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Podcast: How to Cultivate a Love of Reading in Students with Russell Souders in TX on Teachers in America

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Photo: Third-grade teacher Russell Souders

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

Today we are joined by Russell Souders, a third-grade teacher in Eula, Texas. Russell will share how he's cultivated a love a reading among his students and the resources that have helped, which include HMH Into Reading.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students.

I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend to learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.

Today we are joined by Russell Souders, a third-grade teacher from Eula, Texas. A Texas native, Russell has dedicated his 29-year education career teaching at Eula Independent School District.

One of the reasons Russell was drawn to the teaching profession was the ability to foster a love for reading among students. He strives to make his classroom a fun, welcoming, and inspiring place for his students.

In this episode, Russell shares tips on how he sparks students’ interest in reading, including how he uses programs like HMH Into Reading® to engage students in literacy instruction.

Now let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: Hey, Russell. It's Noelle. Welcome to Teachers in America. So excited to get a chance to meet you and have a great conversation. First of all, tell us where you are in Texas so we can get our vision of where you are.

Russell Sounders: Well, it's nice to meet you all, and I'm glad to be a part of this. We are located about 25 miles outside of Abilene, Texas. We are one of many rural schools just outside of Abilene. This is the only district that I've ever really taught in other than subbing after college. But a lot of the families come back, and I have been blessed to teach their children, and they've moved back into the district.

Noelle: Nice. I substituted, too, right out of college. Because it was December 1992, and no one was hiring. We'll have to share "sub" stories at some point.

Russell: Yes. Yes.

Noelle: I read that you are at your 20-year mark of teaching.

Russell: Yes, ma'am. I just finished my 28th year of teaching. And actually, I can retire after this year, but I've chosen to keep going here at the district.

Noelle: Now, Russell. I just told you we're about the same age. What are you doing calling me "ma'am." I get it, though. I'm from the South. I know. You're like, "Noelle, I can't help myself."

Russell: I can't.

Noelle: I appreciate it. I know it's a term of endearment. During these 28 years, what are the three words you would use to describe your career to date?

Russell: I would say "adventurous," for one. It is never dull. Every year, the group of kids is different, and their personalities really pop out. And they tell hilarious stories, stuff that you can't make up. I would say adventurous, for one.

I would say "challenging" for another. With all the state requirements over the years, the changes in education that just goes to the natural process of that.

And then the last would be, I would say, "blessed." Just blessed to be here and to know this community and the families. And especially to be able to teach the kids that I taught their parents. And it's kind of a weird feeling on both ends. They still call me "Mr. Souders," and I still call them by their first name. But it is still a blessing.

Noelle: That is so sweet. [When you] look at a child, do you ever see their parents in their faces? I'd just be curious if you've ever had a flashback.

Russell: Oh, definitely. I had this one student this past year. I taught his dad. I could not help myself. I just saw his dad in him almost all the time, and he would just nail me every time. "You called me by my dad." But it kind of became a little joke, but I tried to really consciously to look at him as his own entity. But I couldn't help seeing his dad in him.

Noelle: I think that's a gift of a teacher. It does mean you have just memories, these vivid memories of all your students. What brought you into the teaching profession? Is it something you decided in college? Tell us a little bit about choosing teaching.

Russell: Well, actually, in college, when I first got to McMurry University, which is actually located in Abilene, Texas, I decided to go into business. My father was in business, and I thought, "I can do this." But then, as I started going on, I started taking education courses and just kind of broadening my horizons. And I observed in an elementary classroom and a middle school classroom. And after observing in both, I decided, well, the middle school kids, I don't think I want to teach them. But the elementary, I thought they're sweet kids, and they just had such hunger to learn, and they were really respectful, and I thought, this is what I want to do. And my mom taught [students with] dyslexia at her district for about 25 years. And so, my sister and I would go out to our classroom and help her set up. We kind of saw that atmosphere, and we both actually became teachers after that.

Noelle: Oh, I bet your mom's so proud. So I do always think as teachers, we know where our temperament, where our connection, is. I always say you're either born elementary or born secondary. And sometimes, in your career, you can make a change, but you usually know exactly what's going to be best for you. Do you teach all subject areas, or do you get to really focus on a certain discipline and share other responsibilities with a team teacher?

