Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Teacher Tuesday

I've never been to Niagara Falls, but if I ever get there, I am definitely going to have coffee with my new friend, Melinda DiBernardo! She goes by Mel except to her Mom and Dad. ;-)

Mel and I are just about as far apart as you can get in this great country: I'm in Seattle, and she's in Tonawanda, New York (between Buffalo and Niagara Falls). Her school,  Glendale Elementary, serves about 420 students, pre-K-5.

If you're on Twitter, follow Mel: @gLibraryMel; she's not a regular blogger but you can find her wiki here

You know the drill by now; first we take a peek at Mel's past!

  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: At our school in the late 1970s, there was no cafeteria at my school, so we got to go home for lunch. My parents both worked, so I walked to my Grandmother’s house. My favorite lunch was anything at my Gram’s (but especially Beefaroni!)
  • Best friend in grade school: Molly Shannahan. She actually went to Catholic school up the street, but she was still my very closest friend. Molly lived two houses away from me, and was like my big sister until I went away to college.
  • Times you were the new kid in school: Never ever. I could see Central School out of my bedroom window, and walked there every day from kindergarten until 6th grade. I stayed in the same house right up until I graduated from high school, and it was my home throughout college. I guess you could say I was a new kid when I went to college, but then, again, everyone was new. I do remember feeling very excited that I’d be able to “reinvent” myself there, and be anyone I chose to be. That was quite liberating for me!
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: That’s Mr. Andy Mathias. He was my 11th grade English teacher and he scared the daylights out of me! He was a big giant of a guy, an ex-Marine, I think. He taught me so much about the rules of grammar and spelling and technical writing! He demanded that we keep a meticulous notebook, too. Toward the end of the year, we were filling out our course requests for our senior year, and he lumbered up to my desk and pounded his huge paw on my paper. “AP English!” I was so scared, I just had to obey. AP English was very good for me, because I really got to work with some kids I thought were much smarter than I was!
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: Run. Jump. Play. I was the kid who was picked last for every team! I had no athletic ability whatsoever, and I always just wanted to be like the other kids…able to finish a race, hop a fence, and NOT be afraid of a ball. Some things never change, and that sure didn’t.

Now to the meat of this feature: connecting kids and books. Mel, you told me you’d like to talk about your school’s work on Interactive Read-Aloud. Could you please explain what that is?

Interactive Read Aloud (IRA) is a powerful, daily dose of reading, usually using a high-quality picture book. IRA models the difficult thinking work kids should be doing as they read independently. The teacher does not merely read the words on the page, with the kids sitting passively, receiving the teacher’s version of the story. Everyone involved thinks deeply about the text, and shares their very personal reactions to it. Kids are taught to turn and talk to a partner several times during each Read Aloud. The IRA is in addition to the formal reading workshop in each classroom beginning in kindergarten.

What prompted you to implement this program?

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, our district determined that our students had not yet been explicitly taught the depth of thinking that these standards require. Interactive Read Aloud models the very highest order thinking that is required of any reader.

In terms of preparation, what is involved for the teacher/librarian/staff?

It is vital that the teacher plan ahead for the Interactive Read Aloud. Our amazing coach, education consultant Ginny Lockwood, reminds us to read books “like a reader first.” The first step is to read a book and pay attention to all the places where you, as an adult reader, stop to think about a character, or ask a question, or make a prediction about the story. It is imperative to take note of places where you stop to think. Then, we use post-its to mark where we plan to stop to “think aloud” in front of kids, or where we plan to have kids “turn and talk” with a partner.

What is required of the student?

Kids must be invested in the reading, thinking, and talking work. They learn to quickly move their little bodies to sit knee-to-knee and eye-to-eye for their conversations. We teach them how to have real conversations where they debate and question one another, rather than talking “at” each other. We are still working on it.

Why do you think Interactive Read Alouds are important?

I love to hear what kids come up with as they interact with a story and each other. They are so surprising and opinionated at times. Just when I think I know what a book is “really” about, a seven-year-old will shake it up for me, and teach me something new! I find that when I let kids share what’s on their minds, it sometimes makes others more willing to accept their differences.

What skills do you see your students gaining from such a program?

They definitely pay closer attention to a text, and I hope they transfer that to their own reading (which is our goal). I also want them to become more thoughtful, caring people through this training. It is so important to me that they learn to disagree peacefully.

Can you give us an example of some of the questions generated for a particular picture book? What were some of the student answers?

