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Reading, Rassling, and Ruminating

Why might teachers have silent reading during class time? One simple reason is the guarantee reading in a group provides that students will encounter the reading matter as a group, with all the benefits that a group of inquiring students can provide each other: a colloquium-in-progress. A second is the guarantee against contamination by “study guides” while the students wrestle with their reading unaided.

(TV rassling sometimes takes place in teams. When the protagonist-rassler tires, he signals his brutish teammate to come in and thrash the adversary. The thrashing has often been planned ahead of time. A student using “study guides” instead of his own thinking is like a team rassler who calls in a brute to give the material the needed going-over, usually in a highly predictable and conventional way. And, yes, such a student does regard his material as The Adversary.)

Yet another is that in a classroom reading can occur with an enforced quiet that students, left on their own, often don’t bring to their tasks. I am thinking of the use of electronic entertainment during reading, or an open cell phone, or other distractions from steady work. We can assure ourselves that students have an ambience of study that allows them to follow the thread of a complex sentence or view the unfolding of a subtle or difficult idea without pulling away from it and then having to re-enter. Finally, it can be an entryway into another assignment that dovetails with it—usually discussion or writing.

High school students can also benefit from being read to. An experienced and practiced reader can help students make sense of what they read and can shape their encounter with it. Reading aloud also helps them explore the possibilities of language by realizing how the material can be shaped by music and sympathy, which is what reading aloud provides. Many students, particularly those who learn best through the ear, will find that literature, particularly poetry, when read aloud leaps off the page at them.

Reading aloud may even shake their general perceptions. One of my students listened with amazement and some disapproval as I read his class Lord Macaulay’s dramatic account of the execution of the Duke of Monmouth from his History of England. When I was finished, I could tell that it had shaken something up. He protested that that couldn’t be good history because it was interesting and because it adopted a point of view. For two days he tried to fit Macaulay into his view of history as a series of undistinguished rubble-heaps compiled by the writers of the textbooks he had been reading. He finally announced to me and the class that he’d decided what he had thought about history was wrong and that an historian should be obliged to engage his readers. (Or hers: he also heard Wedgwood on Richelieu.)

For reading a teacher should choose something that plays to his strengths as a reader. I have had good results with Tacitus (the fire of Rome and the “notorious Christians”), Flannery O’Connor (“The Enduring Chill”), Yeats (“Lapis Lazuli” and “Circus Animals’ Desertion”) and Hopkins (“Binsey Poplars”), but any good teacher will be able to choose some personal best readings. One class was struck dumb and breathless by the ending of “The Enduring Chill,” and dumb breathlessness was not that class’s usual response to anything. Teachers may also judge one class receptive to one reading and another to another: I read O’Connor to this one class but not to the others I had at that time.

To return to silent reading: it can serve yet another purpose for an experienced teacher. I usually assign silent reading at the beginning of the year to all my classes as a way of judging how fast and well they read. I use subsequent reading-sessions when I think something subtly wrong might be afflicting a student and needs smoking out. One of my 9th-graders kept having some serious and inexplicable difficulty getting what he read.  Over a period of time, as I watched him read in class, I was able to see that his eyes did not fall on the page right. (I’d watch him read from my desk, where I could monitor his downturned eyes). I finally wrote a note home suggesting that he be examined by an ophthalmologist. It turned out that he had an unusual kind of strabismus that was corrigible by eye-exercises. The happy result was that a couple of years later he was reading successfully along with his classmates.

It’s a pity that the average beginning teacher does not last five years in the profession, though some schools welcome short-tenured teachers as a way of reducing costs. The problem is that short tenure of teaching also reduces quality. Many of the insights I gained into reading, both silently and aloud, including most that lay behind the successes I report here, came to me after I had been teaching five years.

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