Why Read Aloud?

When the idea of reading aloud to high school students was first proposed to me, my initial instinct was disbelief. Some of my fondest memories in childhood center around my parents reading aloud to me, but I was of the opinion that the benefits of that activity stopped somewhere around 5th or 6th grade. It seemed like a childish and empty activity that served its purpose in my formative years but had since gone by the wayside. Despite this initial reaction, however, and thanks in large part to some articles I was assigned to read earlier on this semester, I now am a firm believer in reading aloud to students of all age levels.

One of the primary reasons for this is that it provides time in your class that is relatively low-demand for the students. In today’s educational world of standardized testing and cramming to get everything done, reading aloud time may be the one of the only spots in a busy student’s day that they have to actually relax. This may sound like it is not that important, but it is my firm belief that our responsibility as teachers extends beyond the academic world. We are taught to approach our students as individuals, and this means taking account of their whole well-being, not just that which can be measure by a test. Some high school students work themselves into a very unhealthy place emotionally during these years with pressures from grades, parents, sports, and relationships. Taking a few minutes out of a class to provide a place of sanctuary for a student could be exactly what they need to take the edge off an otherwise very overwhelming day.

In addition, being read aloud to is something most students will not have their guard up with like they will with assigned reading. Every single student who comes into a high school classroom will have already made their mind up about how they feel about reading long before they ever hit the 9th grade. While it is a part of the English teacher’s job to address the preconceived notions that are wrong and break down barriers that have been constructed from negative experiences, few students should feel the same way about being read to. This is likely an experience that they will have fond memories of, and some students may have never experienced it at all. It is also a chance for the teacher to work in a positive experience with reading without the students ever realizing it has happened.

Something that stood out to me is the need teachers who do this in older grades feel to defend the practice, and rightfully so. Those not aware of the benefits are likely to dismiss it, as I originally did, for being childish and a waste of time that could be spent on more fruitful pursuits. However, reading aloud in class recognizes your students as more than testing machines who need input that goes beyond raw data. Even if they do not see it this way initially, a teacher who reads aloud to a student will stand out as one who cares.

Watching the Movie

As I thought back to some of my most treasured childhood reading memories, C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia jumped out almost immediately. I am sure almost any other person with a fantasy bend as a child can relate to the wonder experienced by reading these books, and how many closets (actual wardrobes being in short supply) they tapped at the back of, hoping to feel snow and empty air meet with their curled fingers instead of wood. I loved these books and read the entire series as quickly as I could. However, one thing that stands out to me from this time is the anxiety of wanting to watch the movie as soon as the books were finished. My parents took a very hard stand on the fact that I was not allowed to watch the movie of any book unless I had read the book first. This was before the more recent movies had come into existence, so what I was looking forward to was the BBC versions. While they were more true to the books, these earlier films were by no means up to the caliber of Lewis’s writing. Neither are the recent ones with the exception of “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe”, come to think of it, but I digress. So why did I look forward to watching them so much that I rushed through the books to do so?

Another example that comes from more recent memory is the movie version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I had not been aware of this adaptation until last year while observing in a 9th grade English classroom where the students had just finished reading the book. For those who have not seen it, the movie is abysmal. The talking animals, in particular the pigs, are so badly done and distracting that it was difficult to pay attention to what they were saying. Liberties are freely taken and the writers go so far as to mar the whole thing by creating a more hopeful ending. Overall, it undermines everything Orwell was trying to do with his famous novella in the name of entertainment. Despite all of this, the students in the class were the most excited about watching the movie, and several said they actually enjoyed it better than the book. Part of this could have to do with the fact that 9th grade is fairly early to be dealing with a text so complex, but I found myself relating it back to my own experience with Narnia.

This caused me to step back and begin to question my own future teaching methods. Would I allow students to watch the movie after finishing a book? Would I purposefully choose books that did not have a movie adaptation? Would I advise that students stay away from the movie before finishing the book? Is there a point to watching the movie adaptation beside entertainment value? I do not have answers to a lot of these questions, but they are rattling around in my brain now, and I think should be. One of the most important things I know that I will do, however, is make it clear to students that movie adaptations are merely one interpretation of the book. Everybody involved in such ventures had the exact same experience the students did reading, and their choices do not need to be seen as the best or canonical way to represent the original writing.

The Banned Book Issue

One subject that continues to fascinate me again and again in regard to reading is the concept of a banned book. This was an idea that I had been unfamiliar with until reaching college, but it has been a source of great curiosity to me since. This is not to say I was unaware of books being banned that could constitute as pornography, but I had no idea that someone could petition to pull a book off of library shelves based solely on content. At first blush, it was an idea that I supported. School should be a place of positive learning, and interacting with negative books in the classroom could only serve to stunt a student’s growth. In addition, I thought that teachers should have control of their classrooms, and had every right to ban a book they might view as harmful. However, after looking at specific banned books and thinking more about the issues behind censorship, I came to a very different conclusion.

