A Read-a-Thon with Pre-Service Education Students
Every spring semester I teach an undergraduate language arts methods course called The Integrated Teaching of Reading, Writing, and Children’s Literature. This five credit course is the only opportunity these pre-service teacher education students will have to prepare them to teach language arts and literacy in the elementary classroom. The course has a heavy emphasis on children’s literature to demonstrate reading and writing across the curriculum, as well as reading for meaning and enjoyment. The students take this methods course at the same time they are taking their social studies methods course. In order to demonstrate the integration of these two subject areas, the instructors of these methods courses work as a team to intentionally collaborate in front of students by building assignments together, holding joint classes, and making explicit to students the opportunities for building a shared community of learners.
One of the most memorable experiences we have each year is a Read-A-Thon of a children’s novel. This has always been an enjoyable way for both faculty and students to experience reading together as a group, hearing different voices, choosing to read or listen, and immersing oneself in a story from beginning to end in one sitting. Books selected for this Read-A-Thon usually come from the Notable Books in the Social Studies list or Newbery Award winners since we believe that students should always be exposed to the best that children’s literature can offer. This year’s selection came directly from our Teacher Talk group and our discoveries about reading and teaching with global literature.
One book that had made a powerful impact in our Teacher Talk group was Inside Out & Back Again, written by Thanhha Lai (2011). Winner of the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor Book, this novel in verse tells a family’s story over one year as they fled from the fall of Saigon in 1975 to become new arrivals in the United States. The individual verses read as journal entries in the voice of ten-year-old Há, who demonstrates a range of emotions as she tells her story of loss, fear, confusion, isolation, sadness, happiness, and acceptance.
Immigration is such a familiar social studies unit that our students often fall easily into thinking of immigration as happening long ago and from European countries, despite the fact that the majority of students they will teach are recent immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Middle East. We also recognize that the study of the Vietnam War is often missing from classroom conversations. For all these reasons, we selected Inside Out & Back Again for the Read-A-Thon.
The format of the Read-A-Thon is simple. All 26 students who take both the language arts and social studies methods courses and their three instructors meet during their regular class times, beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at 3:15 p.m. We intentionally schedule our classes to create overlapping blocks of time when we can meet as a group. Faculty who are not teaching at that time make themselves available to participate. In the past, we have told participants that it is not necessary to have an individual copy of the book in order to participate. Students listen while others read and books are passed around to readers. Some students bring their own copies, borrow them from the library, or download them to their e-readers or laptops. This year, we were able to purchase enough copies of the book for each student. Their appreciation was evident in the way they held their books and poured over the front and back covers. Thinking of their own classrooms one day, they smiled with gratitude for a book to put on their personal teaching bookshelves. Referring to a recommendation by Sharon Taberski (2000), one student said, “Now I only need 1,999 more books for my classroom bookshelf!”
Since the idea of the Read-A-Thon is to finish the book in one sitting, we discussed if and how we would leave time to talk about the book. We agreed to take a “food” break after each of the four sections of the book and to comment and question what we had read up to that point. I brought information about the author (Wolf, 2012) and my social studies colleague brought background information on Vietnam to share on the Smartboard, if needed.
One of the faculty members began to read aloud. We had explained that a reader can read until he or she wanted to stop. Then anyone else could pick up from there. There was no preset order or length. We allowed for gaps of silence between readers and didn’t pressure anyone who didn’t want to read to do so. Listening was also welcome. Given this loose structure, there was about 90% participation in reading out loud, with everyone following along in their own copies.
The discussions between the sections of the book, and bites of pizza, evoked some interesting comments:
•Even though the father was missing, I really felt his presence.
•What is papaya?
•My [grandfather/uncle] never talks about his time in Vietnam.
•Há’s teacher thought she was being helpful, but she only made things worse.
•I can see why it took the author 15 years to write this book. Every word and every line is so spare and meaningful.
•There are such strong images in these poems.
•I really feel like I know Há. I can see her and feel the same things she feels.
•I’d like to think I would be Há’s friend in class.
•I don’t think I would have read this book on my own.
•I am definitely going to read this aloud to my future students.
These comments led to sometimes lengthy discussions about the Vietnam War and the geopolitical area of Southeast Asia, which my social studies colleague was ready for with pictures and maps and stories. It also led to cultural questions about foods and holidays. No one in the class had tasted papaya or knew what it looked like. Of course, we quickly remedied that. But most of all these comments reflected the personal connections students were making to what it means to be a child during wartime, to have to leave behind everything you know and travel to a new life someplace strange. It was the humanity in this story that resonated with the students. I know none of us were the same people after having shared this book together. We saw the world, and our place in it, differently.
Lai, T. (2011). Inside out & back again. New York: HarperCollins.
Taberski, S. (2000). On Solid Ground: Strategies for Teaching Reading K-3. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Wolf, V. E. (2012). The Inside Story. School Library Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/home/893040312/the_inside_story_it_took.html.csp
Joan Zaleski is a former associate professor in Literacy Studies at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.
WOW Stories, Volume IV, Issue 3 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/stories/iv3/.