Around the Campfire by Donalyn Miller
While I teach two rotations of language arts and social studies, my homeroom stays with me until past noon because of breaks in our schedule for specials, lunch, and recess. When we return from recess, my fifth graders and I have 25 minutes together before students switch classes. It’s the perfect slice of time to finish up our work for the day and squeeze in our daily read aloud.
Students put away their notebooks and wander over to the classroom library rug—everyone moving to their habitual spots. Josh sits next to my chair. Destiny wedges between two bookcases in the corner. Mason stretches out prone behind the rest of the group. Caden and Alex bring clipboards and sketch while I read. Lauryn, Amani, Ryleigh, Kenzie, and Skylar form a chain—one behind the other—and braid their hair.
While a few students sit cross-legged, facing me, with nothing in their hands—our group norms for read aloud time—most of my students are doing something else. It used to bug me. Chiding the braiding chain members one day, I said, “Ladies, you should fix your hair in the bathroom, not the classroom.”
Lauryn wheedled, “Mrs. Miller, Skylar’s (red) hair is so amazing. Don’t you think it looks pretty with these braids?”
Skylar looked at me hopefully, big eyes asking, “You like it don’t you?”
I grumbled, “It looks nice. Now go sit down.”
I looped with most of my students, and they run all over me. They always dive in when it’s time to work, but they are very comfortable and take advantage of my affection for them. When considering classroom management, you have to ask, “What am I tolerating?” and I tolerate a lot. But for some reason, the hair braiding, sketching, and napping during read aloud time drove me up the wall. It was too much. I drew the line.
For two days, we didn’t move to the carpet for read alouds. Convincing myself that my students were too crowded, they sat at their desks and I read from the front of the room. Mason complained, “Can we go to the carpet today? I concentrate better when I close my eyes.” The other kids begged to move back to the carpet, too. Neil said, “We can move some of the desks over there to make more room, Mrs. Miller. It’s not that crowded.”
Begrudgingly, I agreed we could move back to the carpet, but I insisted, “Everyone needs to sit up and stay still.” My students tried to obey, but they looked sad and resigned with their hands folded on their laps, staring straight ahead. We still talked about our book and enjoyed the story, but our read aloud time lost its zest.
A few days later, we were sitting on the same carpet during a lesson. Reading several fables and discussing the characteristics of fables and other traditional literature stories like myths, tall tales, and folktales, Jeremy asked, “Mrs. Miller, how do we know so many of these stories? They’re so old.”
I answered, “ Well, people shared these stories with each other. Families and neighbors sat together at the end of the day and told stories. That was their entertainment. We know these stories because they were passed down through generations of people through storytelling. Imagine what life was like a long time ago. People worked all day to find food and take care of their families. Sitting around a campfire at night gave them time to relax, visit, and enjoy the end of the day, “ I said.
“So they just sat around telling stories?” Kenzie asked.
“I imagine they could repair tools or prepare for the next day’ s work while they listened,” I said. As I spoke, I suddenly saw it. Huddled on the carpet, listening to stories, our class family was doing the same thing that ancient families did. At the end of our workday, we gather together to bond as a group and share stories. When my students braid hair, draw, or stretch out to relax during read aloud time, they engage in the same activities people always have during story time.
Our classroom community matters more to me than enforcing rules for the sake of having rules. Does it really matter that my students aren’t sitting like good soldiers during read aloud? When I made our read aloud more like school and less like hanging out with our tribe, we all enjoyed it less.
Smiling sheepishly, I said, “I bet some of them sat around braiding hair, too. I guess this carpet is our campfire.”
My students laughed and Mason called from the back, “Does that mean I can lay down today?”
“Yes, Mason, yes it does.”
Donalyn Miller is a fifth grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.
**Donalyn and her class are currently reading Doll Bones by Holly Black during read aloud time.