I start class every single day by reading out loud to my students for 5-10 minutes. Some of them are antsy about it when they first come in to 7th grade. Every day? They have to sit and be quiet and have a teacher read to them? Is there a test? Is it a trick? Yes, every day. Yes, quiet. But no tests, no tricks; just reading and experiencing the same book together.
Sometimes I get nervous when my principal does walk-throughs and I'm still reading. I glance at the clock and realize that he probably thinks I'm wasting time, that something more important should be happening. Sometimes it's the first time I notice how long I've been reading, that we're caught up in such a good part that I can't find a good stopping point and the kids are begging for more. What English-lover could tell kids "no" when they beg for more of a book they love? I'm not a monster, for chrissakes. I know that reading aloud is important for kids, and my principal does too, but sometimes it feels hard to justify, like I have to defend my practice. Teachers are expected to constantly be doing something, and simply reading often doesn't seem like it's enough. I've had some adults come right out and tell me that they think I'm doing the kids a disservice, that 7th and 8th grade is too old for this activity. It doesn't matter that in my low-income school, our building can be one of the only places where kids are ever read to. It doesn't matter that when high school kids come back to say hi, they often mention the read-alouds, and how much they miss them now that they're older.
When I make plans for substitutes, I don't usually include the read-aloud. I've had subs complain about it in the past, that it was cumbersome in some way and so I decided to stop fighting it. The kids probably didn't behave as well, and I can see how it would be a classroom management issue for a sub. So my kids were dying for read-aloud on Monday this week since I'd been gone both Thursday and Friday. One of the few notes the sub had left me (other than who was absent): "They really missed being read to. They said it calms them and helps them focus." I was giddy. They love it as much as I do.
I always start 7th graders off with The Giver. This is partially a nod to nostalgia: I read this book for the first time when I was in seventh grade language arts class, and if we can consider YA lit "classics", then I firmly believe that this is one from my lifetime. And it's one that my students often miss when choosing books for themselves. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner: these are the flashy dystopias that kids are drawn to now. Why would they pick the slim black book with the creepy old man on the cover compared to these current, flashy favorites? So I choose it for them. Some of them are impatient at first. The Giver doesn't contain the high-octane action that they're used to, but their interest builds as they discover what Jonas's world is really like based on the new memories he receives. They want to talk about why a future society would get rid of certain things: why colors and love need to be banned alongside war and hunger.
And then Lois Lowry drops the bomb. We read chapter 19 today. Chapter 19 is when Jonas finds out what "release" really is (Do I need to give an Internet spoiler alert for a book published in 1993?) when he watches the footage of his father releasing a newborn twin. The pacing is so smooth, even as a reader when you start to realize what's happening before Jonas does, you still have the same stunned shock. Every year it's almost the same: my students are silent at first, still trying to wrap their head around what has just happened. "You mean...they KILL babies..and old people...and people who break the rules three times?!" someone always blurts out eventually. The silence is immediately replaced by every 7th grader scrambling to put in his or her two cents at once: "I knew it! I knew there was something weird about release!" "I can't believe his dad was still talking in that creepy baby voice the whole time!" "Don't they have religion? Don't they realize it's wrong to kill people?" All of these questions happen at once, and I have to scold them to keep one at a time. Then I ask my questions: why? Why does release help make the "perfect" society? Why did they think this was necessary to solve problems in society? And then we talk.
This book is not something they will ever be quizzed on or forced to know. Read-alouds are strictly for pleasure, for the shared experience of enjoying a story as a group with no consequences, without dissecting it or tearing it apart. It's okay to forget details and need reminding; it's okay to not understand and ask for clarification. It's okay to simply love a book and love talking about it with other people.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.