A Very Special Relationship with a Grandparent

Grandparents can play an important role in a child’s life. My own grandmother was one of the strongest role models in my life. She taught me the importance of kindness and acting with integrity. She was an incredible, loving and independent woman. The grandmother in Granny Torrelli Makes Soup, by Sharon Creech, reminded me so much of my own grandmother. Creech brings to life the precious relationship between grandmother and granddaughter so beautifully. The time I spent reading Granny Torrelli allowed me to remember her and to smile. 

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Granny Torrelli Makes Soup (Guided Reading Level: S) is about the friendship between twelve-year-old Rosie and her best friend Bailey. Granny Torrelli serves as the voice of reason and experience throughout the story. Her actions and words are deliberate but subtle. She shares experiences from her own childhood with Rosie to guide her, rather than to tell her what to do. 

The role of food and cooking throughout the story, also reminded me of visits to my grandmother’s house. In Armenian households, much like Italian ones, food is essential to shared family experiences. Simply replace soup and pasta with dolma and bereg.

Granny Torrelli Makes Soup is going to be our first read aloud this year in my 4th grade class. I can’t wait to share this book with my students.

Strategies for Tackling Unfamiliar Vocabulary

Last summer as I reflected on my first year of teaching 5th grade, I considered the many skills and strategies that I wanted to weave into learning experiences throughout the year. Tackling unfamiliar vocabulary was something I knew would be helpful to all readers regardless of reading level, genre or unit of study. 

There are many reasons why I selected The BFG by Roald Dahl as the read aloud to teach into and provide opportunities for this type of work. (Guided Reading Level: U)

First of all, the plot is amazing. This is a story about the unlikely friendship between the Big Friendly Giant (BFG) and a clever young girl named Sophie. The BFG is an easily confused character, so the reader has to pay close attention to the text to make sense of what he is saying. Luckily, Sophie asks many questions to help clarify what is being said. Since our Fantasy reading unit was not until May, I thought this would be a great way to preview the genre. 

Secondly, Dahl takes the opportunity to invent a lot of vocabulary for this story. For example as a vegetarian giant, the only thing the BFG eats is a disgusting vegetable called the snozzcumber. 

Third, and most important for the purpose of the read aloud, the book contains an abundance of rich vocabulary. I reread the BFG through the lens of tricky vocabulary, and I was not disappointed. I collected these words and created a series of word banks, which I distributed to students to reference during read alouds. Each time we encountered a word in the text, we would stop to determine its meaning. (I was careful not to pick too many vocabulary words.)

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As I prepared to launch the read aloud of The BFG, it occurred to me to access the class’ previous knowledge of word solving strategies. So I opened it up to them. I asked, “What are some strategies that we already know to help us figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words?” Their answers were so strong and impressive that I charted them.

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If they were able to name so many different strategies, why did they have a hard time using them? It turned out that they simply needed opportunities to practice using them. Each time we read The BFG, I made sure the chart was in our meeting area. By the time we reached the end of the book, these young learners had become much more confident word solvers. The chart remained up in our class for the rest of the school year, and students easily transferred these skills across genres and content areas.

An Unusually Creative Picture Book

Arnie the Doughnut by Laurie Keller is easily one of the strangest picture books that I have read. But, the more I think about it, the more I like it. I was SO excited to read it to my class. I couldn’t wait to hear what they thought of it. When they described it as “funny but weird,” “cool but I don’t know” and “awesome,” I realized that this picture book was one that they would be thinking about for a long time. Following the read aloud, many of my students wanted to reread it independently. This also allowed them the chance to take a closer look at the detailed illustrations and captions that fill each page. 

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The main character, Arnie, is a living, breathing doughnut. He is created in one best bakeries in town and is very proud of his 135 candy-colored sprinkles. It becomes clear right away that Arnie is not like the other doughnuts. When Mr. Bing picks him from the bakery case, Arnie is ecstatic. He can’t wait to meet his new owner. What Arnie does not realize is that doughnuts are meant to be eaten! 

When Mr. Bing tries to eat Arnie, he becomes outraged! Arnie “tricks” Mr. Bing into allowing him to call the bakery to alert all the other doughnuts. It turns out that they already know this and are okay with their destiny. (Pictured Below) Ultimately, Arnie refuses to accept that being eaten should be his purpose in life. 

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Arnie the Doughnut (Guided Reading Level: R) is a book that I can read over and over again and notice different details each time. I’d recommend this book for students in grades 3-5, however younger readers will also be entertained by it. 

In addition to the picture book, there is an Arnie the Doughnut chapter book series (Guided Reading Level: Q & R) available, which would be great for 3rd and 4th graders.

A Bi-Cultural Read Aloud

Throughout the school year, my fellow 5th grade teachers and I select read alouds that closely align to our units of study in reading and in writing. Our fiction read alouds are always rich texts that are slightly above what is considered “on grade level” at that time of year. They present opportunities to do some pretty sophisticated work as readers. For example in our work with developing character theories, we constantly collect text evidence to help revise or add to our ideas. We consider how characters interact and change across a text. We even analyze author’s craft moves and use our understandings to identify larger lessons or themes in a text.

As we prepared for the state tests this year, I had the flexibility to select any read aloud. I knew that I wanted to read a book that integrated different cultures and languages. I’d seen this type of work on past year’s ELA tests. Over the course of the school year, I surveyed that books my students were reading and noticed that very few of them gravitated toward these books in our classroom library. During conferences with those students who did, I noticed that they weren’t paying attention to the important role this different culture or language played in their stories. 

As soon as I read Becoming Naomi Leon (Guided Reading Level: V) by Pam Munoz Ryan, I knew I had found our read aloud. 

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The main character Naomi Soledad Leon Outlaw lives with her brother Owen and Gram in a trailer park in California. Naomi is a quiet fifth grader who prefers to keep to herself. In addition, she is highly anxious and carves soap sculptures to help ease her nerves. Owen is a fun-loving kid who gets bullied because of his physical differences. 

One day Naomi and Owen’s mother, Skyla, shows up following a seven year absence. Skyla is seeking custody of the kids, which leads Gram, Naomi and Owen on an expedition to find their father in Mexico. The characters take the reader on their journey as they learn about the culture, traditions and the language of the paternal side of their family. 

My fifth graders were absolutely riveted by this book. Each time I had to stop reading, I was met with protests and requests for “Just one more chapter!” (This is probably one of my favorite parts of teaching, when students are so deeply immersed in a book that even though it’s the end of the school day, they want to be late so that we can read one more chapter.) 

Though the book addresses some mature topics, including substance abuse, it does so in a subtle and thoughtful way that allows the reader to understand the severity of the issue within a meaningful context. 

Becoming Naomi Leon is a beautiful story about finding one’s true identity.