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September 6, 2012 Bringing Families Together With One Book, Part 1: The Reading Program By Genia Connell
Grades 3–5

    Early in the school year my mind is constantly racing with everything that needs to be done. Getting my reading and writing workshops started and gathering baseline data is always at the top of my must-do-now list. Baseline data from the first few weeks helps guide my instruction as I create individualized programs for each student in my room. At this time of year, however, assessing each child within the first few weeks of school often makes it feel as though keeping my head above water is the goal. If I feel that way, I’m sure my students do as well.

    relatives book jacketTo help combat September overload, I created a fun, literature-based event that brings families together to celebrate the start of the school year while providing me with data I can use to individualize my language arts instruction. This week, I wanted to share with you how I use Cynthia Rylant’s book The Relatives Came in my classroom to introduce reader’s workshop, gather writing samples, and surprise my class with a week-ending event they talk about all year. Please note that while I highlight how I use one book in particular, these same activities can be done with any number of picture books available to you.

    In the picture book The Relatives Came, Cynthia Rylant tells the story of a family that travels from their home in rural Virginia to visit their relatives. When the families see each other, there is a lot of hugging, eating, laughing, and more hugging. The narrator’s house is noisy and crowded during the visit, and when the time comes for the relatives to leave, everyone can barely wait for next summer.


    Rolling Out Our Reading Community

    In my classroom there is a comfortable corner designated just for our reading and writing mini-lessons. Students sit on the carpet, facing me, in spaces assigned to them. Next to me is always my easel with chart paper and an assortment of colored markers.

    Practice Group Norms

    Before beginning our first mini-lesson, we practice norms for how the children walk to the corner, sit down, listen, and respond. Making an anchor chart can be a helpful way to remind students of what you expect of them all year long when they are on the carpet. The anchor chart I made last year, pictured below, was inspired by one I saw on Pinterest, created by First Grade Garden.


    Tell Them What They'll be Learning and How

    To begin, I always explain to my class that we are a reading and writing family. Through discussion, I make several points with my 3rd graders during our first corner meetings that I reinforce throughout the year. My message always includes the following information:

    • Up until now, you have been learning to read. This is the year we really begin reading to learn.
    • Reading is understanding what the author wrote and why. If you don’t understand what you have read, you aren’t really reading. Together, we will learn to understand what you read. 
    • To be a good reader you need to use certain reading strategies that you will be taught throughout the year. The reading strategies we will focus on are making connections, visualizing, making inferences, wondering or asking questions, determining importance, and summarizing.
    • If you practice using the reading strategies during reading, talking to turn-and-talk partners, and working in small groups, you will soar as readers this year.

    The heart of my message comes when I direct my students to now stand up and look at each other. I ask them if everyone in our class is the same height or the same size. (They never are!) I explain we’re all different sizes because everyone’s body grows at different rates. Some grow faster than others, so they are taller. You are not a better or worse person based on how fast you grow. I then explain that reading works the same way. Some learn to read faster than others, but everyone eventually learns to read, just as everyone eventually grows taller — they just do it at the pace that is right for them. This discussion serves to alleviate the anxieties some students have who are reading at a lower level than their classmates. Conversely, I’ve noticed that the higher-level readers help and encourage members of our reading family more when they understand someone’s reading ability does not define them as a student. Starting my reader’s workshop discussions this way has improved the attitudes of readers and the way they view their place in our classroom’s reading community.

    Reading Your Book Aloud

    Holding up my copy of The Relatives Came, I read the title and author’s name and ask students:

    • What can you tell me about this book just from looking at the cover? 
    • Do you think this is going to be a funny book or a serious book?

    While reading aloud during reader’s workshop, I point out words or literary devices students may not understand on their own. I also stop to ask questions that can be used with every book you read aloud this school year.

    Questions to ask during reading:

    • What are you thinking or wondering?
    • Where does this story take place? 
    • What just happened?
    • What do the illustrations tell you?
    • Has something like this happened to you before?
    • Why is the author telling this story?
    • What do you think will happen next?

    Questions to ask after reading:

    • What happened in the beginning, middle, and end of the story? 
    • Did the setting matter in this story? Why or why not? 
    • What was the author’s message in this story?
    • How did the illustrator’s pictures add to the message/create a mood?
    • Does this story remind you of another story you have read or something you have seen or done?
    • What genre was this story? How did you know?
    • Why did the author choose certain words and phrases? 
    • What do you think about ____? 
    • Why did the author ____? 
    • Why did the characters ____?

    To further our discussion of The Relatives Came, we mention the custom of families having large meals when they get together. Students then share relevant personal experiences of family reunions or get-togethers. We also discuss the appearance of the relatives as it relates to the story's rural Appalachian setting. We use the United States map to help students visualize where this region is.

    Over the next few weeks, every time students come back to the corner to do a reading or writing mini-lesson, review the class norms and procedures. Be firm about the norms: do not let children’s behavior stray from the established rules and procedures you have developed. Maintaining these norms is vital to successful workshops, something I may have learned the hard way!

    Now that I have my reader’s workshop started, I’m ready to move onto a little writing. Join me next week to learn about the writing program based on The Relatives Came.



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