Russell: When I first started teaching back in 1995 here at Eula ISD, I was self-contained, and I had one teaching partner. A couple of years later after that, we moved to departmentalization, where I moved in just to the language arts, the reading, writing, and spelling in English. And I actually taught fifth grade for about 17 of these last 28 years. And I really enjoyed the fifth grade. Then, I did some fourth-grade combo with that along the way. The past 11 years, I've taught just third grade back to just English, reading, writing, spelling—the RLA as they nickname it. And I really enjoy that because one of my teaching partners, she does the math. And then we have another teaching partner, she does all the social studies and science. And so it's been such a blessing to have all three of us use our strengths where we are teaching and also trying to help each other include those subjects in our own entities as well in our own classrooms.

Noelle: You described that each of you choose your strengths. What would you say draws you to reading, English Language Arts? What do you love about it? What's the strength from you, from not just yourself as a student but as a learner in your teaching methodology?

Russell: I love just reading, period. And I love teaching the kids how to read. A lot of the kids that come into the third grade, it's such a different transition because this is their first year that we are tested. And so I really have to tweak my curriculum to get them to be able to just comprehend just reading in itself. My main goal has been just to have them have a love for reading like I have. And as a kid, I struggled with that very early on, probably about five or six. And then, I went to special classes just to help me read better. And then "bam," it just clicked. And so, with that experience, I can see those kids that struggle. And I love to help them overcome that.

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Russell has created a learning environment were students feel safe and supported to study English language arts (ELA).

Noelle: When you are talking about a student struggling and getting frustrated, and you can see something is blocking progress and development, what's one of the first things you notice with a student who you think is probably going to need a little more support and interventions along the way?

Russell: Well, the first thing I see is the pace that they read at. Or, I may be probing some questions after we read a story, and they're not quite understanding it. Or they're mispronouncing words or kind of mixing up some letters. And I can tell their phonetics is a little bit weaker, and those are some of the first signs that I see. Then I think, "Okay, I need to do some intervention and see where this kid is." And maybe they do better silently reading, or maybe they really do struggle or have a situation where they need some extra help.

Noelle: Do you ever ask your mom for advice based on her background?

Russell: I do. My sister and I both. We talk to her a lot about the changes that have gone on in education, mostly for the better, with the technology. She's amazed at all the technology when she comes to see our children in their programs here at the school. And my nephews as well. And she's just amazed at all the technology and the things that have changed that we can do to enhance the learning of our students. So we do; we talk a lot about the process still.

Noelle: Will you describe your room? And I would love for you to share with our listeners describing what it looks like. Maybe a favorite area that you have purposely and intentionally designed in the classroom and the area that you know your students gravitate to. If you have a certain area.

Russell: Well, a couple of years back, I learned some new innovative ways to take out the desks and replace them with tables. And so I looked for tables, like at restaurant tables, or chairs, or auctions and things like that. So I moved everything to where they're at a table, face-to-face partner. Then, when they have to store their products or the journals and things like that, handwriting books, I have bought these three-drawer carts, where they store their materials. In the center of my room, I have the TV and our SMART board®. And I have lots of the language arts posters around the room. Right now, I'm sitting at the back table, which is just a round dining room table that I bought. And that's what I use for my RTI groups, or have the kids come back and say, "Hey, let's work one-on-one or in a small group." And that's the more intimate area where the kids can work with me.

Noelle: Kind of love that it's a dining table. It's almost like, "This is a safe space for us to talk and get through some frustration and work through with that grit." Do you see yourself having a passion for students who are not at grade level, and you're striving to get them there? And then, how do you balance giving that attention and that focus in a tier-one classroom?

