Today we are excited to welcome 5th grade teacher Ginger Healy to the #MGBookVillage as part of our month-long celebration of educators!
Please tell us about yourself!
What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?
Teaching fifth grade reinvigorated my reading life, as I rediscovered middle grade fiction. It helped me realize that my upper elementary years were when I read the most in my life. My parents had to drag me out of bed and away from my books in the morning to get ready for school. As a child, I loved Mary Downing Hahn’s spooky stories and read every single story in the Babysitters Club series.
As an adult middle grade fiction reader, I am particularly drawn to realistic fiction stories that focus on building empathy. Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Kwame Alexander’s books come to mind as favorites. My students and I have been captivated by Alan Gratz’s books. His stories are equal parts intense as they are relatable with painful historical moments as backdrops. Refugee absolutely knocked my socks off. I love the works of authors Elaine Vickers, Elly Swartz, and Abby Cooper, who have also become very sweet social media friends of mine. Each of their stories are sweet and poignant without being heavy handed, which I appreciate. Some other favorites are Wonder, The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade, The Ethan I Was Before, The Thing About Leftovers, Ghost, The Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, and The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street. All wonderful, delicious, powerful, meaningful stories.
What professional development book influenced you most as a teacher?
I am forever indebted to my close forever friend and fellow fifth grade teacher Stacy who first introduced me to Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. She read it over the summer one year and told me about it with true wonder in her eyes. I quickly ordered both The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild and the rest is history. My teaching hasn’t been the same since. Donalyn’s philosophies of cultivating readers rather than teaching dry and abstract teaching strategies was transformative. All of a sudden, something clicked and I realized that my goal needed to be focusing on Donalyn’s principles and helping my students achieve the following: to carve out time for reading, to self-select their own reading material, to make reading plans, and develop reading communities. These ideas go hand-in-hand with lots of overlap from one to the next. Infusing your classroom with a culture of reading is much easier than it seems thanks to the almighty Book Whisperer. Talk about a life-changer!
How do you share your own love of reading with your students?
As soon as I rediscovered the magic of middle grade books as an adult, I started reading a ton, finishing one or two books a week. Collecting, sharing, and recommending books with my students brings me serious joy. I keep a sign on my classroom door stating the book I’m currently reading and a short TBR (“to be read”) list of four books on deck. Also on this sign is a count of the number of chapter books I have read so far this school year. My students see that I maintain strong reading habits and that I have an active reading life. As I finish new books, I bring them into the classroom, book talk them to an excited class of students who then scramble to put their name in the book raffle that I conduct. The students then pass the book from person to person, and talk of these many books buzzes around our class, our reading community.
During the early weeks of the school year, I conduct reading interviews with my students and take notes of their reading preferences. That gives me a baseline of information about each of them as a reader. I spend the rest of the year keeping note of the books they’re reading and having casual conversations with them about their books. In my classroom is a constant discussion about books.
On Fridays, I read aloud the first chapter of a book, a ritual we call “First Chapter Fridays.” My students beg me to choose their favorite books for FCF the rest of the week, and I do my best to accommodate their requests. I choose books that are not in wide circulation, or books that have been highly anticipated.
The goal, of course, is for students to be able to select their own books and in order to do that, they must have a strong sense of their own reading preferences. These casual and formal conversations about books are aimed to strengthen this skill set and self-awareness.
How do you make sure that the books your students have access to reflect the diversity of our world?
This is the most important part of our work as teachers. Representation is everything. Every single one of our students needs to see themselves in their classroom library. As Donalyn Miller says in her books, the classroom library is like a garden. It needs tending. That means I make every effort to remove books that have gotten stale and are no longer exciting to the students. I make sure that new editions to the classroom library represent a diversity of narratives and viewpoints. We Need Diverse Books is a fantastic initiative that I fully support. I love the lists WNDB puts out regularly and add those books to my library. Marley Diaz’s book Marley Diaz Gets it Done: And So Can You is a hot book in my classroom. Marley discusses the importance of representation in classroom libraries and motivates young people through her guide to activism. She’s an inspiration. I have learned that it is important to make the implicit explicit to students. We talk about representation in our books and why it’s critically important.
How has your philosophy of teaching changed since you first became a teacher?
When I was just starting out as wee-20-something-year-old teacher, I stuck to strict schedules for myself and took notes on every little thing. I expected that every lesson would be perfect. I was tough on myself if my lesson didn’t go as well as planned. Over the years, I still take copious notes and have high standards for myself, but have learned not to sweat the small stuff. When getting to know my students, I see the long-term and short-term goals for each student and focus on those. In becoming a parent, I saw firsthand how powerful positive messaging from a teacher can be. Parents and students need to know their teacher is a team player and that we care about them, above all else. If the lesson doesn’t go as planned, it’s okay! There will be many, many lessons to follow. We don’t expect perfection from our students, so we shouldn’t expect perfection from ourselves. Constantly reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, what’s important and what isn’t, alongside my team, makes me proud of the work I do.
How do you encourage less-than-enthusiastic readers?
Graphic novels! They are the magic wand that get reluctant readers to read, read, read. Not only do graphic novels provide fun and colorful reading experiences, they are fast reads. Students who are not excited about reading see that they are capable of finishing a book in a day, which boosts their reading confidence. If a student struggles with reading comprehension, the picture is right there to help them interpret and think deeply about the story. Win-win-win. Every fall, I meet students who don’t love reading yet, and every year those students grab onto graphic novels with enthusiasm. These same readers transition to traditional prose, and oftentimes they reread Raina Telgemeier’s novels over and over again. As long as they’re reading, it’s all good.
Another strategy is handing them The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. A novel in verse (ie, also a quick read) that pulls at the heart-strings with basketball as the throughline? Come on. It’s a slam dunk every time.
Want more inspiration? Check out the other #MGEducators interviews and guests posts!