Saturday, April 2, 2011

Breaking the Rules

I tried something different in my pre-freshman comp. class yesterday. They have to read Elie Wiesel's Night over Spring Break, so after lecturing about the book, the author, and the time period a bit, I cracked open the book and read to them as they followed along. "I just want to get you jump started," I said.

So I read to them, up to the point when the Jews in Sighet are just about to be put into the cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz.

You could've heard a pin drop.

I broke the rules. Back when I was a teaching assistant at Penn State, my assigned mentor once told me firmly, "NEVER read to students." So I got into the habit of making them read aloud, not me. This, despite the fact that, when I was a student, I was myself shy about reading out loud in the classroom and would stammer and bungle words I knew perfectly well how to pronounce. This, despite the fact that on one occasion, a student pleaded with me to not ever call on her to read because "it freaks me out."

I guess I then got out of the habit of having students read aloud anything at all, because wielding a whip and torturing students is not my game. Now, I normally assign readings, assume the student has read the homework, and we just discuss it in class the next day. I'll refer us to particular sections and sometimes read bits aloud, but only to illustrate a point and it's seldom longer than a single paragraph.

But yesterday, we had the time to read more, and I really wanted to get the students interested in the book. Yet Night has quite a bit of Yiddish in the first chapter and the names of Hungarian and Polish cities, and this is a class in which the kids have been placed specifically because they have reading difficulties. I know better than to cause them the embarrassment of reading out loud in front of their peers, stumbling over words it's completely unreasonable to expect them to even know, much less pronounce.

I broke the rules. I decided to read to them.

What the hell. I am a literate adult, and I LOVE being read to. And in the silence of that classroom, as I read aloud, and I could hear their pages turning whenever I turned a page, so I knew they were keeping up, it was clear to me that they were absorbed as well.

It seems to me, if you want to encourage reading, you have to get your students to love reading. How did I come to love books? I still clearly remember my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Peck, reading to us once a day a chapter from one of the Newberry Award Winners. My absolute favorite was A Wrinkle in Time. Those hours she read were my favorite part of the school day.

And I think about how, as an adult, I still love being read to. One of my fondest memories of when I was dating one of my exes about seven years ago (who is now my sponsor in AA) was that some nights, snuggling together in bed, we'd take turns reading to each other until we were too sleepy to continue. I loved listening to her voice; I loved drowsily following the plot until sleep overcame me. It was so very intimate.

Usually when it's time for a classroom session to wind down, I catch students peeking up at the clock or starting to pack up their books. Sometimes I have to say, "Hang on, let me finish this point," to get them to focus for one more minute. That did not happen yesterday. Those kids--from the student with the Auditory Processing Disorder to the big, beefy Tongan football player who is absent more often than he's there due to problems at home, to the kids for whom English is a second language--were absolutely involved.

So, I broke the rules.


just jane said...

Yes!!! One of my fondest memories of 5th grade was being read to by a teacher.
I still buy books on CD, for my listening pleasure.
I am glad to hear that you "broke the rules." Peace, Jane

Joyce said...

Well, now there's a whole bunch of my teacher friends on Facebook swearing my old mentor was full of it. LOL
Another had a really good idea I might try in the future: she calls it "popcorn".... she starts reading and then asks for volunteers who wish to read to just jump in.

FROG'S new PAD said...

HIGH FIVE! a belate High Five for capturing the kids' attention with a single non-multi-media VOICE! :)

Joyce said...

I wonder if I called it a "single non-multi-media voice" I could get away with it ;-)