My students love it when I read out loud to them.
Well, that might be putting it on a bit thick.
Let’s say instead that they prefer that to reading independently.
I read out loud well and this guarantees at the end
at least some level of certainty that every kid in the room
has in some way engaged with the text, or, if they
did nothing but listen the whole time, they will have
understood a large part of the material we are
supposedly dealing with today. Only a few of them
will nod off to my mellifluous delivery.
But I worry that I’m not doing them any favors
when I read out loud; I worry that I am only making it
easier for them, that I’m doing most of the heavy lifting,
and perhaps it’s not helping them to improve
their own abilities to grapple with difficult material.
Deep down I know these worries are valid, and maybe true.
So I tell these kids, recently introduced to Romanticism
in American Literature—here’s a fun piece by Washington Irving
to read on your own and here are some big questions
to wrestle with along the way and we’ll write and
we’ll talk about it all when you get done reading.
They can’t do it. Or they won’t do it. In small groups,
reading out loud, or independently and in silence,
most of them throw in the towel after two or three
pages, they give up on the reading altogether as soon as they get
to an unknown word or a difficult sentence. They try then to guess
at answers to the questions. Their work deteriorates
into social stuff or they become buried in their smart phones.
Some resourceful ones have found audio versions
of “Rip Van Winkle” on youtube, and instead of listening
to me, they’re listening to some other fool read out loud.
They don’t understand the sentences, let alone the jokes,
and I push and prod and encourage and cajole but
it all comes to naught, falls mostly on deaf ears,
and they blame the material for being stupid, uninteresting,
or (my favorite) boring. It’s not the material, I say,
and out of decorum or professionalism, I don’t finish the sentence.
And this comes back again to the problem
of tracked classrooms, even student-selected ones.
In my regular English classes
there are very few students rising to the occasion and
those students do not want to stand out in a crowd
where ineptitude and apathy run amok,
where aversion to difficulty is the norm.
And I am stuck between a rock and another rock
trying to decide between Mr. Jarmer Story Time
or one failed lesson after another because students
cannot or will not read IN CLASS. Of course
there’s a happy medium, but today it was entirely
unhappy and most kids spent 87 minutes not reading
while I wrung my hands and gnashed my teeth.