One book I love is The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein. It is about a boy duck named Elmer who likes to bake and put on puppet shows, but hates to play sports or do “boy” things. As you can imagine, he is bullied by the other ducklings. Worst of all, his own papa calls him a “sissy” and he overhears it! Elmer is so distraught, he packs his things to run away from the flock.

Several times, Elmer’s mama tries to comfort him, and I ask: “Is she doing the right thing?” Some kids get very upset that Mama doesn’t stick up for him with Papa. Other kids believe she is doing all she can. There is no right answer, and that’s what I stress with kids.

I also ask, “Should Elmer leave the flock?” Kids have very strong opinions one way or the other, and really back up their opinions with reasoning from both the text and real life.
At the end of the story, one character seems to have changed, and tries to make amends with Elmer. I ask if he should forgive that character or not. Once again, kids are often split, and I encourage conversations around that.

You mentioned that you select “provocative” books. What do you mean by that? And can you give some examples of titles that work particularly well for interactive read alouds? 

To me, a provocative book is one that can grab someone’s attention and light a fire within him. IRA is an opportunity to push the boundaries of what is comfortable for people to talk about. For example, some teachers may shy away from topics such as death, or gender roles, or sickness, or poverty because these topics can be uncomfortable to discuss with children whose life stories include these struggles.  A provocative book may even move someone to take action, or change their beliefs about a tricky subject.

One book that is really powerful is The Enemy: A Book About Peace, by Davide Cali and Serge Bloch. 

It is the story of two soldiers at war. The main character is afraid of the “beast” on the other side of the conflict. He has fought long and hard against someone he has never seen, but has only read about in his manual. He continues to fight even when he is not sure why he does so, and when he feels tired, and hungry, and abandoned. Finally, he ventures to the foxhole of his enemy, where he sees his own face in his enemy’s manual, calling him a beast as well. 

Kids are shocked when they interact with this book. They are familiar with war, since it has been in the news all their lives. But many times, they have not been asked to think about the men and women on the other side of that war. This book pushes kids to think differently about war. Some of them have soldiers in their own families, and strongly support their efforts. In IRA, I have to allow for all types of responses, and not make kids think that I am right or that grown-ups have all the answers. 

Other books:

Would you encourage other teachers/librarians/schools to implement this activity? Why?

Interactive Read Aloud is very difficult to do without strong coaches and mentors to help guide your work.  It is a very short portion of a teacher’s day, which can take lots of time to prepare. Sometimes, it is nice to pull a favorite read aloud off the shelf, and just read it because the kids are five, and they might love it! I do believe, however, that IRA is a worthwhile study for teachers to investigate. It can truly raise the level of thinking for your students, and yourself! It is the model of the very best thinking readers can do.

What has most surprised you about Interactive Read Alouds?

No matter how often I do it, I can always improve, and I am never “done” learning!

What do you wish I’d asked you that I neglected to ask?

I wish you’d asked if other teachers in my school use Interactive Read Aloud. The answer is a resounding Y-E-S! As a matter of fact, it is the expectation that every elementary classroom teacher in our entire district have IRA daily! That is a lot of kids and teachers reading and thinking and talking together! Our literacy coaches, administrators, and education consultants work hard to make sure we never stop improving IRA.

Interviews like this one make me want to go back to school and do it all over again! I love the power behind this concept and the faith in students and their ability to interact with and parse out stories. Thank you, Mel (I mean, Melinda!) for these thought-provoking insights.


  1. Love all this interactive reading stuff. I read a post recently that pointed out how Common Core standards emphasize critical thinking. Fabulous!

    And thanks for introducing THE ENEMY: A Book About Peace. So powerful! Can you tell I am a little bit excited about this post?

    On top of all this I am kind of in love with the Tonawandas as I am writing a story set in the area. Mel, are you on FB? Because I really want to be your friend.

    Thanks to you and Kirby.

    1. I'm NOT on Facebook, believe it or not! Are you on Twitter? Or I'm a really good email friend.
      I'm kind of in love with the Tonawandas, too. I lived in the City of Tonawanda from birth til I was 32, and my parents are still there!

    2. Melinda and Joyce- Re: in love with the Tonawandas--make that me, three! I loved reading this interview, Melinda, and will head over to Twitter for a follow. Joyce- I am on FB and would love to connect and hear more about your story.

  2. I did a total double-take when I started to read this post...I live in Seattle and grew up in the Town of Tonawanda. My family has been from the Tonawandas since the beginning of time! Melinda- the IRA program sounds wonderful--and thanks for the provocative book suggestions :)). Kirby- thanks for posting this fascinating interview, and congrats again on your CK award (I really enjoyed your talk at the meeting)!