When students enter into learning – real learning as opposed to simply being given something to do – they can get lost in it much like I imagine an orchestra can be carried away by a musical composition.
Readers are born when stories meet a deep yearning of the human spirit. Paradoxically, the stories that whisper to something in their childhood – the ones that will call to them long after their high school years are memories from a distant past – are the very stories which are barely heard in increasingly data-driven English classrooms.
Which is why my junior classes always start with reading just for the fun of it.
The kids are used to the routine, choosing a book of their own from our yet-to-be-air-conditioned school library. On what was shaping up to be a particularly sticky afternoon, I was cornered by four girls hovering in a little reading nook between Action and Adventure and Science Fiction.
“Look what we found,” said a voice from the huddle, holding out a freshly date-stamped book, now valid for another fortnight. Leaning in I asked, “What am I looking at?”
“Alliteration!” she said, triumphantly.
“And listen to this,” said her friend, reading dramatically, “My heart is thumping like a drum. That’s a simile.”
“The sun enters the room like an unwelcome guest,” read another.
“Check this out, ‘A burst of orange…that bled out like a sunset.’”
I fist-pumped myself on the inside. Back in the classroom, I stood back to watch as they were lured into different worlds. When kids are fully engaged, you can feel it. I could almost hear the synapses connecting as I moved quietly amongst the magical places their minds now wandered, amongst the adventures they were on, the romances they were embroiled in, the feelings of abandonment or betrayal their characters encountered. Their tastes were wide and varied.
Suddenly, one of the boys jolted upright, glued to the page in front of him. He was like a sponge, soaking up ideas, growing them until he found a place to plant the seeds of his new knowledge. It was only a matter of time before this kid grew something important for the world, and now he needed to blurt or bust.
Always, when reading time is finished, I ask, “Who wants to tell us about their book?” Most of the hands in the room go up. In this class there were still some who didn’t enjoy reading, and I hoped I could give them this gift before the end of the year. I chose The Sponge before he imploded.
"Anh Do’s uncle was laid in a coffin in the morgue, but he wasn’t really dead!” He whispered this, the thought of being buried alive too terrifying to say out loud.
“OMG, that is like my worst nightmare!!!” someone said, and for a minute they talked about what would you do if you were buried and not really dead? This was too awful to contemplate, and led to further discussion about what if? One by one they described their books – the suspense, the heartbreaks, the narrow escapes, the tragedies and the triumphs of their adolescent heroes.
In the back corner of the classroom, a girl, a natural leader with the enviable combination of being both curious and clever, was hooked on a dystopian series in which people’s lives were told in pictures tattooed onto their skin. Used by a totalitarian regime as a way to control social order, strangers read each other’s ink, summing one another up in seconds.
They were at an age where tattoos were noteworthy. Until recently the teachers at our school had been asked to cover their tattoos, but as the word ‘diversity’ gained traction, this requirement had softened, and so the ‘teachers’ tatts’ was a topic of interest.
The idea of becoming walking illustrations of our choices, good and bad, was food for thought. Having tattoos as permanent public records of our lives led to a discussion about the value of our privacy, our personal freedom. This was a discussion the author wanted us to have, I suggested, repeating my mantra that good stories always leave us asking more questions.
“This is why certain regimes over the centuries have tried to restrict reading, to ban books” I said. “It’s hard to control people who ask too many questions.”
“Is that why the Taliban shot Malala?” There it was from the middle of the room. Real life connection.
“Who shot who?”
The classroom buzzed as the ones who knew filled in the ones who didn’t, who then looked to me in shock, as if to say, can this be true? When the buzz settled, the reader of the dystopian series explained that when people died, their skin was removed and made into books which became a library of human archives. A library of warnings.
The thought of skinning people was a bit off-putting and so the discussion turned to another person’s book. They put ‘dibs’ on the good ones and discussed them in much the same way as they talked about the latest Netflix series. To them, they were ‘just reading’. But I knew that their books were the vehicles through which they would learn to think bigger and ask better questions.
They would build resilience and empathy as their protagonists overcame loneliness or social isolation, or illness. They would learn about universal themes of survival, hope, triumph and tragedy, safely, through the pages of someone else’s story.
Later that week, I noticed that one of the girls had borrowed I am Malala from the library. I almost danced to my next class. I didn’t, but I wanted to.
It was, and still is, a luxury to get lost in learning which is not assessed against syllabus criteria and about which I am not bound to report. During these precious ‘free reading’ minutes, I don’t have to assign a grade, collect data, analyse or measure reading growth.
There are no assignments or exams or success criteria. There is just the room and the space that we create each day to read. Echoing the words of children’s author Mem Fox, who was my Language Arts teacher at College, and whose passion for literacy rubbed off on us all, when I tell a child to read, I want it to sound like chocolate, not like medicine. Some days reading for the fun of it feels like the last bastion of my English classroom, the one piece of the learning paradigm that hasn’t yet been swallowed up by data metrics, and I guard it stubbornly.
Sue Webb has been an educator for thirty years and currently teaches at Sienna Catholic College on the Sunshine Coast. She also holds a Master of Educational Studies.Do you have an idea for a story?
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