Reflections and Resources from Tarheelstate Teacher: Still Trying to Decide on Your Back to School Read Aloud?
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Still Trying to Decide on Your Back to School Read Aloud?

4th and 5th grade teachers, are you still trying to decide which chapter book you will use for your first read aloud? My first day of school is next Monday, and while I've decided to use Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt as my first chapter book, I thought you might still be trying to decide on yours (as I usually am at this point in my back to school preparation) and that I would share some of my ultimate favorite books to read with students as the first chapter book we share together. 

At the start of every year, I spend some time mulling over which chapter book will be my first read aloud.  It's a big commitment and I want to make sure it's the right one! I have some time to make my decision because during the first few weeks of school, I read a ton of picturebooks. {In case you missed it earlier this month, I've created a list of some of my favorite back to school picturebooks and shared it in my TpT store. If you downloaded it earlier, I've added more titles to the "Love of Reading" section.}

I am a firm believer in reading aloud to my students and we always have a chapter book going, but reading this line from Donalyn Miller's Reading in the Wild this summer just hit me with conviction! "Every school year, I regret not reading aloud MORE to my students." I have to stop letting myself believe for one second that "perhaps we should be doing something more" during the time that I am reading aloud or students are independently reading their own books. NO!!! This is what WILD READERS DO!!! This is the GOAL of reading instruction---to read, read, read and LOVE IT! Not to read worksheets, but I won't go on a tangent!

With my plans to read lots of picturebooks at the beginning of the school year, I have 1-2 weeks into the school year before I'm ready to start investing our classroom time on a chapter book. Last year, I don't think I made my final decision until the day before I planned to begin our chapter book.

How's it possible to wait until the.last.minute? Well, many of the books I have tagged for my favorite back to school read-alouds have similar themes (as you'll soon see). So, given that I want to review reading skills, strengthen our classroom community, teach students to make inferences, and analyze characters more precisely, any of these books will fit within my teaching goals. Without further ado, prepare to grab some fantastic literature! 

My Favorite Chapter Book Read Alouds to use for my VERY First Read Aloud With Students
{In no particular order, although Wonder may now always top my list of the ULTIMATE classroom read aloud and community building experience. I cried at the end. I rooted for Auggie the whole time...you know, literary perfection! To be honest, I have not yet read Fish in a Tree, but I've heard it's amazing from some trusted sources and I'm going with it. I love sharing a NEW book with NEW kiddos too! I just solidifies the bond so much!}

Wonder by RJ Palacio: I read Wonder a few summers ago in just a few days and I am a SLOW reader. I was so excited to share this book with my 5th graders that year! Auggie, the main character, was born with a craniofacial disorder. He was born with droopy eyes, a cleft pallet, and missing part of his jaw. He is used to people looking at him and quickly changing their gaze or looking down. His parents chose to homeschool him until 5th grade. The book chronicles his 5th grade year in a middle school setting. As you would predict, he experiences bullies, fake friendships, and hurt feelings, but he also experiences true friendship, triumph, and finally--ACCEPTANCE. I had to fight off the urge to sob the entire time I was reading this book. I truly think it's a wonderful way to start the year, bring together a group of students, and teach compassion. This book challenges every reader (young and old) to see through how superficially we live our lives and to consider how critical we are of our own looks. I can't say enough amazing things about this book! I especially love how it is written with different perspectives and most of the chapters are BITE-SIZED. It makes me feel like we are moving fast!


Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli: When I was student teaching forever ago, I picked up a copy of Stargirl  and Jerry Spinelli became my favorite children's author. This man understands childhood! And, I was suprised (as many students are) to begin reading this book and find that it has a male narrator, Leo. Stargirl almost always makes itself into my 5th grade curriculum as a book club, but one year, I used it as a read aloud to target the theme of "conformity." I hope you are already familiar with Stargirl, but basically Mica Area High School is the "hotbed of conformity." Everyone, even the unpopular kids, seems to follow along with Hilary Kimball and Wayne Parr. Until, Stargirl, a homeschooled, unique, march-to-the-beat-of-her-own-drum, girl comes along. Leo, the narrator, eventually falls in love with Stargirl, but soon realizes that he is being ostracized because of his friendship with her. The critical conflict in the book is the choice Leo feels he must make between being accepted by his peers by returning to their world of conformity, OR continuing a friendship with Stargirl. Regret, "being caught between a rock and a hard place," and accepting others for their uniqueness (rather than expecting them to conform) are huge themes in Stargirl. I underline and highlight when I read, and this one is just full of beautiful language. Telling you guys about it now, I'm inspired to read this one aloud to my 4th graders later in the year! Just LOVE IT!


