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A Teacher’s Manifesto
We all know that certain things are true. We know the importance of reading aloud to children, reading good books together, making sure kids have good books available and that they have the time to read them. Yet we fill students’ time with worksheets and textbooks, grammar lessons, vocabulary lists, standardized tests, computer games, and assorted busy work. At home, we fill kids’ lives with a frenzy of planned activities and electronic diversions. If we put the things we know to be true at the heart of our lives, we would see wonders in our classrooms and homes. We would see the teaching of reading and writing—in second grade or eighth grade or college—not as a series of skills to teach or a number of worksheets to complete, but as a few principles to live by.
Hearing Good Language
We all know the importance of reading aloud. If you need to be convinced, read Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook (1979; reissued 2001) and visit his excellent Web site. Kids who have been read to all of their lives have an advantage over kids who only read what’s assigned in school. They have superior language resources to draw upon when they write.
My wife and I read aloud every night to our own children, from birth to sixth grade, and L. Frank Baum, E. B. White, and Lloyd Alexander feel like old friends. My wife teaches second grade and reads aloud 200 picture books a year, and a chapter book or novel every two or three weeks. In my seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms, I read aloud some of the best scenes from class novels; poetry, nonfiction, and picture books related to the class novels; and during short-story units, I read aloud lots of stories. We also turn many scenes into informal readers’ theater, another way to expose students to the excellent language found in an assigned class novel.
Reading Up a Storm
Kids who hear good language and read a lot on their own have the best chance of becoming strong writers. Voracious reading helps readers develop a voice in their writing. It is essential to have good books available—at home, in the classroom, and in school and public libraries. Good books sell kids on reading, but the books have to be readily available, and teachers need to allow time for kids to read the books they have chosen. Teachers need to encourage parents to take their children to the library and bookstore. The better teachers and parents know children’s literature, the better they can share their enthusiasm and connect children and books.
To free up time for independent reading, I limit formal grammar instruction to one period a week, work a modest amount of vocabulary words into book discussions, and don’t feel the need to plod through class novels, discussing every point and sucking the life out of them.
Letting the Reading Suggest the Writing
Good literature, discussions, and activities are the heart of an English program. Good literature is essential to our programs and to our lives. As Stephen Krashen says in Every Person a Reader (1997), “Literature is applied philosophy. It includes ethics, how we are supposed to live, and metaphysics, speculations on why we are here. Fiction is a very powerful way of teaching philosophy. Good stories help us reflect on our behavior and our lives.”
Class novels and writing are a natural one-two punch. Any good book suggests subjects for writing activities. Writing is a learning tool in a program where reading, writing, thinking, and imagining are encouraged.
Writing Up a Storm
Reading aloud and significant amounts of free reading time develop language capacities that are further expanded on through frequent writing. I do three types of writing exercises with my students:
Revising—The Heart of Writing
Most writers say the heart of writing is rewriting. Regularly choose a paper to correct and have students rewrite it. Don’t choose 10-page essays; choose the short writings, and revise more frequently. Robert Frost used to say it’s more important for students to write than for the teacher to grade everything. So, if your teaching load is great, have students write frequently, but don’t grade everything. As Baird Whitlock says in Educational Myths I Have Known and Loved (1986), “If a teacher makes clear that not all papers will be corrected but gives the number that will be, students will accept that. If they want to gamble on which ones are corrected, that is up to them.”
Two More Principles
Keeping It Modest
Remembering what is fundamental and being modest about it can help us make our classrooms into places where reading and writing well matters. As author Katherine Paterson said in The Invisible Child (1981; reissued 2001), “The book is almost the last refuge of reflection—the final outpost of wisdom.” That is the spirit in which we ought to do our work. We can encourage reading, writing, thinking, and imagining, and maybe we will approach that outpost of wisdom with our students, and (hopefully) have a good time along the way.
Dean Schneider teaches seventh- and eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.
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