To begin with, there are many books commonly banned in schools that should have never been placed on such lists to begin with. I can understand wanting to shelter younger grades from books whose language can be offensive, but it is unrealistic to keep them from higher grades as well. Most, if not all, high school students are going to be intimately familiar with cursing by the time they hit 9th grade, and outlawing books that contain an ‘excessive’ amount of it is not going to shelter anybody. In addition, there are books that are banned because of subject matter. This is often in relation to a political position that is not popular when the book is banned. LGBTQ books are a very popular example of this, though due to recent legislature have been moving gradually out of the forbidden corner into which they were initially pushed. Another example of this was the banning of books with Communist sentiment in the 60s and afterward. In both of these examples, people are choosing to ignore an opposing opinion as opposed to learning more about it. Even if a reader does not agree with what is in a book, banning it based on concept is a very negative way to deal with the disagreement. Students should be trained in approaching a disagreement from a critical thinking standpoint where both views are considered, not isolating something they do not like and completely cutting it out of their lives.

There is also the issue of censorship to consider. Anyone off the street would likely agree that the suppression of ideas is a bad thing, but the truth is that there are some things out in the world that school children should not be exposed to. When do we consider students old enough to be exposed to questionable content? Should freedom of speech extend to ideas that are offensive? I do not think there is a cut-and-dried answer to any of these questions, as that would trivialize the weight of some of these discussions. The most important thing is to teach students how to discern and judge for themselves.

Literary Pen Pals

For this blog I wanted to take some time to discuss a teaching strategy that a group of us tried earlier on this semester. Literary pen pals, like book stacks, are pretty much what you would expect. It plays on the same ideas as a traditional pen pal does, but with the difference that the two individuals writing to one another are doing so for the purpose of discussing something that they are reading. There were three of us in the class who decided to attempt this experiment, and all things considered, it went pretty well.

One of the purposes of doing this activity in the classroom is to get students interested in what they are reading. A student may fall behind in reading, but when they know somebody is going to be writing them about the book in a couple of days, they may have an increased desire to stay current so they can adequately participate in the conversation. This medium also provides a way for students to have longer discussions about a book that are more low-stakes. The best way to grade such an assignment is by completion, and it would only take a cursory glance at a student’s letter to ensure that they are talking about the book, and not spending too much time on other aspects. Because the student does not have to worry about correct grammar or spelling, they are more likely to feel comfortable writing about the book they are reading.

Another strength of this assignment is that it serves to connect the student with a wider reading community than they are used to. Having someone else to talk about a book with can really push more socially minded people to want to read, thus the creation of book clubs. Up until this point, students probably think of reading primarily as something that happens in the classroom. They might talk a little bit with their classmates about what is going on in a book, but this is such a controlled setting that it is not likely to mirror actual interaction with people about books in the real world. In order to simulate the experience of connecting with another group of people, we suggested that one classroom be paired up with another classroom in a different town. This could theoretically be done with another class in the building, but then the students are not going to receive the benefit listed above. It is likely that they already interact with the students in that class on a semi-regular basis, and will not view them as an outside entity.

One of the last suggestions I would give for this assignment is to let the students decide on a book to read with their new pen pal. Assigning a book to the class will take away the authentic feeling you are trying to create with the assignment by turning it into yet another book that the students have to read ‘for school’. Allowing students to choose what they want to read puts the control into their hands, and they will also learn about problem solving when dealing with the opinions of another person.

Reading as a Discipline

It can be very challenging for teachers to maintain discipline in the classroom, and one of the more popular ways to do so is giving students extra work to do as a punishment. The mentality behind this action is actually quite thought-through. Students need to understand that they cannot behave in a manner that is not suited to the classroom, and rather than having them waste time not learning anything by sitting apart from others in the classroom they should instead be required to do something productive like a homework assignment. In this way, students to act out the most receive the most work, which hopefully curbs their bad behavior.

There are a few different flaws with this approach, but I specifically wanted to focus on the tendency of teachers to use reading as the work students are assigned to do. Perception is everything when it comes to motivation, and giving students reading to do as a punishment will eventually create a negative association in their minds. Instead of it being an enjoyable activity that they view as a privilege, students will instead get to the point where they hate it because of the situations they have been forced to engage with it in the past. This will negate any sort of positive reinforcement the teacher has tried to incorporate in the classroom to date involving reading.

The way to get reluctant students interested in reading is to show them that it is something that can actually be enjoyed. Many students view the act of reading as boring and a waste of time. They would argue that they can get stories in their lives through movies or video games, and that they can find out all of the information they need to know by searching it on the internet. However, it is our job as teachers to convince students that books and the act of reading can offer a much more rewarding experience than they may at first suspect. To start with, reading is something that is necessary for success in the real world. High school students frequently complain that they are not being prepared for ‘real life’ in the classes they are forced to take, but reading is an exception to that rule. No matter the career the student chooses to pursue after high school, reading will somehow factor into it, especially the higher up the pay-scale the student wants to go. Reading can be something that students see as being actually beneficial to their lives.

Utilizing the reading as punishment technique is not only harmful in the classroom, but could go on to negatively impact the rest of a student’s life. If they learn to hate reading through association, they will do less of it and become less accomplished readers than they should be to have a fair shot at success in the outside world. Discipline in the classroom is important, but there are other ways to enforce classroom rules than by establishing reading as something to dread.

