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Amanda Klare: In my 14th year teaching 4th grade, I set another goal for myself: make reading fun again

This was my fourteenth year teaching fourth grade. I know my contractual duties are to teach and assess the fourth grade English Language Arts standards; however, before this year even began, I set another professional growth goal for myself. Given the tragic consequences of missing crucial years of learning, I felt it vital to make reading fun again. I challenged myself to make this year my students’ favorite year of school.

My current fourth-graders were in first grade the last time they had a “normal” school year. Let that circumstance soak in for a second. The nine and ten-year-olds in my room have endured learning from home and hybrid approaches during the most pivotal years of their learning.

Amanda Klare

Third grade is the last year of “learning to read” as children transition to “reading to learn.” In the first few years of primary grades, students learn essential reading skills; when they start fourth grade, they use their reading skills to learn content. In a “normal” school year, the transition from third to fourth is already difficult, but we have added skill gaps in the past two years. Two years after the pandemic’s start, teachers across the country can already see the impact it has had on our students – academically, socially, and emotionally.

How does one measure a love of reading? I started the school year with a survey to see what the initial data on “book love” – or lack thereof – was in my fourth-grade class. I found that only 74% of my students said they enjoy reading; from the outside looking in, this may sound high, but in the past, almost all of my students would say they love to read. I had a job in front of me to not only help my students grow in their knowledge but also to grow their love of reading and writing as well.

In the first half of the year, at the end of each month, I asked students to record a video and reflect on their growth, their goals, what they were most proud of, and what their favorite assignment was for that month. The students would bring home a QR code linked to their individual videos so their parents could share in their learning journey. I told the students that their favorite assignment could be from any class, not just mine. I got to hear about the experiments in Science class. I heard all about the assembly line simulation in Social Studies. I listened to my students share all about the fraction pizza project in Math class. I also heard different assignments from literacy along with arts and humanities. I found that all of these “favorites” had the same things in common: student choice, creativity, and hands-on experiences. I reflected on this data and decided to change how I would teach my curriculum for the last half of 2022. 

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Reflection sheet provided to students to help them record their videos for their families:

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Starting in January, I took my students’ voices and feedback about what it was that they loved about all of their different classes and modeled this in my planning. I made sure to teach my standards, but I delivered the content in ways that would make my students have fun while learning. We covered our informational standards with fun yet rigorous activities in the winter and spring. For example, we did a three-week Titanic unit that allowed my students to enter the Titanic as real passengers on the ship and to write biographies; we held a debate where I was Judge Klare, and students had to use evidence from the text to support their stance on whether artifacts should stay down on the Titanic or be brought up for conservation and restoration.

Students debate whether Titanic artifacts should be brought up to the surface or stay with the ship at the bottom of the Atlantic.

We also learned about winter sports through articles, interviews, videos, charts, and graphs. Each class period created its own country with its own flag and anthem. This went along with three different “Winter Reading Olympics,” which were reading competitions: nonfiction books, Lexia minutes, and the number of chapters read. With each weekly competition, the principal would play the winning class’ anthem on the announcements.

As a result of their two wins, my fourth-period successfully “Rickrolled” the school twice with their country’s anthem, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” two Fridays in a row. Fourth-graders would do a drum roll to find out the next competition and groaned when I said we had completed our last weekly competition. One parent begged me in an email six weeks later to have another reading competition because her son’s love for reading and desire to read had increased dramatically because of the Winter Reading Olympics.

As I watched all of my students’ reflection videos, I came up with this crazy idea to have a celebration of books called The Novel Awards, which my colleague and I designed similarly to the Oscars. Each student nominated a book they read this year for one of the awards. Using the feedback I’d gathered from their reflections, the project choices required creativity and made space for students to shine in their own way. They had a choice in the books that they nominated and which category applied.

Winter Reading Olympics flags and medal display. 

Knowing this was an original brainchild, I didn’t know what to expect. The students blew us away. We had told them we would have an award ceremony to honor the top five in each category, but they were so incredible that we had to extend the finalists in several categories.
Typically at this point in the school year, students get burnt out, and the effort sometimes fizzles right before spring break; this project prevented this from happening. There was a buzz in our building about the upcoming award ceremony.

The students got to choose which category they wanted to nominate their book for. The categories included the following:

Best Original Song about a Novel — finalists at the Novels Day cememony

Novel Award Categories:

• Best Fiction Book

• Best Nonfiction Book

• Best Graphic Novel

• Best (Worst) Antagonist

• Best Protagonist

• Best Author

• Best Series

• Best Original song

• Best original book cover

• Best book trailer

The students reflected at the end on how much they loved the element of choice in which book they wanted to celebrate.
We rolled out the red carpet for the day. All of the students came dressed up. To help get students hyped about the event, we had fifth-grade students design the awards using our district’s wood-burning machine. We even had them serve as emcees – a live YouTube event that invited parents to join us. It was by far the best day of my teaching career. I will feed off the positive feedback from parents, students, and fellow faculty members on tough days to come. I have students already counting down until next year, and the outgoing 5th graders are still trying to figure out a way they can do it again.

How does one measure a love of reading? As I stood in the middle of the Novel Awards ceremony seeing students’ smiles and hearing students cheering, I realized I had achieved my goal: my students love reading, and they love school.

I believe years from now, my students will remember both this project and this school year, and they will be proud of what they accomplished; as their teacher, I will reflect on this years from now as the year I first helped my students love to read again.

Amanda Klare is a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow alumna and a teacher at Beechwood Elementary School (Beechwood Independent). Klare created and maintains the Northern Kentucky Tribune‘s “Voices From The Classroom” feature, which highlights local teachers and their work to improve outcomes for students. She is a recipient of the 2019 Teacher Achievement Award and was a semifinalist for the 2019 Kentucky Teacher of the Year award, a Prichard Committee Teaching Fellow, and a member of the Kentucky Department of Education Teachers Advisory Council.

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