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'100 Picture Book Challenge' Brings Back Story Time For St. John Newburgh Middle School

St. John the Baptist Newburgh middle school language arts teacher Maria Janney, right, recently read a picture book to a group of eighth graders as part of a new project this year: 100 Picture Book Challenge.

Can you recall the excitement as a kindergarten student when your teacher would ask the class to sit on carpet squares for story time? Remember the fun of hearing your teacher read aloud a picture book?

Well today, Feb. 1, 2019, is World Read Aloud Day, but three teachers at St. John the Baptist School in Newburgh don’t need a designated day because they’ve been reading picture books out loud to their middle school students all year.

Yes, they are reading picture books aloud to students in grades 6-8.

The English/Language Arts teachers are striving to bring that child-like enthusiasm of story time back for middle school students.

“It’s amazing that those same feelings can resurface from middle school students,” teacher Maria Janney said. “Eighth grade boys are already on the carpet before I can finish saying, ‘Okay, it’s time for our story.’ … Certainly this lifelong love for a story is something that needs constant nourishment.”

Teachers Jenna Hochmeister and Lisa Hardesty developed the project with Janney. Called the 100 Picture Book Challenge, it’s a list of 100 books the teachers plan to read out loud to middle school students this school year.

Hochmeister explained the idea came from a blog they read last summer inspired by Donalyn Miller's #bookaday Challenge.

So, the three Newburgh teachers made it their own: Shooting for an average of about 10 books a month instead of a book a day, the goal is to finish 100 pictures books by the end of the school year to promote classroom community and a joy of reading.

“Our students' days are filled to the brim with rigorous instruction, extra-curricular commitments and technology distractions,” Hochmeister said. “This project has allowed for all of them to take a break from that and just enjoy being read to. It has become valued time in our classrooms.”

The books on the list include award nominees, holiday-themes, cultural diversity, promote kindness and empathy, have award-winning illustrations and some are great stories the teachers feel need to be shared. 

Reading picture books to kids in grades 6-8 may seem odd, Janney admitted, but there are many benefits of the project. She explained that high-quality picture books can launch conversations on characterization, theme, figurative language, the effect of setting and create literary awareness by introducing key literary terms to students.

Some books spark discussions about the 7 Habits from the Leader in Me program the school implemented this year. Other benefits include introducing topics like civil rights or the Underground Railroad, and they serve as writing models for students.

 “Because the writer has to be brief, he or she needs to make each sentence count, a great skill for writers to develop,” Janney said.

The overall response from students and parents has been positive, according to Hochmeister.

Abby Price, sixth grade, said she’s become more familiar with famous children’s book authors and illustrators.

“Listening to my teacher read thoughtful and silly books has really expanded my creativity,” Price said.

Eighth grader Blake Anderson admitted that as kids get older they tend to stop reading picture books.

“However this challenge gives us the opportunity to hear books we once loved,” Anderson said. “I enjoyed the book “Finding Winnie,” as it was a great rendition of the true story of Winnie the Pooh done in an interesting and entertaining manner.”

Seventh grader Andrew Estes enjoys the project because he said it gives him a chance to study short writings.

“We are able to see all the different techniques the authors use,” Estes said. “This allows us to figure out how we can work them into our writings.”

Suzanne Selby, a St. John Newburgh parent, is a fan of the 100 Picture Book Challenge.

“I love that picture books are gateways to bigger topics,” Selby said. “I love that they offer another entry point for a topic. They are the postcards of novels."

Students haven’t abandoned other, more complex books, Janney said, the picture books are in addition to those texts.

“Maybe most importantly, picture books create a community of readers who are excited about the joy of hearing a story,” she said. “Students always benefit from hearing a model of fluent reading, and I do put my theatre minor to use reading these quite expressively!”