The Power of the Book Stack

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Though it has been a major focal point for some of my other classmates during the course of this semester, I had not given a lot of thought to book stacks before this post. A book stack, for those not familiar, is exactly what it sounds like on one level, but in actuality is a very creative teaching technique for getting students interested in books. At its core, the idea is simply to create a stack of books with one common theme. This can be as large or small as you want, and the connection can range from female main character to the fact that all of the covers have the same predominate color. Used as a teaching tool, they are capable of taking a lot of different forms.

Used at the beginning of the school year, book stacks can be a great way to introduce students to your class by putting books in front of them immediately. In this way, I personally like the idea of grouping books by genre. All of the romance books can sit in one pile, while all the westerns can occupy another space in the room. Chances are, students are going to come into your class with an operating knowledge of these genres, even if they have never experienced them in book form before. This way you are providing a reading experience that ties into something they are already familiar with, and by extension, comfortable with. For the more advanced readers in the classroom, you may offer a verbal challenge to pick from a stack that you would not normally choose. By phrasing this idea verbally students can choose to follow or ignore it, but it may provide an extra level of mental stimulation for students who may feel bored with reading the same thing they always do.

Later on in the school year, you have the option as a teacher to create personalized book stacks, which is one of my favorite ideas. Like most other things in teaching, this demands that you have a relationship with the student you are creating the stack for, and are aware of their likes and dislikes. Since unifying idea tying the stack together is the student themselves, you can really get creative with the kind of books you choose to include. Books can be fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, links to webcomics, or even magazines. This can be an excellent way to get a student to read because it offers such a wide variety of choices, and also communicates to them that you were willing to take the time to put it together. Students may not do something for themselves, but if they can sense it is important to a teacher whose opinion they value, they might try it despite their personal level of interest. If you can hook a student on that, the heavy lifting is now done by the stack itself. Since you know your student, you probably included books that they are likely to enjoy, and only need to sit back and wait for one to pull them in.

 

Photo Credit:

Alexandre Dulaunoy. “Stacking books until…”. October 24, 2009. https://www.flickr.com/photos/adulau/4042279241/in/photolist-7acJMF-gjDrZY-9mWtBt-29uJ7h3-97Am4U-9fFocU-7xbrF1-nzCkHy-65fvmG-26eJpWm-rCymL-oEbJm6-gzaT2-7umN3q-29iZhiZ-oxW4Pk-GRzo-eqjnj4-9gCDKG-54pNxY-oRsD43-awyBzJ-hmF5BV-ASBwUz-7WgBCp-9Uk51H-81UDFt-2SgRsM-6yMTPW-5VyR3G-bWjSN1-e95Qzi-aBpkfP-89D449-dMTqKC-pkkHic-4ySoMA-6BW9qM-9gzykz-4d6kQg-8RSfiQ-9kG7R-a851yo-5eeppk-9dDdVd-9fydEN-bcv54Z-64qbTH-bnzVrR-6Vc3mh

 

A Reason to Read

One of the concepts I really liked from our previous discussion on how to get students reading is selling them on the book. While the ‘whole class novel’ may not be something that everybody agrees with, there are books that are required to be covered by every student passing through the classroom in almost every state. It may be possible to navigate around these texts by only devoting one class period to them, but that is still a class period that you want to count for something in your students’ eyes. That being said, it is not always easy to get students off the ground with a more convoluted work like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I choose this book specifically because it is one of my favorites, and I absolutely hated it when I first started it in high school. Because of the way it was discussed and handled in the classroom, however, my view of the book changed dramatically. If I had been left to my own devices, I doubt I would have thought of it again after finishing it.

One of the most effective ways to deal with this is to be honest with your students. In an article entitled “Getting Students to Do the Readings”, the value of this approach was explored, ” Explain why you chose the readings you did, as well as their purpose, value, and relevance to the course.” (Nilson 1). This may seem like a very basic step almost not worth stating, but it can make a world of difference to the student who hears it. Most students, regardless of grade level, are not going to do something simply because you tell them to. They need to have some sort of motivation to complete the work, and the rationale ‘because I told you so’ will not carry much weight. Some teachers choose to create this motivation with grades, but this can often be hard to measure with such services as Sparknotes only a few keystrokes away. Students will only really do the readings if they subscribe to the importance of the book, and it is your job as the teacher to convince them of this worth.

One excellent way to sell students on the value of a text is to tie it in with something they already care about. If the student is naturally interested in history, have them read up on the historical context in which the book is set. Even if none of these connections exist, students can be convinced that the reading is worthwhile merely from the classroom discussion that you create as a teacher around the book. No one likes to feel left out, and if most of the other students in your classroom are sold on a book the social involvement can be enough of a push to get the stragglers to come around. If at the end of the day you still are dealing with students who do not care about the book, make them articulate why. It is fine to dislike something, but requiring your students to present their opinion in a professional manner will encourage critical thinking.

 

Works Cited

Nilson, Linda B. “Getting Students to Do the Readings.” NEA, National Education Association, 2017, http://www.nea.org/home/34689.htm.