I will set the scene…
It was my first year teaching 5th grade. I was passionate about reading (and also read aloud). I wanted to read the books that everyone was reading and loving in their fifth grade classrooms…. So I picked up R.J. Palacio's recently popular novel, Wonder.
Weeks, gosh maybe even months, later we finished Wonder, and that was about it. We finished it. We didn't have long conversations about it. We weren't sad it was over. In fact, we were all relieved to have finished the book. I've never really recovered.
Now, don't misunderstand me. I am not saying Wonder is a bad book. I'm just saying it was not the right time. To this day, I haven't re-visited it with a class because of the past experience. I probably never will…. but this isn't because I don't like it. It was my fault and I hand't seized the opportunity of a read aloud. I just feel like the time was wrong and I didn't get to fall in the love with the book when I should have.
This isn't just to talk about the wrong time for books though. This is also my story of how a book comes at the right time and changes your life…. This happened just a few short months later.
…. Anyway, I had a strong group of readers, who just weren't as passionate as they should be, about reading. I wasn't helping their cause when I kept putting book club books in their hands that were a "higher" level for the sake of "challenge" or books I'd heard were good (you'd think I would have learned from the Wonder fiasco).
They had abandoned two books at this point and we had picked another book for their book club, Freak the Mighty. I totally judged this book on it's cover and was unconvinced, but they had picked it and I was willing to try.
5, 6, maybe even 7 chapters later, I was ready to abandon it (I know right!) I just didn't get the dialogue and how he talked, and I started to stress that my group was going to want to quit again. Well… we met in book club, and I was kind of right. They were not thrilled, but I told them we were going to finish this book. It's pretty short and they could do it.
I went home that night, got a little motivated to try and push through the book, and my life changed forever. I got to about page 90 when everything changes. I finished the book, and realized what it meant to be a reader and a teacher. I still remember how I felt after finishing that night.
First of all, I learned, books aren't always meant to be entertaining on page one. As a reader, I knew that, but as a teacher, I was letting these kids abandon books left and right. I was able to go back to that book club and say, "OH MY GOD! YOU GUYS HAVE TO FINISH THIS BOOK!" They did and they all had transformations as readers.
Secondly, books can transform us and our whole classroom. This same groups asked to do this book as a novel study/ read aloud for the end of the year. We did. They told the whole class to stick with it. They were passionate and excited about reading it with the whole class. It was easy for the class to get into it because a group of us were already so passionate about it. Again, it changed the whole class and our community as readers.
Third, I finally learned not to judge a book by its cover.
Fourth, I've learned to pay attention to my students. I've had groups who LOVE The Egypt Game and groups who just couldn't get through it. It just wasn't the right fit for some. And that's okay. I think both instances were, again, a matter of timing.
During my second year (in 5th grade again) I did the exact same thing. I read Freak the Mighty with a book club and then also as a "novel study." We were all transformed again. This time though, I was able to show my excitement from the beginning, and thus my students were excited and engaged from the beginning.
My story is not done yet though!
I just moved towns, districts, and grades to teach 6th grade. I teach at a school that had placed a large focus on reading for points/rewards. Needless to say, I had a lot of students who HATED reading.
I knew I wanted to start 6th grade with Freak the Mighty. THEY LOVED IT FROM DAY ONE. I knew they would. I placed no emphasis on reading points or rewards. I just was basically like, "This book is awesome, so we are going to read it." There was really no other explanation.
We read the book and had amazing discussions after each section. Sixth graders, who basically think they are "too cool for school," were begging for more each day, trying to read ahead, and talking about it on the way to class. Other teachers were coming up to me and saying my 6th graders were out at recess every day talking about the book.
I have read some amazing books in my last 4 years as a teacher, but Freak the Mighty is like my child. I can not move past how it changed me and how it transformed me as a teacher and a reader…. and how it continues to change me and my students every single time I read it.
I am teaching 7th and 8th grade ELA next year, and if there is one thing I will do, it will be to read Freak the Mighty. I might even read it both years, even though I will have the same kids from 7th to 8th.
I am really blogging about this because I think some people think I love Freak the Mighty just too much, but it's very hard for me to express this whole story in a few sentences. I also wrote it because people always recommend Wonder to me. I realize they probably had some transformative experience with it and their students and that's why. And that's good!
I think we should read the stories that have changed us and know will change our students as well. Mine just happens to be Freak the Mighty :).