The Great American Read

PBS has launched an eight-part online and television series to find America’s favorite book! The special project, targeted to adult readers, began on May 22, 2018 and will continue through the summer and fall.

Viewers will vote on their favorite books throughout the series and the list of 100 diverse books will be narrowed down to one. Celebrities, athletes, experts, authors and everyday Americans will participate in the series, alongside host  Meredith Vieira. The multi-platform campaign will encompass online and community engagement, including cooperation with local libraries in West Virginia.

The grand finale will air on October 23, 2018 at 8:00 pm. Viewers can follow the Great American Read Facebook page and use the hashtag #GreatReadPBS. This project offers an opportunity for families to discuss their own favorites and explore new titles.

No Fear Shakespeare

By Heidi Jeffries

No milling and seething!

My students at Elkins Mountain School, a placement facility for boys ages 13-17, love to explain these words to the new students who enter our classroom. Shakespeare was a daunting new topic for me as well as for my students this school year. A true confession is that I had only read Romeo and Juliet in high school. Granted, I have seen many of the plays, some multiple times; however, I was not comfortable with the idea of getting through a play with my students who often struggle with reading and lack basic vocabulary. During some history/English cross-curricular collaborative planning, a colleague, Lauren Johnston, English teacher at the West Virginia Children’s Home, encouraged me to go for it, and shared materials she had used successfully.

Just before reading Macbeth, I stumbled across an idea online for using quote cards as a pre-reading activity for the original text of the plays. This simple yet brilliant idea was a hit. Before even reading the prologue, students are introduced to original text quotes that give meaning and anticipation to the play. Students are given a quote card and go through a process together of pronouncing unfamiliar words and practicing delivery of the quote without a context. We did this outside where they were instructed to “mill and seethe” around while quoting aloud to each other. We practiced intonation and then gestures to go with the quotes. Most loved the physical, interactive activity. As a result of this simple activity, students recognized the quotes and understood the context as we read and watched movies and plays using the original texts. Students would excitedly state, “That was ‘my quote,’ Ms. Jeffries!”

Picture books hold a special place in my heart. I try to incorporate them with these young men, always reminding them that it is a very important thing for men to read to their children.

I wanted my students to have a good overview of the play, so I began with the beautifully illustrated Favorite Tales from Shakespeare by Bernard Miles. While I read each of the engaging versions of the plays aloud, students drew an aspect of the story on sketch paper using colored pencils. No Fear Shakespeare by SparkNotes really seemed like cheating to me, a purist about original texts and a critic of condensed or dumbed-down anything. Wow, was I wrong. The text is set up with the original on one side and a modern take on the other. Still clinging to my principles, my first best intention was to have them read the original text aloud while comparing to the modern text. This was not realistic considering the varying levels of reading abilities and the frequent interruptions, absences and new student additions. So, we simply read the No Fear version and, if particularly inspired, each student could read a bit of the original. In this way, we happily and eagerly read through Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet in just one semester. Students clamored to take parts, even the lower reading level students read willingly for the most part. If not, they were in charge of making up sound effects.

We also created an area of banishment in the classroom. Students who did not participate or attend class were banished. Coats of arms created by students for this unit would be moved to the “Ugly and Desolate Area” until a peer would agree to rescue the student by reciting a key speech from the play using gestures and tone, while wearing a silly hat. Students also provided an aesthetic response to the original text from the Queen Mab passage in Romeo and Juliet when they finished that play.

Boys love swords and shields. Elkins Sewing Center collected empty fabric tubes and cardboard forms. With a little metallic paint, and lots of brilliantly colored duct tape, these were crafted into attractive swords and shields sporting family crests from a research activity. Their artwork was showcased at the local library in April as a display for poetry month.

I feel so rewarded by the comments made by these young men.

Hamlet is one of the most interesting plays I have ever read.”

“It (the unit) was fun, everything about it was interesting. It was a better way of teaching than I have  experienced before.”

“What play will we read next?”

Seeing multiple kids signing out the graphic novel versions of Shakespeare’s plays in the original language was another plus. I am now inspired and determined to learn more myself through a future training on non-traditional teaching of  Shakespeare next fall. The learning was not short–term with these techniques. So often students memorize or remember for an exam or essay and then forget the material. Not so with this multi-faceted unit. They fell in love with the stories and characters.

These at-risk teens strongly related to the themes of family, young love, betrayal, despair and violence. These young men enjoyed themselves with activities that engaged them and will have pleasant memories of an English class years from now. Did I mention that this learning happened without even having to take a traditional test?

