocolate, strong coffee, and creepy stories that keep her up reading late into the night. For more info or to get in touch, visit her online at www.kristinthorsness.com.
Thank you so much for this guest post about the power of books!