Whenever teachers suggested reading aloud for students over the age where walking in lines is customary, I was a skeptic. Part of that stems from my memory of being incredibly bored by read alouds during school, especially in middle and high school. The readings I remember involved students following along in text, and it killed me because I felt like we were going soooo slow. I’ve since realized that my teachers may have been trying to help us develop close reading skills but I was so tuned out that I doubt I really gleaned much from them. (Update: After posting this I remembered a high school teacher and a grad school prof both read Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton, a great read aloud choice, to us.)
The other reason I was skeptical about reading aloud is that I feel really vulnerable reading aloud. It’s strange. I’m not really sure why I feel that way. I’m not insecure about my decoding skills; I don’t have any speech issues. There’s just something about the act of reading that feels more personal to me than speaking in front of people.
At the end of the summer, several teachers on the English Companion Ning and Twitter were extolling the benefits of reading aloud. These are folks I respect so I decided to give reading aloud another chance.
I chose The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan as our first read aloud. It’s been a great choice. The author’s won the Man Booker Prize, so I can justify it to my snooty literary side 🙂 McEwan writes in the introduction that he read each chapter aloud to his children to gauge their reactions as he was writing the book. It is a series of stories about Peter, an eleven year old, who is a frequent daydreamer. Each of the chapters details one of Peter’s daydreams in which he often inhabits the inner world of other characters in the story.
If you walk into a classroom and expect students to be quietly seated in orderly rows, you’d be disappointed. Students recline in floor rockers, sprawl out over floor pillows, and sit back to back against each other. Last week at the end of the chapter students broke into spontaneous and genuine applause.
I don’t force discussion after the reading, but make space for it if students want to discuss what occurred in the book. Invariably there’s excited chatter- Did Peter really experience the events in the chapter? Was it all a daydream? What if life is all a daydream? How would we know?
Sometimes we follow the reading with writing. After the first chapter, I invited students to stare into space for 2 or 3 minutes and then write about their daydreams. The reactions to this assignment were amusing. You just want us to stare into space?
After a couple minutes, most students began writing furiously. I noticed one student wasn’t writing. I went over and knelt beside her.
Tell me what’s going on.
I can’t think of anything to write about.
I took a deep breath because I recognized the “I can’t think of anything to write about that will be good enough” panic in her eyes. Don’t screw this up, Ms. Stewart, I thought.
Ok, tell me what you’re doing this weekend.
What will you do at home?
What would happen if you didn’t wake up for a very long time? Could you daydream for a minute and then write about that?
Her eyes brightened up. She stared thoughtfully for a few moments and then her pencil started skating across the page. It was a beautiful, crazy daydream.