Heidi Jeffries is English Language Arts teacher at Elkins Mountain School in Randolph County. 



Summer reading projects highlight the importance of access and family involvement

By Lesley McCullough McCallister

 Sunshine and warm temperatures mean summer break is upon us! While children may be focused on how many summer hours can be spent at the pool or playing outdoors, it is equally important to encourage them to read while they are away from the classroom.

According to Richard Allington, co-author of Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Achievement Gap, any child who fails to read during the summer will lose some reading proficiency during the break. (It is the equivalent of an athlete who stops training and loses physical skills.) Children from low-income families are particularly at risk. National research shows they  routinely lose two to three months of reading proficiency every summer, while middle-income families gain about a month, resulting in a three to four-month gap building each summer. Allington notes that the main issue seems to be access to books, not lack of ability. He cites the fact that low-income families own fewer books than middle-class children, and on average, middle-class students have ten places to buy or borrow books in their community for every one place accessible by a low-income neighborhood.

While Read Aloud West Virginia’s Book Distribution Program gives books to students in participating schools through a variety of programs throughout the year (Snuggle and Read, Kindergarten Round-up, and special family participation events), special emphasis is increasingly given to distributing reading material in the weeks leading up to the summer break. The success of a trial project, which began in one school in Greenbrier County in 2016 has led to an expansion of the project into two additional schools located in Fayette and Raleigh counties. Funding from the Carter Family Foundation and the West Virginia Leaders of Literacy: Campaign for Grade Level Reading has made this expansion possible.

According to Read Aloud West Virginia Executive Director Mary Kay Bond, the summer reading project is built on a partnership between educators, families, the State Read Aloud office and local chapters. First, Read Aloud staff and local chapter volunteers meet with school faculty to discuss the program and share the books which will be available to students: typically 120 titles representing a wide range of interests and reading levels. The faculty are encouraged to display the books in their classrooms, discuss or read short passages from various titles, and generally build excitement about reading books during the summer. Weeks later, local Read Aloud chapter volunteers return to the school as shopping helpers. Each student is invited to create a list of their top six book choices (and two alternate selections). The selected books are then prepared with personalized book plates bearing the student’s name on the inside front cover of the book. The six new books are placed in a tote bag and affixed with two tags, one with the child’s name on it, and the second with a tip sheet for families explaining all the ways they can help their child maintain or build reading skills over the summer months. Families and students are invited to a year-end celebration where the importance of summer reading and the role families play in raising enthusiastic readers is discussed. Finally, each child is called forward individually to receive the tote bag containing the book selections they requested earlier that month.

“The excitement of the children is palpable!” said Bond. “One child said it felt like Christmas.”

This simple project has yielded great results. Reading scores at Crichton Elementary, where the project is in its third year, have been raised from the lowest in the county to the highest. The principal notes staff and students are gaining valuable instructional time in the fall since they do not have to spend the early months of the school year remediating students and getting them back to their previous skill level. It is a win/win for teachers and students alike.

When creating a summer reading plan for a child, families are urged to make it fun and keep it simple. Suggestions, all of which are FREE, include the following:

1) Read to your child daily. Reading even 10 to 15 minutes a day can help them keep up their literacy skills and transition back to the school year more easily.

2) Let your child see you reading regularly on a daily basis. Habits are caught more than taught.

3) Visit the library together and enroll in a library summer reading program. Also, sign up for a free library card.

4) Let your child choose the material. Comic books, magazines or books about various subjects are all reading.

5) Limit screen time. Children need time to “unplug” from TV, video games and other electronic devices.

6) Spend time talking, singing, dancing and drawing with your child to encourage their creative side and introduce them to new words.

All of these activities are free but valuable!

The benefits of summer reading will help your child further a sense of discovery and develop positive attitudes about books, as well as maintain reading proficiency during summer break, which in turn will help your student transition back to the classroom in the fall more easily.

Lesley McCullough McCallister is a Read Aloud supporter, volunteer reader, newsletter contributor and a  freelance  journalist.




The extra mile: a grab bag of ideas for classroom enrichment

Flashlight Fridays

Lauren Jarroll, a Nicholas County Chapter Board member, discovered a way to shine a light on reading as she was substitute teaching in Nicholas County. She found that each Friday, students in Jessica Martin and Stacy McClung’s classrooms participated in “Flashlight Fridays.” During these Friday afternoons, students were invited to retrieve a flashlight from a special drawer, only to be opened for this activity, and were able to choose a spot in the classroom to sit and read. The teacher would turn out the classroom lights and for fifteen minutes, students read a book of their choosing.

