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The Importance of Reading: Q&A with Middle School Teacher Olivia Sutton

Olivia Sutton, 8th grade English teacher at Oliver W. Winch Middle School in South Glens Falls, is an incredible educator who cares deeply about her students. She fosters a love for learning within the walls of her classroom; our Executive Director, Molly, can attest to this since she was once one of her students. Mrs. Sutton discusses the importance of reading, her favorite part about teaching and provides some valuable wisdom for our members as they continue on their academic journeys.

Why did you want to teach?

I have always enjoyed working with children - as far back as the days of my mom doing before/after school daycare at our home, growing up. Many of those kids were like siblings to me! And then my summer jobs growing up - working at Gurney Lane & teaching swim lessons, as well as children's tennis lessons at Skidmore College. I still remember my first day teaching swim lessons. I had a 'plan' written down on a sheet of lined paper and had enclosed it in one of those plastic report covers (to save from the splashing!)—I suppose that was my first lesson plan ever written!

If you could have lunch with an author(living or dead), who would it be and why?

Whoa. Tough question. I suppose it would be Jason Reynolds. He's just such a charismatic speaker and what he has done for YA Literature is just outstanding! I'm also blown away by the diversity of his writing - ranging from the contemporary Ghost (Track series), to his powerful & compelling free-verse novel Long Way Down to one of his latest, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You. Jason Reynolds (along with Ibram X. Kendi) challenge the reader to truly look at American history and how, many times in traditional history lessons, we are told a rather skewed version of the truth.

What do you love most about reading?

I love how reading can just take your mind into a different world - how you meet characters and become an observer of their world. And now, as a teacher, I love reading with my students the most! It still warms my geeky soul when I read a funny part in one of our books and a student laughs out loud. Honestly, any time I see a student have an emotional reaction to a story, to a character, that is powerful.

This has been a tough year. How did you get through it?

Balance. Just trying to find balance with everything - the news, social media, work life, home life, exercising, etc. I have also found my friendships to be important - now more so than ever. To have colleagues and friends that you can vent to, and you can share those small victories with. That's also so important.

If money was no object, what would you have in your classroom and why?

I would want to have multiple collaborative spaces - that we could transform depending on what we were doing for instruction (comfy couch, tables that could be small-group related and then switch out to an individual workspaces), walls for students to collaborate and display work and ENDLESS amounts of YA books! And maybe some of those unique/funky bookcase ideas I'm constantly finding on Pinterest!

Why is reading so important for kids? How does it help them in and outside of the classroom?

There is a direct correlation to students' reading skills with their writing & vocabulary skills. That is certainly important! Reading and discussing literature also opens up all of those communication skills that I see so many of my students struggling with. In the past 5-7 years I have seen my students bombarded by so much technology, I do feel that reading has been put by the wayside. Being able to understand a story, share that story with another person (written or verbal) is so important!

What is your favorite book and why?

I'm going to have to go with The Giver by Lois Lowry. I first read it in college and it was one of the first fantasy novels that I had read. Then later, as an 8th grade teacher, it was one of my favorite novels to teach! It's the type of novel that just lends itself to discussion of what you might agree or disagree with and why. I also feel like it's the type of novel that you could read at different ages/stages in life and see different things within the storyline and with characters based on your own life experiences at that point in time.

When you were younger, was there a particular book you read that got you excited about reading?

To this day, I still remember that feeling and sense of accomplishment when I finished my first chapter book, Little House on the Prairie! I then went on the mystery books - Nancy Drew being one of my favorites! And then in school, I can distinctly remember reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton in my 7th grade English class with Mr. Lape at Queensbury Middle School. I remember thinking that I would not like the story and by the end of I was brought to tears!

How does reading help children develop stronger social skills?

As I have mentioned earlier, I do feel that reading and talking about what you are reading is so important and lends itself to me teaching (explicitly) communication skills; the idea of giving someone eye contact when you're talking with them, how to ask follow up questions to keep a conversation going, how to respectfully agree or disagree with someone. These are all skills we actually review before we talk about our first book or story. I also find that many of the YA books today deal with emotional issues and situations that many of my students face. I have had many instances where students will say, "This reminds me of that time when I..." and they can make that connection. They're able to relate to a bigger world & hopefully see some value in reading.

Why is it important for kids (and adults!) to have a good imagination?

We are so trained to just "Google it!" these days. I love to pose open-ended questions for students, ask their opinions or how/what they would do. Imagination is something that one needs time to practice, to use. Having that free thinking time can be an escape and might also allow you to look at something a little differently - maybe something you cannot find or discover, even on Google!

What is the most important lesson that you hope your students learn in your class?

I hope that students learn that respect is mutual. Teacher to student, student to teacher, student to student, etc. I also want students to always feel welcomed in my classroom, even long after they leave that school year. And, even today with all that is going on, that school can be fun!

What book are you currently reading?

Currently in school we are reading Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech as a whole class novel, and personally I just started Sadie by Courtney Summers as my independent reading book.

Where is a great place for kids to access books outside of school?

Obviously local and school libraries are wonderful resources. The Teen Room at Crandall Public Library is outstanding! Also, via BOCES, our students have access to SORA for both digital and audio books. And any chance I can, I like to stop at Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga. They offer great opportunities for students and access to authors/events.

What is your favorite book that you teach as part of your yearly curriculum?

I'm going to have to go with The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton because it appeals to the masses. It deals with conflicts that are timeless. I've had so many students that then create the most amazing creative writing/ fan-fiction responses to this story!

What genre of books would you recommend to a lot of our middle school aged members?

Be open to any type of genre! A few years ago I wasn't a big fan of graphic novels and then I read Hey Kiddo and it changed my perception of them for sure. There are so many great graphic novels out there! Also free verse poetry novels. Usually when I mention poetry, I'm met with groans and eye rolling(lol!) But some of the most popular books in my classroom library are those! If you find an author you enjoy, check out mutiple books by them.

What's your favorite genre to read?

My favorite genre would probably be fiction. More specifically I do enjoy free verse poetry and I still enjoy a great dystopian novel every once in awhile!

If you could live in the world of one book, which book would you choose?

This is a tough question - just because so much of what I read is contemporary or dystopian. I suppose I would pick The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern because of the fantasy and magic of the setting.

What is your favorite part about teaching?

The interaction with the students. I love being able to get to know them - being able to have serious conversations, being able to laugh. I think that is what has been the biggest struggle for me with the hybrid and virtual learning models. That connection is still there, but it's certainly different. I feel very fortunate to have had these past few months to get to know most of my students in person, even if it's only one day a week.

Any advice you'd give to our members as they move through their school careers?

Try your best to give consistent effort in all that you do, even on those days that it seems impossible. Also, try to find a few adults that you have a connection with, who you stay in touch with. Those connections you forge now may end up being more important than you realize later on in life.

Mrs. Sutton is going to be a tremendous asset for our YC Book Club. Each month she will be recommending a book for our middle schooler members. Her first one will be next Friday! We are SO excited to collaborate with her!

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