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Showcasing Susan Bertrang and "Reading to Little Buddies"

"Any time students, particularly those who struggle or who have a professed dislike of it, can have fun in language arts, they begin to see the value in it that they missed before," explained language arts teacher Susan Bertrang. "Reading to little buddies is an idea I experienced in college, but had not had an opportunity to try until last year. As a student at the University of Georgia, I read to students at a local elementary school during an educational foundations class. I had fun, and the students seemed to enjoy it, too."

Bertrang wanted her 8th grade students at Banks County Middle School to gain fluency in reading and speaking, to become comfortable speaking in front of a group, and to learn to enjoy reading, so she orchestrated a monthly meeting, in which her classes read aloud to kindergarteners. Bertrang's students in Homer, Georgia, chose picture books related to a monthly "theme" or idea they were studying -- a holiday, literary term, location, or simply a book they enjoyed -- and practiced reading their selections aloud.

"We also practiced reading the books in class one day," added Bertrang. "Students paired up and took turns reading their books with proper intonation and expression. The listening students pretended to be kindergarteners, asking questions and pointing to pictures."

On the designated day, each group of 8th graders walked to the primary school next door and read to a kindergarten class. The students met with two or three kindergartners in small groups, and if time allowed, exchanged groups with another 8th grader and read again. Upon returning to their own classroom, Bertrang's students shared their thoughts and feelings through journal entries and discussions.

"On other occasions, we did choral readings (The Turkey Shot out of the Oven by Jack Prelutsky at Thanksgiving, for example) and reader's theater, and at the end of the year, students wrote their own stories to read to the children, based on a Cinderella study. We ended up with a Banks County Leopard (our mascot) version, a skater version, and even a redneck version. That was my students' favorite to read!"

Bertrang used the reading activity to meet standards in communication through oral expression, adjusting speech to suit a situation, and demonstrating a sense of audience. It was an outlet for relaxed dramatic exploration that required students to effectively use their voices and gestures, facial expressions, and so on.

"The activity enriched my curriculum in so many ways -- the kids loved it!" reported Bertrang. "They felt special and important. Students who struggled in English and language arts had a way to succeed and feel good about themselves! One of my 8th grade students who read at a first- to second-grade level was one of my best participants. He practiced his book every night and read to anyone who would sit still to listen to him. I still worried about him on the first visit, but he did great and even asked all those teacher questions that I modeled for them. When I heard him ask, 'What do you think will happen next?' I almost cried. I was so proud of him!"

Reading to little buddies was the highlight of each month for Bertrang's students. When she sees former students now, they often ask about it and remind her of specific events from their trips to the kindergarten. Now that her classes have been moved to a newly-built middle school, the primary school isn't within quick walking distance, but Bertrang holds special memories of the "little buddy readings."

"At Halloween, almost all the kids dressed as a character from their books," she recalled. "They stayed that way all day, which is surprising for 8th graders! For the entire month of October, students were allowed to choose any book they wanted, so they could choose one to fit their costumes. I dressed as a clown, which my students loved. The kindergarteners only had seen them once before and when the big kids walked in wearing costumes, they went wild! It was a race to see who could get Clifford or 'the pirate' to read to them. The few of my students who were too cool to dress up were disappointed and said they wished they had."

In this activity, even Bertrang's big, burly, football-playing, macho boys got down on the floor and talked and played with little kids. Members of the "too-cool" crowd supported some of the lower-level readers by encouraging them in their choice of books. She was impressed by that and by her less able readers, who didn't let their reading ability hinder their success with the project.

"I was surprised with how well all the students handled down-time," observed Bertrang. "When they had finished and were waiting to leave, or to swap groups, they did a great job of simply talking to their "buddies" about school, pets, sports, and so on. There was no clumping together of the big kids; they stayed with the little ones and spent time with them."

Reading to little buddies was easily organized, but Bertrang admits that it was sometimes hard to commit time to it. The standards met by the activity are not the ones usually addressed by standardized tests -- the ones so much emphasis is placed on; however, these standards are important too.

"Even if you have very low readers or non-readers, you could choose a wordless book, and encourage them to make up their own story for the younger ones," advised Bertrang. "It is wise to vary the themes or focuses each month, so the big kids don't get stuck on always reading a simple series, like the Clifford books. Use the activity as part of whatever you are covering in class. When you are studying poetry, read poems to the little buddies."

"Debriefing" when you return to the classroom also is important, says Bertrang. That allows students to troubleshoot problems and make suggestions for future sessions.

"Of all the activities I have done as a language arts teacher, this is my favorite," Bertrang told Education World. "It gives that instant gratification that we miss out on so many times. I love to see the satisfaction on my kids' faces and the happy faces of the little ones."

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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