Tuesday, December 04, 2007

High on literature

One of my least favorite things to do is reading in class. Seems like a waste: Reading should be done at home. In class, the students and I should be engaged in discussion and analysis and debate about characters and characterization, similes and things that make us smile.

Uh-huh. I wake up from my fantasy world and realize that A. my students are non-readers, and B. we don't even have enough books for all the students, so we have class sets that can only be read during class. Yeah, it's a waste of time, but you gotta do what you gotta do. So we spend plenty of time reading aloud in class. Sometimes I let volunteers do the reading, and then the class get to suffer through the stumbling and stopping and mispronouncing. Most times, though, I do the reading. I mean, I can make it more dramatic. And, really, having the students do it serves no real purpose, because reading out loud is not really a skill they need to develop. (Unless, of course, if they have children of the their own, which is sometimes the case, and they want to practice reading aloud to them.)

And while I do hate it, I have to say one thing about in-class reading: The vast majority of students love--absolutely love--to have a good story read to them. Don't know, maybe they didn't have anyone reading to them when growing up, so it brings out the inner child. Then again, which person, no matter how old and how educated, doesn't like to be read to?

Recently, four of my classes have started in on Beowulf. It was perfect timing, though totally unplanned, that I started the unit on the day the movie came out. I haven't seen it yet, but several of my students have, and it's actually very cool to have them say things like, "Hey, that's not the way it happened in the movie!" or "I really like this story. I mean, it's Beowulf!"

Then, there were these two back-to-back sentences from a boy today:

"Brad Pitt's naked in it."
"I saw it in 3D."

I looked at him and said, "Those are two sentences I never thought I'd hear you say." The class got a good laugh.

Oh, it's fun when you can have some laughs while struggling through names like Beowulf and Grendel and Hrothgar. To keep the characters straight, I insisted students pronounce them like this:
  • For Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, I said the only way to say the name is to shake a fist in the air and speak in a slow, deep voice.
  • For Grendel, the monster Beowulf comes to slay, you have to roll the "R" to make it sound sinister.
  • For Beowulf, really stretch out the final syllable into an extended howl.
A few students actually got a kick out of it and started saying the names like that. Then, I heard some kid say, "Man, what have you been smoking?" I'm not sure if he was talking to me or to one of the kids that was shaking his fist in the air, but I replied, "I don't smoke anything. I'm high on life!"

A few other kids sit through the whole thing, bored. "Man, this is the third time I'm reading this," said a guy who is taking English III for the third time.

"Doesn't it just get better each time?" I asked.

"No," he said. "Beowulf does the same things each time. And Hrothgar's still afraid that the beginning might not be the end."

My fourth period class is extra sluggish, so I've had to mix things up a little to keep them from falling asleep. Last week, I insisted everyone stand while we were reading. Surprisingly, they all stood. Nobody complained. And I think mostly everyone paid attention. Ah, you might be asking, but is that not a form of punishment? Pshah! These kids sit all day. Standing might be good for them.

That same day I asked my seventh period to stand up for the reading, too. They declined. "Fine," I said, "I have a better idea. Why don't we all stand on top of our desks?" I climbed up on a desk and said, "Come on, who's with me?" Two guys--both of them labeled behavior disordered--stood up onto their desks with their textbooks. "Isn't it great up here?" I asked, hoping for a Dead Poets moment. "Don't you gain a whole new perspective on life from up here?"

The two guys looked around the room thoughtfully and nodded. "Yeah," one of them said. "Things are different from up here." Yes, these guys were literally getting high on literature.

Today, I asked fourth period if they wanted to stand again while reading. "No!" one girl called out. "My leg hurts."

"Fine," I said, "so how about if we all just sit on top of the desks? Up out of your seats and onto the desks everybody!" They all did it. "Just remember this the next time you want to put your head down for a nap," I said. "Someone was sitting on that desk."

"No farting," someone said.

"Too late," someone else said.

We all giggled.

"Hey, what if the principal walks in and sees us sitting like this?" a third voice asked. Actually worried about what the principal would do?

"I don't know. I'll just tell him that you refused to listen to me when I told you to sit in your desks," I said. "No, just kidding. He'll probably think it's some innovative teaching method and have me talk about it at a future meeting."

The funny thing is, the principal did walk in today. It was later in the day, seventh period, and we were just getting underway, so no one was sitting or standing on top of a desk yet. He sat down for a formal observation. Darn, I thought, no foolishness. But I still couldn't resist.

"Hey, where's Joe?" I asked. "I swear I saw him in the hall earlier."

"I think he got an early dismissal," a girl said.

"Oh, too bad," I said. "I brought in a goat for him to slaughter today. Is there anyone else willing to sacrifice a goat today?"

The principal gave me an odd look. I didn't bother to explain. I mean, if he had been in class last week, he would have known that we had read the part in Beowulf where Hrothgar's wise men start praying to the Devil to rid the kingdom of Grendel. At that point, I had said, "Isn't that a scary thought? The people are so desperate. They've been praying to God for 12 years and the monster is still attacking them, so they decide maybe they should pray to the Devil instead." I paused, looked around the room. "Now, how many of you are religious?" Most hands went up. "So, what would you say if I told you I'd give you an A in my class if you sincerely prayed to the Devil?" The kids were properly freaked out. "Well, the people in this story are religious. But that's how desperate they've become. Can you imagine that?"

A few kids shuttered at the thought. But Joe, of course, declared that he'd gladly pray to the Devil for an A in my class. "Great," I said, "I'll bring in a goat and you get to sacrifice it." He insisted he'd do it. But then he's been absent the next two days.

Of course when I finished joking around about that I looked up and noticed that my computer had mysteriously shut down. My entire lessons are done on PowerPoint, so I had to restart the machine. "See what you get for joking around about worshiping the Devil?" I said, waiting impatiently as my slow CPS-laptop booted up. "There are certain things you shouldn't make light of."

Back in seventh period today, the principal left after about 35 minutes. Several students breathed a sigh of relief. "What's the matter? Were you guys nervous with Grendel, I mean the principal in the room?"

"No!" a kid declared. "But you sure were."

"Me? Did I look nervous to you?"

"Oh yeah," said one of the kids that stood on a desk last week. "You totally held back today."

The bell eventually rang, and a student said to me, "I actually like this class."

"Thanks," I said, "but I think you're just responding to great literature."

"Yeah," he said, looking at me. "I guess so."


middleson said...

i completely agree about everyone enjoying being read to. when i worked at the Y, you may have a lot of complaining when you say you are going to read, but by the time you are a couple of pages in, those complainers will be at your feet.

i've got my first formal observation tomorrow. should be fun!

appopt said...

Hey, don't change a thing!
Interesting that you know you're going to be observed, though. I have never been told. The principal just pops in whenever.

bluekayak said...

No one in my class ever says things like "Hey, we didn't do math today!" or "What happened to handwriting?" But miss storytime, and I'll hear about it for days! "Well, you know, we didn't have a story yesterday so I think you should read four chapters today--maybe even finish the book."