Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Don't Read Aloud" and Other Misguided Directives

Field Work (2011, M.A. Reilly)

I. A Problem

During the last few weeks, many principals and teachers who are clients of mine have greeted me and quickly said, "We've been told we can't read aloud to children anymore. The children have to do the work." Colleagues in other states have shared similar stories.  Such talk gives me pause.

I wonder about this notion of work. What is meant by this term as it used here? What might the word be a placeholder for?  What has been left unsaid? In this post I want to get beneath what seems to be an odd directive.  It is healthy and wise to read aloud and surely not limited in classrooms to only the teacher as actor.  Many a student of mine have read aloud. Likewise, I've known principals and superintendents who read aloud to faculty, students, and parents sharing their love for the written and spoken word.

II. A Question: Why Do We Read Aloud?

In a letter to Ottoline Morrell, Katherine Mansfield (1922) wrote: "The pleasure of all reading is doubled when one lives with another who shares the same books." We read aloud for many reasons and sharing the pleasure of the text is certainly a primary one.  There is something quite beautiful and aesthetic about hearing a text read aloud that resonates with most of us and helps to develop community.  Reading aloud, swapping texts often helps us to connect with one another, to develop empathy, to stretch and challenge our points of view, to share and complicate knowledge, and to broaden and deepen our understanding of self and other.  We ought to think twice before we devalue such outcomes.

Another reason we read aloud is to help children develop content knowledge. This summer I had the opportunity to work across 16 elementary schools and co-teach every day. The interactive read aloud was an important practice we conducted with K-3 children.  We carefully selected high quality texts, created a mix of potential questions and methods for students to develop/augment knowledge and keep track of new learning. Few if any of the children could have actually read any of the texts on their own. By reading aloud, teachers invited children to wonder about mutualism, the Boreal Forest, Sonia Sotomayor, Bill Traylor, redwood trees, the power of the press, and Sylvia Earle to name but a few topics.

We read aloud (teachers and students) because there are texts that must be sung. In reading aloud, and preparing a performance, we model for other learners how our voices convey meaning.  Consider the opening to The Odyssey:

"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
"Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
"Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus.
Start from where you will—sing for our time too."
I cannot imagine silencing this call to the muse because someone issued a rule that says the spoken text is not allowed, especially at upper grades. How very narrow and foolish.

We read aloud challenging portions of text because seeing and hearing the text helps us to better understand it.  We model this for learners and invite them to make use of this practice when they are trying to make sense of a complex text they are reading or attempting to write. I know I read aloud my own writing (and usually pace as I do so) as hearing it helps me to revise and better understand the emerging intentions of the work.

We read aloud in order to guide students to better read specific types of texts, such as poetry and drama and to compose performance art or to use someone's voice in a remix.  For example, photographer Laurie Amodio, makes use of Laurie Anderson's, Walking and Falling in her 2 minute visual piece.

Hearing works read aloud inspires me.

And sometimes the words of another inspires our own creative acts as this young film maker does.

III. An Interlude

I am reminded as I write this of Robert Frost and his rather important lines from Mending Wall when the speaker says:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

IV. Towards Independence 

What I suspect might be fueling this rule is the concern that learners need to do, not only watch. I share that concern.  In some classrooms, children and teens spend a considerable time watching their teachers and then mimicking what they have seen their teachers do.  This method may be appropriate at times for specific reasons, but certainly would not represent all of the ways that learning can happen. What is ironic is that a similar absence of thoughtful practice is present in the decontextualized rules as those with some form of power are telling principals and teachers not to think, but rather to just enforce this new rule as it is dictated.

We learn by watching completed performances and we learn by doing/undoing, erring, knowing and unknowing.

Rules demonstrate the limitations of our thinking.

V. Cultivating Radical Openness

We need to be mindful and to cultivate radical openness, not more closed systems where permission is denied. We are teachers and what we model is what our children learn most powerfully.  Let's show them what radical openness looks like, feels like through the many occasions we and they compose that open spaces of permission.

Jason Silva situates this idea well in a three-minute TEDx performance.

Let's say it loudly
            (and often): We need to cultivate 
radical openness 
                 as a way of participating 
                                      and accelerating evolution. 


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