With their unbroken spines and crisp jackets, hardcover books are just one sign of the investment, reverence, and genuine love for reading that exists in the Lower School. Students stake out favorite reading nooks in the classroom, plead for a few extra minutes to finish a chapter, and rush to add books to their “someday” lists on the recommendation of friends. “Kids walk down the Lower School hallway reading,” notes sixth-grade reading and writing teacher Lara Gleason. “It’s unusual, and it’s magical!”
Unlike many schools that have a single literacy or language arts block, reading and writing are separate classes in Fay’s Lower School, with additional time for independent reading (IDR). The result is that when students reach sixth grade, “they are careful readers with strong inferential skills,” says Head of Lower School Lainie Schuster. “They read their class novels with the same passion as their novels for pleasure because they know how to read.”
Third grade reading classes focus on comprehension. Students are matched by reading level into themed book clubs, where they read and discuss books supported by the third-grade teachers.
In fourth grade, students transition to reading books together as a whole class. The focus is on active reading, analyzing, and responding to a text. Students reflect on their reading with journal entries and discuss their reading in “turn and talks,” when fourth-grade teacher Sam Thorburn poses a question for students to turn and discuss with their neighbor.
Fifth graders work on thinking inferentially and identifying layers of meaning within the text. The novels offer a rich variety of perspectives, starting with Cece Bell’s graphic novel El Deafo, a story about growing up hearing-impaired, and ending with The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, the tale of a girl growing up in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Students use sticky notes to capture their wonders, predictions, and inferences as they read, referring to those notes as they discuss with classmates.
As sixth graders read coming-of-age books like Nine, Ten: a September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin and Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, they practice using the text to support their thinking and explore how the narrative point of view shapes a story. “Sixth graders are beginning to understand the author’s craft and are eager to dig deeper in their analysis,” says Lainie. This spring, as they read Wolf Hollow, students debated whether one character was involved in another character’s disappearance, using textual evidence to defend their arguments.
While students develop strong reading skills in Lower School, it is their passion for reading that is perhaps most striking. It emerges in sixth-grade book talks as they try to “sell” a book to their classmates. It can be seen in the fifth-grade book club that spontaneously formed this spring out of the students’ desire to share a reading experience together. However, it is most visible every January, when the Lower School unveils its One School, One Book reading selection. For one month, all Lower School students, teachers, and parents are immersed in a community-wide reading experience. Families read a few chapters together each night, and students discuss the book when the entire community is gathered at Lower School lunch and Morning Meeting. This year’s selection was The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, and for one month the collective imagination of the Lower School was captured by the story of Neftali Reyes. “One School, One Book is the capstone of the Lower School reading experience,” says Lower School teacher Christine Fearey. “It’s an authentic example of how much we love to read.”
Students leaving Lower School take with them a powerful collection of analytical skills that will serve them well in the Upper School English program. “The students are confident readers because they have become accustomed to sharing their interpretations, opinions, and predictions,” says Christine.
Lower Schoolers also take with them the books themselves as keepsakes to mark this unique moment in their lives. This spring, when COVID-19 closed campuses and libraries, students started the term by reading digital versions of their class books. Lainie and the Lower School teachers quickly realized that the experience wasn’t the same. Students missed annotating their books with sticky notes, and class discussions were hampered by the fact that everyone had a different page number. Determined to ensure an authentic reading experience, Lainie spent several weeks driving around Massachusetts hand-delivering a book to every student’s doorstep. “Wolf Hollow is the perfect end-of-year grade six book,” says Lainie. “It’s one that needs to be cherished and held in your hands.”