Listening to a Good Book

My attention was recently captured by a blog showcased on the Freshly Pressed page,  Audio Books Are Not Cheating by Suddenly Jamie at the Live to Write – Write to Live blog (I recommend the blog to aspiring writers). The blog post praises the merits of listening to an audio book instead of reading it.  Time is the main reason most of us can’t indulge in our favourite past time.  We would all read more if we just had the luxury of time.

Then, I started to think of my students.  Their time is meant to be spent reading and doing homework.  Yet, more and more often I sadly hear students say, “I don’t have time to read” – okay, I can relate to that.  “Reading is so boring” – I can’t relate to that at all; or, the one that leaves me most baffled is “I’ve never read an entire book”!

These are grade twelve students.  After almost four years of high school English, some students admit that they have not read through one book.  How did they even end up in grade twelve English class without having read any books in their previous English classes?  Well, I guess that’s another question for another time.

My mission this semester is to encourage more reading.  How is a teacher to do that?  Unfortunately, by the time students are in grade twelve, they are so caught up in applications to college and university that reading for the sheer pleasure of it will not cut it.  They want marks so they can move on with their lives.  So, we read and I offer marks.  Every Friday students are expected to bring in a novel of their choice; they read for an extended amount of time and then write about what they’ve read.  My aims are educational: to improve literacy and writing skills, but more importantly to maybe, just maybe, develop an appreciation for the written word – perhaps not passion, not love, not even like, but at the very least appreciation for being lost in a story for a little while and then responding to it.

Suddenly, every Friday becomes a treat.  I look around my classroom and witness almost every student quietly engaged in reading.  After half an hour, I quietly ask them to transition to writing in their reader response journal about what they’ve read.  It’s almost magical.  They sit, they read, they write – without complaint.  Some students are reading the same novel they started in September, because they do not read outside of the allotted Friday reading time.  Some are well into their third or fourth novel, so for the most part my plan was successful.  Nonetheless, there remains several students that persist in doing everything but reading because they claim it is boring and uninteresting and will not even put in the effort in finding something that might interest them.

Throughout the rest of the week, we continue working our way through the curriculum.  Lots of learning about literature, grammar, writing and of course, more reading.  We begin to read the novel Theories of Relativity by Barbara Haworth-Attard .  I decide to read it to my students, aloud, in class.  I activate my best narrator’s voice, inflect, change tone, volume and pace; I change my voice for character dialogue and even read through every f*** and sh** as if they are the most eloquent words in the English language.  Every so often, I look up to ensure students are following the novel, not their smartphone conversations and I am stunned when I see every face completely enraptured.  So many of them do not even follow along with their own novel.  They sit and listen to me read each chapter to them.

And, as I look at each face furrowed in concentration, I realize I am enjoying the experience as much as they are.  If you have never read Theories of Relativity, it is the story of a sixteen-year-old boy who is kicked out of his home by his mother and ends up homeless.  There are many shocking moments for the main character, moments when you just have to stop and take in his experiences – absorb the many feelings created by the challenges he faces.  When I read to my class, we can do this together.  I look at them and we are experiencing the story together; all of the feelings that Haworth-Attard wished to evoke, come out of us at the same time.  We simply must stop and discuss and express our reactions.  It is my favourite part of the class.

Have I turned any student in my class into a “reader” or into a “lover of literature”? Probably not.  But, I have a strong feeling that they will remember sitting in their grade 12 English class and experiencing  this really great book together.  In a world where so many things are clamouring for our attention and keep us from enjoying the peace of sitting and reading something that will expand our mind and our consciousness, I am happy to provide my students with a brief opportunity to revel in reading, discuss reading, look forward to reading – even if it is just for a short while.

In the meantime, we continue our Friday reading and journalling.  The same students read the same book, the same students have moved on to new books, and the same students sit and chat and doodle their way through the class.  Not even the allure of “free marks” is enough to convince them that reading is good.  But, once we finish Theories of Relativity, at least none of them can ever say that they’ve never read an entire book anymore. And that makes me smile.  Suddenly Jamie is right, an audio book is just as valid as reading a book.

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