Russell: It is definitely a challenge, but I do have a passion for the kids that struggle. We had a student last year that came, and he suffered pretty badly from dyslexia and still does. And his parents, I remember meeting at this very back table, and they said, "We know you're a good teacher, Mr. Souders, but we just want to warn you that our son hates reading. He hates school." And I thought, "Okay." And so I had that in my mindset that somehow I got to help this kid change that. And so, throughout the course of just meeting with him and working with him, he ended up loving reading. And he couldn't put books down. And he still needed that oral assistance just to have the questions read to him or parts of the story read to him, but I couldn't stop him from reading books, and he just ended up loving it. And so seeing that transition in those kids that struggle and can overcome that and the growth from the beginning of the year to the end of the year is amazing.

Noelle: What do you notice about your students' agency and advocacy for each other?

Russell: They do have a high advocacy for each other. And I've always thought that about our school district in general, the kids that we serve. I create about four different stations throughout the course of the week with the HMH reading stories. And the first thing is, you have to have a safe environment. And I tell the kids, "You do not make fun of each other. You don't ridicule each other. Help each other instead. You don't have to be bossy and be their mom or dad." Some will kind of go that far and want to do that. But I said, "I really want you to help each other and just listen to each other and work together." And if they don't, they're going to tell you that overall, I see a high advocacy for that. And some kids, and I tell them too, "Guys, all your records, your Lexile® levels are all different, and you're all at a different pace. So don't compare it to your partner or your best friend or whatever. Keep growing at your pace, and you're going to get there eventually."

Noelle: It sounds so sweet. Like, "Okay, we believe you. We trust you. We're going to do this."

Russell: Most of the time.

Noelle: So you're using our Into Reading program?

Russell: Yes, ma'am.

Noelle: How many years have you been implementing that?

Russell: We have been working on it for about four to five years.

Noelle: Wow. Okay, so you were one of our first to use the new program.

Russell: Yes.

Noelle: Will you tell us a little bit about, what did you think when you first came into Into Reading versus where you are now? We have a lot of new teachers who might be listening in the audience that are also coming into Into Reading, so I'd love to use this time to learn from you. What has been your experience? And where were you in your first year compared to where are you now in year four or five?

Russell: Well, I have to say, hands down, HMH has been one of the best programs we've had. A lot of it is just the rigor of it. When we first looked into adopting a new program, we had several representatives come out to our district, and they asked all the language arts teachers to have input. And we get to decide what we want. And we all heard everybody's speeches, and we voted for the HMH program. And because it's so vast and has so many entities to it with the online assessments or the quizzes, whether they be written on paper or online. The kids have their own accounts where they can log in.

They love to see their scores after they do a quiz on one of the stories that we read. They love to see the grade they made. They love to see maybe if they missed a question. They love to see that they can see what they missed, and it shows them that. Just the whole process of it from beginning to end. The spelling words that I use also come from the HMH. You don't have a new list every week, which is pretty standard. The writing prompts, just the different entities of it. It's very vast and very rigorous, and that's what intrigued us the most about the program.

Noelle: Are you starting to see a transition onto your STAAR or in your students' confidence levels coming in? Especially being the first testing year?

Russell: I believe so. Last year, ISD had about two kids not pass the STAAR test. The ones in the reading, third-grade reading, which I was very thankful for and felt blessed by. And they not only approached, but they also met, and some even mastered. There are three levels in our STAAR test: approach, meet, and master. And, of course, "not pass" is really the first level. This year's preliminary scores have been a redesign, and they've come back. We only have about four that I've taught that are in a zone of uncertainty. Which is kind of new to us to experience this year, but that doesn't mean they failed. It doesn't mean they passed. But overall, most of them passed again this year. And I really think that the HMH has helped me do that. And more than that, I told the kids that, "You can do this." And they'll ask me, "Well, what if we fail?" And I said, "Well, you don't have to fail. You don't have to accept that. Just do your best, and together, we'll work this out. And I'll help you with it." And it's just been a hit whole run, I think.

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Russel uses HMH Into Reading and has seen great improvement in his students' scores and overall performance.

Noelle: Do y'all have a favorite module?

Russell: The kids, probably their favorite story is Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match.

Noelle: You hear that all the time from third-graders.

Russell: It's the first story we read, and they still remember that at the end of the year. They still remember. Dear Dragon is another one of our favorites, just because they like the fact that they find that out at the end that one's a dragon and one's a human.

