Monday, June 3, 2013

Newsflash: famously bad teacher who read aloud to students turns out to be famously good teacher!

Many years ago in Leafstrewn, there was an English teacher who was also the basketball coach.  This teacher liked to read aloud to his classes.  For years I have heard stories from some of the old-timers in my department, including some very close to me, about how this guy would sometimes spend the whole year reading A Tale of Two Cities aloud to his ninth grade class.  It was always implied that this was terrible teaching. If I said I was trying some reading aloud, they might say, Well, at least you're not doing what the Basketball Coach did, and reading A Tale of Two Cities aloud for an entire year!  Snooze-a-rama! What a bad teacher!

Today, some other colleagues and I were having lunch, and someone mentioned reading aloud.  My friend Robert said that his partner, Kate, who attended Leafstrewn back in the day, had never had an English class as important to her as the one in which the teacher just read aloud the whole year.

I said, "You mean the Basketball Coach?! Kate had him?!"

Robert said that yes, Kate had had him, and he had indeed read A Tale of Two Cities aloud to his class the entire year--and it had been great.  That year, he said, Kate was new to Leafstrewn, having come from a little private elementary school, and she knew nobody and was miserable.  She had been put into the Basketball Coach's low-level English class, and every day little Kate and the twenty other students in the class (all hulking basketball players, in Robert's telling) would come in, open up their Dickens, and listen to the coach read aloud.  With ten minutes left in the period, he would stop, and they would discuss what he had read.  According to Robert, this class sustained Kate--she loved the book, she liked the discussions, she got to know the basketball players--for many painful months, until she was able to make friends. She still thinks of it as one of the best English classes she ever had--and she graduated, as an English major, magna cum laude from Cornell.

So, the famously bad teacher is also a famously good teacher, and the distinction between natural and unnatural is again unclear. My own takeaway is this: if, as per the Common Core, we want to get kids reading more complex texts, maybe we should be reading aloud more? If we do it for our own children, why not for our students?

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