Firegirl by Tony Abbott: I have used Firegirl as a read aloud once and many times as a book club book. If you want a read aloud that gets at some of the same themes as Stargirl and Wonder but that is a shorter, less complex read, Firegirl is the one for you. Jessica comes to Tom's school mid year because she is receiving burn treatments at a local hospital. Jessica was badly burned when a gas tank exploded while her mom was pumping gas. As you can imagine, the environment in the classroom totally changes when Jessica joins the class. Although she is not able to come to class all of the time because of her medical treatments, when she does, no one speaks to her or wants to touch her. Mid-book, Tom begins a friendship with Jessica when his teacher asks him to drop off some of her school work at her house. When Jessica returns to her regular home, Tom has major regrets about not reaching out to Jessica and befriending her sooner. This book gives you the opportunity to teach compassion and regrets, but also lends itself to discussing with students how to be a leader rather than a bystander. {This would be perfect to combo with the picturebooks Each Kindness.}


The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo: This was my second read aloud last year and has previously be my very first read aloud. I was introduced to this book when my school began using the Lucy Calkins Reading Units of study. The Tiger Rising is a CAPTIVATING. I read it in all of one hour and just bawled again at the end. I love it because it has so much to teach us about dealing with our demons. The amazon.com description does not do this book justice, "Walking through the misty Florida woods one morning, twelve-year-old Rob Horton is stunned to encounter a tiger—a real-life, very large tiger—pacing back and forth in a cage. What’s more, on the same extraordinary day, he meets Sistine Bailey, a girl who shows her feelings as readily as Rob hides his. As they learn to trust each other, and ultimately, to be friends, Rob and Sistine prove that some things—like memories, and heartache, and tigers—can’t be locked up forever." During my reading aloud of this novel, I taught students to walk in the characters' shoes, have compassion, and deal with their own "suitcase" of emotions. This book allowed me to fall in love with symbolism and the importance of teaching symbolism to 4th and 5th graders---they are not too young and the authors they read are definitely using it!  I seriously felt like I was teaching guidance lessons at the same time that I was teaching reading skills. To me, the tiger is the LEAST of importance in this book, but it keeps the kids wanting more and is a symbol of Rob and Sistine's own imprisonment by their emotions. Sistine's father is out of the picture and Rob's mother has recently passed away. Rob's father moved them to another town to get away from the pain, never talks about his mother, and has a hard time showing love towards Rob. Rob stuffs his feelings inside a metaphorical suitcase. On the otherhand, Sistine is always ready to let her feelings explode and often lets them out by beating on the bullies at the school. If you have not read this book, you MUST put it on your "to read" list. It took this slow reader all of an hour to finish and I did not want to put it down!!!!

Wings by Bill Brittain is a book that I have used with 4th graders a few times. I always go back and forth about it because the writing is not Jerry-Spinelli-amazing, but the storyline does keep students engaged. It's also set in the Appalachain Mountains of NC so that makes it a good book to tie in to our social studies curriculum. From amazon, "No one can explain why Ian has sprouted wings—or adjust to their huge batlike appearance. With family and friends hostile about his situation, only Anita Pickens provides Ian with the will to use his wings and to survive his ultimate decision to have them removed. Ian is worth getting to know, and his situation is one that has intrigued children and storytellers from the days of Icarus." Yes, you read that right! Ian is SPROUTING WINGS! At that point, I have my kids on the edge of their seats. Ian's parents are so self-involved, my students and I love {and hate} to watch their relationship with Ian. Really, his wings seem to be a cry for help in a family where he is the last priority. Enjoyable read and it's included here because I have read it for the first chapter books at least twice!

Just Juice by Karen Hesse is another great read! The first year I taught "building a reading life," one of the Lucy Calkins' units, I used Just Juice. Juice is a tomboy who lives in the mountains with her mom, pa, and two older sisters and a baby on the way. Juice is the type of kid who likes to be outside running around the mountain, not sitting behind a school desk learning and reading books. She's had the truancy officer visit the house a couple of times. Really, Juice has a secret that students have to figure out along the way--she can't read and it makes her not want to go to school. Juice was held back the year before and often talks about how her classmates moved up a grade (and so did the teacher! but she was left behind). This book is so perfect for teaching an appreciation for the ability to read, allowing struggling students to see that they are not alone, and for teaching the growth mindset.

The last book I want to highlight is Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff. This book deals with foster children and issues of abandonment. Hollis Woods is always running away from something, and she might have run away from the family that truly loved her. This book is really cool because there are "pictures" before each chapter {written in italics} that provide us with Hollis' memories. I use this book to teach students that readers learn to "coach" their own reading lives. Perfect for a transition from 4th grade to 5th grade. Rather than tell students what the sections written in italics are, I read a bit of the book, and try to get most students to figure it out. They do usually realize that the snippets are flashbacks, but it may take a little prompting to get them to connect to why the book is called pictures. Hollis is a character who wants to be loved, who we love, and root for throughout the book.


From the looks of this list, it's safe to say that I like to choose read alouds that help teach my students how to treat one another with tolerance and compassion, how to face life, and how to become better people. I believe each of these books are the types that stick with readers forever!


Want more read aloud ideas? A few years ago, Mr. Hughes at An Educator's Life hosted a huge linky of favorite chapter books for 3rd-8th graders. The linky is still live so teachers are still adding favorites to the list! You can hop on over to see what other suggestions have been made. This amazing resource is organized by grade level so it's easy to hunt around for new books to familiarize yourself with.

While this post focused on the very first chapter books to read aloud to students, I've also written about some of my other favorite read alouds to share as the year goes on. You can check back often to see what books I've added to the chapter book read aloud section of my "Favorite Resources" tab.


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