Noelle: Is it the same for you, or do you have a personal favorite?

Russell: I enjoy probably those two. Another one, I think, is Stink and the Freaky Frog Freakout because of all the different frog noises that he makes. And Stink is a mischievous little kid in himself, and his sister is, too. And just how he goes through it. And he's really focused on passing that test, that frog test, so he can go to the frog campfire. But then, at the end, that's the only test he passed. And the kids catch that. They catch that. They catch the lesson, that he spent all this time doing that instead of the others. But just, I really have enjoyed the stories. And they don't get old, I mean, several years into this. Because every year, the kids are different. And it's a different group, different personalities, different mix of abilities, and they still enjoy the stories. And that's amazing.

Noelle: They know the lesson learned, but it'd be so curious to be like, "Well, based on his talents and his focus, what could you predict his career choice will be?" I can't imagine what third-graders would come up with. When you think about your routine with Into Reading, the framework of how the lessons work, what's your consistent instructional path? And what two components do you use so consistently that you know can see that transference into your students' independent work?

Russell: The pattern that I have is that, of course, we introduced the story. And you have the pre-story, the vocabulary, and all that. So we're introducing that. And then that's just all one day. Just introduce that and talk about that, make a little prediction, fill out the blanks on the prediction page, and get their interest to it. Then, the next day, either I'll read it to them or the kids, I'll put them in their stations. Of course, I have to kind of set that core belief of how to act in that station first, too. And then, on the third day, usually by Wednesday, we will listen to the story online. And they love that. They love the highlighter. They love for me to put the highlighter on because they want to see those words moving around and just a different voice other than me.

And then, we'll go into the HMH quiz. And then we'll take the written one, and then we'll also take the online one just to give them some more practice. And then the spelling words we have, too. They're like, "Oh, that's one of our spelling words." And so they notice that. So, definitely, I keep that same routine with every story. I try to nail that down and refer back to them and compare and contrast back to the stories, especially with the fiction. You have the drama, you have the writing, the letter part of it, the stories. You have the realistic fiction fantasy stories. Scaredy Squirrel is another one of their favorites. Going back to that one, sorry, backtracking, but they love that one too. And doing the compare and contrast between the two and keep that memory. And I go through all the fictional elements, "Okay, what's the character? What's the setting? What's the plot? What's the problem/solution? What's the theme? What did the character learn?" And that continuous routine on every story has really helped them grasp it a little better. A lot better.

Noelle: When you think about the school year, about what time in the year are you starting to see your focus on using academic language and discourse? Where even your third-graders are using some of those words in the way that they respond, whether it's an oral response or a written response?

Russell: I would say probably closer to Christmas. I use the first semester just on the fiction stories, and I just really try to focus on the skills to make sure they really have mastered them. And in the second semester, I start the nonfiction stories. So I kind of backtrack, and I start with the U.S. Constitution, the Statue of Liberty, "Why is it green?" And the flag maker. And by that time, they've understood, "Okay, we know your routine. We understand what you're going to do. And we can give you more feedback, more independently, and not have to be prompted as much."

Noelle: One of the last questions I want to ask is, what year in your teaching career, Russell, would you consider your most challenging year? And then, at the same, which year has been the most rewarding?

Russell: I would say my first year was the most challenging. Just because I was so green, and I had so many ideas and so many ideals. And I wanted to implement those in the classroom. But I got through it, and my principal said, "Hey, you came back." And I just keep coming back. And then that's what started the small community feel of it, and the parents coming back and bringing their kids back. I would say probably the most rewarding was last year's group because they came in from COVID. And they really, really struggled. I had to do a lot of backtracking, I felt, with some skills. It was no fault of their own or anybody's fault. It is what it is. And so the progress that they made in the leap of growth they made, just was, I mean, I call them my "miracle class," actually.

Noelle: You'll have to show, do memories of here's the, what was the hockey team in [Miracle on Ice]?

Russell: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

Noelle: Right. It's sort of like this, overcoming all odds.

Russell: Yes, yes. It felt like that. It felt like that.

