Four years ago, after I accepted an offer to teach language arts to 8th graders, my teaching partner asked me to read up on a few novels that we would be reading aloud to our students throughout the year. I was a bit taken aback because I assumed we would be assigning readings and the students would complete them on their own.
As we started to map out the year, he asked if I had any suggestions for a novel read aloud. Thinking back to my own middle school years, I suggested the first novel I really fell in love with: The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. After reading this book as a 7th grader, my friends and I assigned each other names from characters in the novel. I was Ponyboy. I give a reading survey at the end of the year, and the students consistently choose the 1960s classic as their favorite.
My teaching partner had been using the short story “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes as a segue into the science fiction unit, which focused on Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. After talking with the district reading specialist at an in-service, we decided to try to bring continuity to our entire year with reading aloud. The reading specialist suggested that we find a common thread that would connect all the readings.
The first consistency that we found with the books was that they were all written around the 1950s and 60s. We already had a biography unit in place, so we decided to have the students research a person from that time period that stood out: an outsider. The connections were beginning. We realized that “the outsider” was a theme that ran through everything we taught. Charlie in “Flowers for Algernon” doesn’t fit in due to his intelligence, both before and after the surgery. Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 is an anomaly among the other firemen consumed with destroying illegal books.
This year we decided to incorporate the oft-challenged novel The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. The book was written in the 1970s, but its main character decides to “disturb the universe” by refusing to take part in a school-wide chocolate sale. We have also chosen the young reader’s edition of I Am Malala, the autobiography by Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for attending school. Both books deal with characters that make choices that have dire consequences. Both characters are outsiders.
A Shared Experience
Having a continuous theme throughout the year is not the only benefit of reading aloud. We have also found the each book offers us a common text that we can refer back to later in the year. We can compare and contrast Jerry Renault and Ponyboy. We might have an essay question that asks the students to explore a common theme in Fahrenheit 451 and The Chocolate War. Every student in the class will know what you mean when you talk about Dally’s wild side or Charlie Gordon’s crush on his teacher at night school. An emerging reader and a gifted-and-talented student can have a conversation about the Taliban’s impact on the city of Mingora, Pakistan.
Reading aloud is also a way to differentiate. The common texts allow all students to share a foundation from which they can build upon with their own experience and ideas. Each year I have a few students that come to loathe reading and writing. Many times it is due to low reading skills, but not always. They’ve spent so many years simply trying to figure out how to say the words in a text, instead of becoming immersed in the story itself. Sometimes I will have students read aloud to me, so I can listen to what they are focused on. My low readers spend a lot of time deciphering words that are sight words for most grade-level readers. How can they appreciate the beauty of Ray Bradbury’s writing when so many words are painful obstacles? Reading aloud gives them the opportunity to hear complex texts without the onus being on placed on their shoulders.
This year I had a parent question me on the validity of reading aloud with teenagers. Initially I was offended, but then I remembered back to my first year of teaching. I had wondered the same thing. I couldn’t imagine sitting in front of thirty 8th graders and with a book having them actually pay attention. But I’ll tell you what, when Ponyboy reads Johnny’s letter at the end of The Outsiders, you can hear a pin drop in my classroom. Stories bind us together. They come in many forms—movies, novels, biographies, short stories, graphic novels, cartoons—but they allow us to share and experience a journey together that would otherwise be impossible. Taking ten minutes a day to read to my students has become a cornerstone of my teaching.