I Almost Read Ahead

“Mrs. Slawson, I read last night. This story is getting good,” this coming from a fifteen- year- old boy who was doing his best NOT to read in my class this year.

“ I read, too,” another reluctant reader piped up.

“ It’s actually pretty interesting,” a third one said.

“ I almost read ahead last night,” I heard from my left.   That good – he almost read ahead.

I’m about to sprout wings and fly around my room. They are reading!  They are reading!  I’m not sure what I have done, but most of them  are reading the novel I assigned them.  I suspect it might be what I have not done.  I’ve not gotten in the way of great literature this time.

I recently read an article (  the source of which I can’t remember or I’d cite it here)  in which the writer questioned why we teachers stop to discuss while we read through the book with a class rather than waiting until we’ve read the complete story.  How would we like someone to stop a film every fifteen minutes to discuss it with us rather than just let us enjoy the story?  I’ve long suspected that some of my students didn’t have to read for themselves because they could rely on me to ‘retell’ the chapter in the discussion.  These two things together prompted me to try a different approach.

For the most part, we are reading To Kill a Mockingbird in full before we begin to analyze it for the symbols, the themes, the plot or setting,  and the tools of characterization.  We will look at those things, but only after we have had the pleasure of being told a great story by Harper Lee.   We are learning some new vocabulary and I am asking students to do some writing as they go to reflect on what they read, but for the most part, we are reading.  I’m giving them class time each day to accomplish hopefully half  of the reading I expect, and the rest should be done for homework.

Some students like to tell me they can’t read in class. I refuse to accept that.  If I can keep the room quiet, (and I can) and let them get comfortable, many of them find that they can leave the cinder block walls of my room and travel in their mind’s eye to Maycomb Co. to roam the streets with Jem, Scout and Dill.  I give them time in class to read for two reasons:  at least I know they are reading some of the book because I watch them do it; and more importantly, I want them to know I mean it when I tell them that nothing is more important to their academic lives than reading.  How can I tell them reading is such a high priority in their lives if I don’t make it one in my classroom? 

I recently asked my students  in each class how many of them read chapters from their textbooks when they are studying a unit in history, science, or math.  Unfortunately, only a few hands in each class went up.  Most of them just study class notes, they told me.  This is disheartening because as a college-preparatory school, our students should leave here being comfortable reading textbooks.  My daughter, a freshman in college, has noticed that her sociology professor might assign 75-100 pages of reading between classes, which only meet twice a week.  No way is he going to cover all that material in two fifty minute lectures per week!  Yet she will be tested on it, hence, the need to read the book.

Granted, I have Harper Lee, Pearl Buck and Ernest Hemingway to help me “sell” the pleasure  and virtue of reading in an English class. Still, reading the book – whether novel or textbook – is essential to college-preparedness. So if you pass by and we are sitting on the floor, under the pool of lamplight, book in hand, leave us alone. We are  reading!

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