Whole-class reading deepens understanding

  • Third and fourth graders absorbed in quiet reading time at the Village School in Royalston. —Submitted photo

  • Fifth and sixth grade students reading and discussing the book “Ghost Boys” at the Village School in Royalston.  —Submitted photo

Village School 5th-6th grade teacher
Published: 2/27/2019 3:50:04 PM

ROYALSTON  — Learning to read takes many forms, from the initial work with letters and phonics to recognition of sight words, picture books, deciphering simple chapter books and finally, fully independent reading. But even that is not the whole story. Reading and discussing a single book together as a whole class helps children to develop their ability to understand and evaluate a text beyond what they gain from reading a book by themselves.

At the Village School, an independent elementary school in South Royalston, the 3rd-4th and 5th-6th grade classes have recently finished studying two very different books as whole-class readers and, in each class, students found that sharing ideas enriched their own understanding, and showed them that there can be many ways to look at a single text.

As fourth grader Stashu commented, “I love reading the same novel with the rest of the class because I get to hear other people’s point of view about something.” His remark followed the 3rd-4th graders’ shared reading and discussion of Kate DiCamillo’s modern classic, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” about a lonely Florida girl who acquires a stray dog at the Winn-Dixie supermarket. With the help of the dog — which she names after the store — she acquires a whole range of unlikely friends.

During the month-long project, the children took turns reading the novel aloud, stopping frequently to discuss it through the lenses of three different themes; loneliness, friendship, and appearance versus reality – how one’s first impressions of a person can turn out to be quite different from who they really are.

The children also drew pictures of how they imagined some of the main characters, and how they saw one of the key scenes in the book, which helped them engage more closely with the text. The project ended with each child writing a literary essay about the novel, which they then shared with each other and later, in a Publishing Party, with parents and other school members.

Meanwhile, the 5th-6th grade class studied an altogether darker novel: “Ghost Boys,” by Jewell Parker Rhodes. This sadly topical book was published last spring, and is narrated by the ghost of Jerome, a 12-year-old black boy who’s been shot on the street by a white policeman. At first glance this might appear to be too grim a topic for elementary school children but, by reading it together in class, the children were able to process their own emotional reactions to the book in a supportive, collaborative atmosphere.

Mainly for this reason, the class teacher resisted the temptation to assign chapters for homework, preferring to move more slowly through the book, and give time for full discussion in the classroom.

The normal format for each lesson was for the teacher to read aloud one or two chapters and for the children then to make notes of their impressions, often in response to a list of open-ended questions prepared earlier. Discussion followed, allowing children to share their ideas, and sometimes conflicting opinions, about the significance of each stage of the story.

The students also evaluated some of the choices that the author made. For example, she has Jerome being able to talk to Sarah, the young daughter of the cop that killed him, and one student commented that this was because the writer wanted Jerome to have a conversation with a living person who was wholly on her father’s side. Another suggested that when Sarah finally realizes that her father was in the wrong, it makes it all the more powerful because she changed her mind.

At one point in the class’s study, each student wrote two or three pages of imagined dialogue between the ghost of Jerome and one of the main living characters with whom he could not communicate in the novel. This exercise helped the children engage more deeply with the characters, and the role they played in the overall narrative.

Ghost Boys draws on a number of actual events, including the death in 2014 of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot in the street — like the book’s hero Jerome — while playing with a toy gun. The novel also has the ghost of 14-year-old Emmett Till — another ‘ghost boy’ — describe to Jerome how he was killed in Mississippi in 1955.

The fact that the novel was grounded in history gave it added weight for the class and, for a group of children living in mainly rural central Massachusetts, most of the material was a real eye-opener. As 6th grader Fraser noted, “It shows a new side of this country. We live in a white area, so we’re not exposed to this,” while 5th grader Clara added, “This is a very good book because it helps you understand racism by showing the life of a 7th grade black kid living in the poor part of Chicago.”

Having the children study Ghost Boys together helped them to a broader understanding of the book’s message, but it also allowed them to share their feelings, and see them validated by others in the class. This showed strongly in the essays the class wrote at the end of the reading project. Sixth grader Sam, for example, concluded: “Ghost Boys made a big impression on our class and I hope it will make an impression on other people too, so we can stop racism altogether.”

Taken together, the Village School’s two recent whole-class reading projects, running concurrently in the school’s two oldest classes, showed how powerful it can be when every student in a class reads the same book together. Such a project gives the children confidence to offer their own opinions, but it also allows them to exchange ideas, and come to a broader understanding than they would if they read the book individually.

This, in turn, informs the way they engage with their individual reading books, which form the bedrock of their reading experience at the Village School. Each of the two older classes has over a thousand fiction titles in each classroom and as many again of non-fiction books.

Visitors are welcome to tour the new school building, see the libraries and see the classes in action, by calling the school to arrange a visit, at 978-249-3505.




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