Storytime: What Matters Most Cannot be Measured by David Rockower
I remember fist-pumping and high-fiving my friends in two different arenas during elementary school: on the playground–during kickball or football–and when my teachers gathered us on the carpet to return to a favorite book.
Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Hang Tough Paul Mather. These were books that I experienced in elementary school. It’s not an exaggeration–my classmates and I experienced the books my teachers read.Though I did not read much independently, I fell in love with stories.
Read aloud was a staple during my middle grade years; a healthy half hour was carved out every day, and I could tell my teachers loved it. I was rarely comfortable in learning environments, but during this time, I fell into a childhood meditation. I’m fairly certain it wasn’t just me. I sat on the carpet, dragging my index finger through the fabric, making shapes and lines as I listened to my teacher’s voice take me through the struggle and joy of life seen through the characters I came to know. My classmates sat in silence, mouths agape, hanging on Mrs. Klaban’s every word. We were swept up in the stories, and when she threatened to close the book just as something was about to be revealed, we screamed, protested, begged her to continue. And usually she would.
I remember Mrs. Christiansen, my fourth grade teacher, turning off the lights, pulling the shades in late October and reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It was better than watching a movie. She had all of us transfixed, arms-locked, breath held. Were we really allowed to be this scared in school? Was the story freaking me out, or was it the way she read? Could it just be the dark or the fact that Bobby McCann–the toughest kid in class–looked like he might pee himself? It didn’t matter; I felt alive. In school–I felt alive.
When I started teaching in the late 90’s, read aloud was encouraged. We didn’t need to show how the title we chose was related to the curriculum–we chose books because we thought kids would love them. We weren’t required to check for understanding by having them summarize main events or make inferences–we knew that everyone was experiencing the book in their own unique way. We could tell from the silence and the open-mouthed stares that they were locked in.
I now teach in a small, democratic public school with mixed grade levels (5th-8th). I was worried about losing read aloud; I imagined my 8th graders rolling their eyes at the idea, thinking they were too old for such childish endeavors. Thankfully, I was wrong. Some of my most ardent cheerleaders are in 8th grade; just last year, I read Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl aloud. When the semester neared its conclusion, and we realized finishing the book during class would not be possible, I offered optional lunch sessions, where we would meet several times to complete the book. The 8th graders showed up and hung on my every word. One 8th grade boy, in particular, later told me that Stargirl was the book that propelled him into reading. “I’d never been so frustrated, so angry at a character in a book before you read that aloud,” he’d said.
And this is what every teacher knows: when our students are transfixed, they are learning. When they beg us to continue painting vivid images of adventure, curiosity, and human interaction–images that each student sees slightly differently because of his or her unique perspective–we know they are learning. And after we close the book and hear them talking about the characters, their experiences, and what might happen next, we know they are learning.
Unfortunately, today, many teachers feel the pressure to justify every lesson, every minute of instruction. When we hyper-focus on these accountability tactics, what we fail to remember is this: what matters most cannot be measured. No teacher or administrator could have measured what I got from those read aloud experiences in third grade. Did listening to those stories improve my standardized test scores? Maybe, maybe not. What it did do, for sure, was build community in the classroom, make me crave hearing my teacher’s voice, and nudge me down the magical path of reading and stories.
Without a doubt, I devour books today because my parents and teachers read aloud to me. They read books that they loved, that caused them laugh, cry, and shiver with fear. When Mrs. Klaban or Mrs. Christiansen opened a new book and read to us, they always smiled. And in that smile, I heard this: We are now going to experience a little bit of life together.
David Rockower teaches English at Delta Middle School in State College, PA. He’s the author of Family Matters, a column in State College Magazine.