Acting To Up The Ante

By Lacey B. Ramsey

* This title and the activities described here are deeply influenced by Jeffrey Wilhelm’s wonderful book: “You’ve Gotta Be the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents *

Teaching is a reflective profession, and every fall I look back on my previous experiences and reflect on what worked and what didn’t.  While I’d like to think it’s my success stories that stand out, in reality that’s not the case.  

One particular “mistake” that may haunt me forever is from my first year of teaching fifth grade, when I had no clue what readability meant or that relevant reading was even a thing.  In a class of twenty-five New York City students, all of whom were eligible for free lunch, a few read above grade level, a few more were right on level, and even more read below grade level.  (As much as I despise labeling kids by “level,” this is what we had to do.)  During one particular unit involving book clubs (better known to some as literature circles), I saw how my strongest readers were swept out of reality and into stories like A Wrinkle in Time and The Outsiders while my “on level” readers were reading fifth grade classics like A Bridge to TerabithiaTiger Rising, and Walter Dean Myers’ books about growing up in New York City.  And my seriously struggling readers were reading… wait for it… picture books from the Mercy Watson series, stories about a pig who likes to eat buttered toast and sleep in her parents’ bed.  While students from the first two groups engaged with each other, often even referencing specific parts of their stories during group work, the students in the Mercy Watson group acted out, made up excuses to leave the room, and hardly ever remembered to bring their books to wherever their group was meeting.  

As you can imagine, this was extremely frustrating, and knowing what I know now about how to actually help struggling readers, the fact that I had twelve-year-olds (who had seen more sadness and despair, and managed more difficulties, than most adults I know) reading Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series still makes me cringe.  Not only do I feel embarrassed, but I feel bad that I subjected these kids to such ridiculous teaching.  Don’t get me wrong; Kate DiCamillo is one of my favorite authors, but when you’ve experienced what these kids had, reading a book about an immature pig who falls through floors and goes to drive-in movies searching for buttered popcorn is just not interesting nor is it relevant, and will most certainly not help a struggling reader improve.  The lack of enthusiasm, motivation, and engagement my fifth graders demonstrated while reading books filled with pictures of a talking pig proved this, big time.   

The problem is, though, that it sometimes feels impossible to find books that are both interesting and readable for older elementary, middle, and high school students who struggle with reading.  Is this a reason to give a “baby book” to a middle-schooler?  Absolutely not.  

So how can we provide guidance and support to give students access to some of the great literature that exists in our world?  We think outside the box, and we bring stories to life.  Before diving in, let me just say whether you have the freedom to choose your own adventures or are following a strict curriculum, there is work you can do to get your students to engage with material that is both meaningful and readable.  Let’s take a look at some of this work.

Bringing books alive - take one: Two years ago I was given a literature class to teach that was pretty diverse ability wise, but who had similar interests -- none of which were reading.  Based on numerous conversations with these students, I quickly realized they were very interested in the idea of utopian and dystopian societies, so I chose to have them read The Giver. However, I quickly realized students were not reading, and those who were reading, were not comprehending as much as I had hoped.  Inferring was practically non-existent and thus major understanding gaps occurred.  In what felt like a final attempt to liven a less than enthusiastic group of kids at 8:53 in the morning, I began a trial of reader’s theater.

Reader’s Theater is a teaching approach where students read aloud, each taking the role of a different character or narrator, so the story becomes a play, so to speak. To prepare for this, I photocopied enough copies of the day’s chapter for however many parts there would be that day.  For example, if six characters had speaking parts in the chapter we were working on, I made seven copies -- one for each character and the narrator.  On each copy I highlighted one character’s part, making it easy for that student to follow along and know when to read out loud.  I directed students to get as involved as they’d like -- to use their own voice or the character’s, to incorporate movement, or read from their desks.  When we began, I tried to assign the narrator role to my strongest readers since the fluency of those parts seemed to matter most, as they were very descriptive and scene-setting.  While all of this may seem like a dauntingly large amount of work, it was worth every minute.

Why try it? When I first started this, students were a bit wary.  At first I asked students to volunteer for parts, but when I could hear a pin drop in the room, I strategically handed out scripts.   After one day of this, what happened next was mind blowing.  Students who despised reading were suddenly begging to get reading parts; students who would rather eat bugs than read in front of their peers were reading in disguised voices; students who were embarrassed to walk in front of others, let alone read, were getting up and acting out intricate parts of The Giver for all of their classmates to see.  This same group of students, who initially were either missing major parts of the story or choosing not to read altogether, finished the book with a strong understanding of the ideas that Lois Lowry wanted her readers to think about.  For these reasons, it was worth every minute of our early suffering -- it forced me to think outside the box in order to enable my students to engage with what seemed like a hard and distant book.

Bringing books alive - take two: My experience with The Giver taught me that stories that are complex are still readable in a classroom like mine, one filled with students who identify as struggling readers.  After such positive feedback from my students, I thought why not try Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting-- a powerful book that leaves me in tears every single time I read it.  It was definitely a reach for the students in this class, but I didn’t want to deprive them of such a beautiful story.  I figured if we could bring this book to life like we did with The Giver, we had a chance of being successful.  To switch things up this time I decided to introduce a concept I learned from a classmate in grad school, who happened to be a drama major: tableaux

Tableaux are, essentially, frozen scenes.  After reading each chapter, my students and I came up with a quick summary of the chapter (a skill they needed help with), and then the students dramatized the summary.  Only the catch was that it had to be done in a single, still scene. I allowed students to rearrange furniture and repurpose anything in the room to use as props.   Students took turns being the director and different characters, and after typically ten minutes of planning time, I yelled, “one, two, three, freeze,” and snapped the picture on my phone.  I sent the picture to the printer, and we’d add it to our collection.  Sometimes I’d even ask students to add speech bubbles to the print out.

Note: My classes never had more than eight students, but this can also be done in small groups, where groups can do the same or alternate chapters.

Why try it?  Just as with The Giver, bringing the story to life helped my students pick up on parts they may have otherwise overlooked.  Knowing that they could only do one tableau per chapter helped them pinpoint the most important parts of each chapter and, in the end, realize the powerful themes the book so wonderfully explored. When we finished the book, we had our own version of Tuck Everlasting-- a twenty-five page book of tableaux, that I color copied and gave to parents at conferences.  Talk about looking impressive.

Of course, the point here isn’t really to impress parents, but rather to give struggling readers access to books that change our lives.  By incorporating teaching strategies such as reader’s theater or tableaux, we allow our students to enter the story world by seeing, feeling, hearing, and fleshing out the story and its characters.  These activities bring stories to life and push students to infer and fill in textual gaps.The result is stronger comprehension and greater enjoyment of texts that might otherwise feel too difficult.  

While finding stories that are both complex and readable is not always easy, teachers should be pleased to know that they do exist on Story Shares’s virtual shelves.  Stories like Jacob and the Bee Man and A Skateboarding Storyjust to name a few, have complex characters and explore important themes, while also scoring high on the readability scales for struggling readers.  Whether teachers are finding classic novels in their school’s libraries or surfing Story Shares for lesser known material, putting in the elbow grease to help students work through texts that are engaging and enjoyable is much less difficult and much more rewarding than simply handing out Mercy Watson books to students who have about as much interest in a talking pig as teachers have in giving up their summer vacations.  

Louise Baigelman