Noelle: You and your sister, do y'all talk shop? I said that was going to be my last question, but I have to ask one more. Do y'all talk shop at family dinners and holidays?

Russell: Her husband is also a teacher.

Noelle: Teacher life. This is what every teacher needs to understand. You know you talk shop and holidays, and everybody's like, "Will they ever stop talking about teaching?"

Russell: Yes. Even in my small group at church, most of us are teachers. When we joke, you have to be a teacher as a prerequisite to get into the group. But it didn't end up that way. It's just we kind of, I guess, flocked together. But we like to swap stories. One of the funniest stories at the beginning of third grade that I always tell the kids, I said, "Okay, you're going to have to read a chapter book. The whole thing, and take an AR [Accelerated Reader] test on it. And we're going to go through the process of it, and I'll help you with that." And they're like, "The whole thing? You've got to be kidding, Mr. Souders. We have to read the whole book." I'm like, "Yes, you have to read the whole book." And so the librarian and I are just cracking up because every class did that, and we just waited for the response, and we heard the gasps and the jaws drop.

And then, once they start that process, and they realize it's not that bad. And they can do it, and even if it's on their level, whatever level it is, and they can be successful, and then we just can't stop them from checking out books. But yeah, we do swap stories; of course, we definitely leave out names, but we're like, "You can't make some of this stuff up."

Noelle: But you can't help but say, "But you're probably going to know who I'm talking about when they meet you." And because I love how students' personalities start forming. I mean, they're there, but they really start forming a little bit toward the end of second. And then, third grade, you can kind of start seeing the persona and the cute gasp of "We have to read a whole book all by ourselves?" It is sort of like this excitement, this wonder.

So, Russell, I ask every teacher, guest, and new friend. Because I'm going to be honest with you: I still don't know where Eula is, but I feel like I now have a new friend in Eula. So I need to figure out when I'm in Texas, will I be in that area? So I ask everybody, you have a walk-up song.

Russell: Yes.

Noelle: You got to come into school. You got to bring it. You got to be ready to perform. What song is on your playlist?

Russell: So I have about probably three different entities of songs that I listen to quite a bit. Probably, "Speak Life" by TobyMac is one of them. Because sometimes if the kids are just getting on each others' nerves, and I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to show you this video about speaking life into someone and using your words to hurt." That's one of them. Jordan Feliz is another, "Beloved." Just to know that they're loved. They have a safe environment in our school, in our classrooms. And then "Eye of the Tiger." Because I remember doing a jump rope routine to "Eye of the Tiger" in third grade myself. And so you just can't not have that song.

Noelle: I know the whole song just starts going. You're like immediately like, "What? I need to get into action. What do I need to be doing?" Have you ever recreated that jump rope routine for your third-graders?

Russell: I have not. They try to get me to do this. You kneel down with both legs and then hop up. And they tried to get me to do that this year. And I did that and almost couldn't get up.

Noelle: "I know my limits. I better not bring that up to them, or they will."

Russell: And then, so I kept practicing it. But no, I haven't brought that routine yet to them. I probably should. So they would get a kick out of it. They had several of us teachers do the "Macarena" on stage, and they just loved that. They love seeing us be human and we make mistakes, and we go out and buy groceries. And they see us at the store. "Wow, we saw you." "Yes, we live just like you do." So it's good to see them, that they just love us, seeing us be human.

Noelle: Russell, I have so enjoyed this conversation. I know our listeners have as well. You gave such great practical advice, but also the stories. I know there are a lot of people who are listening and making connections with you. I'm so glad that you are also a new friend that's using Into Reading. You're going to have to come into Teacher's Corner® from the HMH Facebook group and join us and be a part of the community.

Russell: Yes, ma'am. I appreciate you having me here today, and I am so honored by that. And I appreciate all y'all are doing.

Noelle: Oh, thank you.

Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Until next time, your friend, Noelle.

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Editorial direction is by Christine Condon. It is creatively directed, and audio engineered by Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. Shaped blog post editors for the podcast are Christine Condon, Jennifer Corujo, and Alicia Ivory.  

Thanks again for listening!

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