As many of you know, Read Alouds have always been a crucial part of our curriculum and literacy work. Reading aloud breathes life into a text, and when a text comes to life it doesn’t just connect students to the act of reading, it connects them to one another. The words come alive; we share a story and the humor or tragedy of its narrative. A story is first and foremost an age-old means of building shared culture. Now as reminders of shared culture we left behind, those stories, read aloud can be doubly important–compelling and engaging at exactly the time we need to engage students online. In this post Team TLAC’s Beth Verrilli reflects on two very different—but equally masterful–read alouds by Jen Rugani and Sean Reap. Beth writes:
The bonds a text creates among readers and listeners are palpable in two masterful online Read Alouds we want to share with you—both from asynchronous lessons. The first is our colleague Jen Rugani reading Dr. DeSoto, William Steig’s story of a clever mouse dentist. Jen models shifts in mood and highlights crucial words so students build vocabulary. It’s like an audible book with vocab support. And her joy and pleasure in the tale help her surmount the added challenge in an on-line world: maintaining students focus. How will Jen keep her students engaged? Not only through the story, but through the reading process itself.
We remind you that Jen is reading Dr. DeSoto alone in her living room with just her laptop for company. Impossible, you say. It feels like we are in the room with her. We are connected. But Jen also helps ‘dissolve the screen’ (a concept Jen coined that we’ll define in a future post) by managing her young listeners’ attention—telling them what to pay attention to and where to put their eyes as they toggle between the words and pictures of the text and her screen presence. She makes sure they are reading as much as listening. She starts by explicitly telling her students to focus on the word “One.” After a moment’s pause, Jen is off, reading through two pages of text at a gallop… or maybe a canter. It’s critical to read the text slowly enough to let students process and feel every word. Her pauses are as rich as her reading. Suddenly, Jen interrupts the text with an excited, “Oooh, readers!” and the directions to “Put your eyes on me.” How can students not follow through, when Jen is so excited to remind her listeners of the clues they are accumulating to analyze Dr. DeSoto’s choices?
Jen sustains and directs student attention throughout her Read Aloud. Her reading mimics the voices of characters, shouting, whispering, and weeping as needed. Her voice layers in meaning, punching each word in the DeSoto’s risky decisions to “let the fox in” or exhaling in relief when the fox reveals that he was “just joking” as he snapped his jaws shut. Jen makes her students feel like they are sitting in a circle with her and reading together in real time.
We see much of the same happening in Sean Reap’s 8th grade English class. Yes, you can still read aloud to students at that age! Yes, they will still love it. Yes, it will help them to hear and internalize the book’s narrative voice when they read on their own. And, yes, it will all be even better if you can set up the reading with the joyful, easy air of anticipation Sean creates at the outset of his video. As with Jen, his energy ‘dissolves the screen.’ It’s hard to imagine he is just sitting alone in a room with his laptop. He has made a leap of faith and the results are compelling.
Older students may need fewer reminders to track, but they still benefit from hearing challenging texts come alive. In this section of To Kill a Mockingbird, Sean tackles the narrative voice of Scout Finch in subtle yet skillful ways. His reading of “hearty” sounds hearty, and he pauses at each comma to model how complex syntax should sound. As Scout recounts her treatment of Dill—she “beat him up, but it did no good”—Sean nails Scout’s plaintive tone, and his pronunciation of “day” is drawn out to give us a sense of the endless loneliness Scout feels in her isolation from the boys. Finally, he knows that he has tasked his students to characterize Miss Maudie, so when her name appears in the text for the first time — notice the infinitesimal pause around the phrase “sitting with Miss Maudie Atkinson”—he is drawing students’ attention to the character’s introduction without needing to break their enjoyment of the text.
Sean can send his mature readers off to finish reading on their own, set up for success through his initial Read Aloud. In a moment in time where screens loom large, we are glad that they can capture the voices of our teacher-readers.