This activity incorporates reading with a fun twist! Allowing students to find a comfortable spot with their own flashlight and chosen book makes the encounter more personal and enlightens students’ reading experiences.


Literary Luncheons

A suggestion from Laura Huffman, Valley View Elementary School in Berkeley County:

“To strengthen the love of reading, I offer my students the opportunity to enjoy a ‘Literary Luncheon’ once a month in my classroom. This is when we spend time together eating lunch and discussing a pre-selected book. At the beginning of each month, I give a short book talk and encourage students to borrow classroom copies of the book to read on their own or with family members at home.

“This project teaches not only reading, but responsibilities as well. Each student who chooses to participate has four responsibilities for Literary Luncheons: read the book, take care of the book, return the book on the day of the luncheon and participate in the discussion. On the last Friday of each month, students are responsible for returning the book in the same condition in which it was borrowed and being ready to discuss what they have read.

“Literary Luncheons provide students the opportunity to develop friendships, refine their speaking and listening skills, and discover the wonderful world of reading.”

When children drive the boat at story time

I’ve often said that the best learning and most meaningful experiences with children happen unexpectedly. And it happens all the time, especially with picture books. You just have to seize the moment and be ready to let go of the scripted text, the one that’s in your head.

I’d like to tell you about two outstanding books where this happened, each with very different experiences:

Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La and Gaston. Yes, reading those words from Gaston, by Kelly DiPucchio to the children started it all. They cracked up (it really was funny), so I read it again. More laughing, and I laughed, too. The words in the text repeated the dogs’ names. I paused, looked at the children, and read the names again—this time with a voice and an accent. Well, we roared, together. I couldn’t stop laughing. My tears blocked seeing the words in the book.

Was this planned? Of course not. It just happened. Why was this important? It made their teacher (me) more human. It was a class bonding moment. If anyone was having a bad day, they weren’t any longer. Laughter is the best medicine. Next, we finished reading the book, and we learned a few impromptu words in French. Oui, oui.

The story is about Gaston, who is clearly not at all like his sisters, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La. The dogs meet another family, Rocky, Ricky, Bruno, and Antoinette, who is not like her brothers. The two mother dogs discuss what appears to be the obvious, a dog in each family that doesn’t belong:

It seems there’s been a terrible mistake. Whatever shall we do? I guess we’ll let them decide.

What happens next is a story of diversity, belonging, and love. Laced with humor, the book appeals to children and adults. It certainly appeals to my children! Belly laughing made it a memory. Oh, we now sing “Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La and Gaston” as a catchy tune.

Sometimes a simple text can be powerful. I discovered just that when I read aloud Life, by West Virginia native Cynthia Rylant.

The book starts with these words:

Life begins small. Even for elephants. Then it grows. Beneath the sun. And the moon. Life grows.

Powerful, indeed. I read the words slowly, taking time to stop and let the words sink in, and show the illustrations. Children were silent. The story depicts not only the elephant, but many other animals. In a matter-of-fact way, it tells the tale of how things are not always easy. Life. Yet, there is always hope and wonder ahead as we go through life. The book ends with these words:

And it is worth waking up in the morning to see what might happen. Because life begins small. And grows.

When I finished reading to this silent group, I clutched the book to my chest and paused. I said, “I love life. What do I like the most?”

Long pause and thinking.

“Singing! I love singing. Everyone knows Jennie loves singing.”

And then I looked at all those little faces, looking at me. I knew what I needed to do; I asked each child what they love about life. I was stunned. I never expected to hear these answers:

“Hearts and love. Legos. Trees. The moon. Dancing. Santa. Hearts. Rainbows. Big hearts. My big sister. Playing with Alex and Hunter. My big brother. My Mom and Dad.”

My goodness!

No wonder this book has been recommended as an alternative to Dr. Seuss’ book, Oh the Places You’ll Go, as a graduation gift.

If you think books and words and stories aren’t powerful, think again. When you seize the moment as you read a book aloud, and follow your instinct and heart, you will make that book far more meaningful for children. Whether it is filled with humor or worldly advice, it really doesn’t matter. You will make that book come alive. You will make a difference.

Jennie Fitzkee, a West Virginia native who lives in Massachusetts, has been teaching and reading to preschoolers for 30 years. Her blog, A Teacher’s Reflections, chronicles lessons that extend far beyond the classroom.