Letting Go of the Reins: Ten Ways to Host a Read Aloud Volunteer in the Middle School Classroom by Brindi Anderson

Anyone who has ever worked with middle school children will understand my reaction when the local coordinator for the elementary school Read Aloud volunteers asked if any of the middle school teachers wanted a Read Aloud person – I gulped back a wad of fear.  I envisioned a sweet, little retired librarian with a teeny reading voice, sharing her tattered copy of The Little Prince while my students threw spit wads at her bifocals and galloped around the room.


Instead, I was blessed with a retired elementary/middle school science teacher and my former principal, Mrs. Curry.  After she retired, she wanted to give back.  Her weekly presence in my classroom has convinced me that readings by a guest should be mandatory in every school.  My students have attached themselves to her and have behaved like perfect teenagers. However, that still didn’t keep me from prancing around the room like a circus horse trainer, hissing and poking during the first sessions.  These ten suggestions have helped the Read Aloud to proceed smoothly and allowed me to enjoy my own class during the time, letting go of the reins.


  1. Meet and Greet

It is important to meet and set up expectations before the initial Read Aloud.  Your volunteer may be as nervous as you are about the idea of teenagers, sitting and listening to a book.  My volunteer, Mrs. Curry, and I met during my planning and discussed which day worked best, what time, and how often she would come.  Since I teach in a block schedule for eighty-four minutes a day, I suggested that once a week was sufficient.  She asked for thirty minutes so she could spend some time reviewing the book and chatting with the students while she read.

  1. Book Selection

There are many lists of suggested books available online that are good for reading aloud.  I had a list of books that would be good choices, but she came prepared with a book she had loved when she was a teacher – My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.  As a previous sixth grade teacher, she knew that the students identified with the main character, Sam, who decides to live in the woods to escape from his home.  As a former science teacher, she was passionate about the science facts of the book, from the tree identification to preparing to live off the land.  Her enthusiasm for the subject snared the students.

  1. Treat It as a Sacred Time

At first, I was hesitant to write in my lesson plans that we were having read aloud for thirty minutes a week.  What would administrators and parents think of us “just being read to”?   But the thirty minutes of being read to is important for our experience as shared readers and shared learners.  The conversations, questions, predictions, connections the students make to the book and to each other is some of the most authentic learning taking place.  I would pull my claws out against anyone’s argument that we were “just reading.”

  1. Set Expectations

I wanted the students to treat it as sacred time as well and understand our Read Aloud time was important.  Because I worry about their squirrelly little middle school selves with a guest, I worked with the students to create a small list of guidelines that we review verbally each week.

  1. Create a Welcoming Spot

We have several cozy reading spots in our classroom, but one in particular is our Guest’s Chair.  It is an old glider from my home that I used to sit in and rock and read to my babies.  Now, Mrs. Curry sits there and reads to my students with her rhythmic voice.


  1. Make Name Tags

To make sure every student felt valued during the conversations, Mrs. Curry wanted to be able to address them by name.  One morning before she arrived, we quickly decorated a folded-up piece of construction paper for a desk name plate.  It folds flat for storage until the next session.


  1. Tie-in to Curriculum

There shouldn’t be any tests or requirements with the book, just the wonderful experience.  However, we have found ways to bring the main character Sam to our everyday lessons.  When attempting to address a state-mandated practice writing prompt on surviving on a deserted island, the students were much more successful when we tweaked the prompt, modeling how Sam survived in the woods.  They cited examples from the book in their essay. We also learned many new words which we added to our classroom word wall, including the name of trees, plants, and animals that were new to us.

  1. Provide a Shelf of Similar Books

I made a prominent place on the classroom bookshelf of other books by the author Jean Craighead George and books with similar themes.   The students share in our classroom what they read, but it was a pleasant surprise to see them excited to share with Mrs. Curry what books they were reading that connected to our Read Aloud book.

  1. Be Flexible

Due to unexpected circumstances, Mrs. Curry was unable to attend one week.  I offered to read to the students, who gently let me know that it wouldn’t be the same.   We brainstormed activities from writing journal entries in Sam’s voice to writing a poem about his experience.  We ended up outside collecting leaves and using a tree identification guide to compare our trees with Sam’s trees in the book.  It wasn’t part of the lesson plan that day, but it was a memorable day students won’t soon forget of how a book can come alive even outside of the classroom.  Be flexible with your volunteer – there will be snow days, fire alarms, unruly students.  Always be willing to work with your volunteer and show your appreciation for his or her time with you.


  1. Relax

Even though I’m letting go of control of my classroom for thirty minutes a week, I find them to be the most enjoyable minutes.  Just like the students, I look forward to the beautiful cadence of Mrs. Curry’s voice and the magical world of Sam Gribley into which we escape.  Middle school students have behaved with maturity in the discussions but with the eagerness of elementary students.  They still need to be enthralled with the spoken word in our classroom.  Don’t be afraid to let loose of the reins and welcome in a volunteer with a good book.

Brindi Anderson is an ordinary language arts teacher in the mountains of West Virginia where she works very hard every day to put extraordinary books in the hands of her students.  Her current literary boyfriend is Tom Imura from the Rot and Ruin series by Jonathan Maberry.  You can read more about her other passion, eating, at her blog Of Food and Fat