A novel approach
As part of my performance development plan this year I am working with a colleague to build students’ strength and confidence in the area of text response. Our focus group is her Year 10 class as we prepare them to enter their VCE next year. I am currently teaching both levels (Years 11 and 12) of VCE English and in both classes we are getting our teeth into the comparative texts.
This has led me to again ponder the age old debate about how / when to read the texts.
In Year 12 our comparative texts are “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks and “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller … in Year 11 – “Macbeth” by Shakespeare and the film text, “Paradise Road”. The novel, “Year of Wonders” is a relatively easy read, so I felt the Yr 12s should have been able to read this at home. We are time poor in class and it seems extravagant to use up that time just to read when students can do that themselves, but can they? I knew my Yr 11s would struggle with Shakespeare and I had always planned to ‘read’ this in class with them. I always listen to a radio play when I do Shakespeare. I asked the Yr 12s to try to read “The Crucible”, I expect to read any play together and stage some of the scenes.
What I constantly wrestle with is the idea that we suck the fun out of learning, and specifically out of reading!
In Yr 7 we read “Red Dog” by Louis de Bernières. As this was their first text study in High School I read it to them. I wanted to model my wonderings (how I think when I read) and how to annotate a text. But if I’m being honest, I was also being a little selfish and indulgent. I like to read. I enjoy listening to a good reader read (my mother read to my sisters and me when we were younger and I still enjoy a good talking book). I want my students to enjoy reading. I also want them to think about what they read and react to it.
So, I indulged my yr 12s! I gave them the choice to read the novel themselves and do the chapter questions and theme pages …blah, blah, blah … or to sit with me on the comfy couches in the library and read. Initially one said he preferred to go it alone but it didn’t take long before he caved and joined us on the couches. We took about 6 lessons to read the text, with some negotiated home-alone reading. What we had along the way was some great sharing of wonderings, thinking out loud, making text connections, predicting the plot and reacting with emotion. We don’t need to ‘do the assignment’ (although we did make annotations as we read) and I know the students get the big ideas because of the incidental conversations we’ve had out of class where they make a text joke or allusion.
Reading aloud to my students also shows them that even someone who presents as a good reader isn’t perfect. I sometimes spit words out and start again when I get tongue-tied. I don’t know every word and sometimes we have to stop to ‘google’ a definition and even a pronunciation: Sometimes we just agree on how we’ll say it just so we can keep reading. But we also have the opportunity to bring the text to life … I do voices and create characters (Shakespeare works really well when read with a yorkshire accent #justsaying!) … I use the punctuation and figurative language to add drama or mood. I even add theme music and special effects (the ‘da dum da dum’ from Jaws makes regular cameos).
The other side effect is that the students get the confidence to have a go! High School students become so self conscious and are reluctant to speak up or perform in front of the class. But when we sit in a reading circle on our comfy chairs (I have a class set of camping chairs for groups that don’t fit on the library couches) it becomes less threatening. I don’t force students to read aloud but I do have the goal that by the end of each year, each student will have volunteered to read out loud at least once … I haven’t failed yet!
So, I’m still wrestling with how I approach text studies … I don’t have a definitive answer and maybe I never will … except to say that if we enjoy the experience that is the only thing that really matters.