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.
Thank you thank you thank you. The sad thing is, many teachers report that reading aloud for the joy of it is expressly forbidden. Even as a librarian, I had a principal say to me snidely, “All you do is read aloud!” (I left that school.) It was my observation I. 30 years of teaching that reading aloud gave more bang for the buck than almost anything else I could do with my students. How can administrators be so short sighted and ignorant? I am so glad that it still happens in some rebel classrooms.
Suzy– Unbelievable that a principal would say that to you. I loved my time as a librarian, and even if reading aloud was “all you did,” those stories leave their mark in the most wonderful ways. Thanks for sharing…
The best part of my job is reading aloud to the children I work with. I am a junior primary librarian and it is what I love the most
This is so true, thank you for sharing your story. I’m currently reading Scar Island. I’ve got them with this book!
My son just read that and loved it. I also enjoyed his others books: Some Kind of Courage, and The Honest Truth.
When I was young, my Italian mother with her cute accent would read to her four children every night at dinner. She read interesting stories from Greek Mythology, The Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel, the long original Pinocchio book and more. We always resisted, as children would do, but then we would BEG HER to keep reading. She would always say, “And these were the children who didn’t want to hear the story in the first place. NO, now you must wait until tomorrow to see what happens.” Reading out loud, as you mention in your article, allows children to learn and explore something they would not have chosen to read on their own… and “secretly,” it instills a love of reading for the future. Thanks for a great message.
So true! Many students resist reading and being read to, but once a story grabs them, there is no letting go.
I love everything about this! Thank you for writing. I teach middle school too and reading aloud is a magical part of the day. We added new 7-8th grade reading classes this year; I let the kids vote for what they’d like to do (book clubs, workshops, short stories, read aloud) and the overwhelming winner each time is a read aloud.
So great to hear that you’re reading aloud in 7th/8th grade! Thanks for sharing…
“We are now going to experience a little bit of life together.” Brilliant. 🙂
I love reading things like this. I will never, ever give up read aloud even if it has to become a subversive event (which, thankfully, it isn’t this year.) read aloud builds such community in our classes. The characters come to life and we feel their presence in our room.
Beautifully said! One of the standout memories of my elementary school years is the read aloud time in 6th grade with Miss Calfas. That, and dancing on the desks in 4th grade with Mrs. Holt!
Thank you! Somewhere on Nerdy Book Club is a blog I wrote on reading aloud–we read to our own children, by their choice, until they were around fifteen. If “Love of reading” were measured as well as “Ability to read” then read-aloud time in school would be as sacred as any other well-researched learning activity.
I love this post! Read Aloud time should be sacred, protected time in every classroom.
Reading aloud to kids doesn’t fit on a data sheet and you can’t measure its success in a way to please administration. However, please find a way to read aloud to your students if at all possible. I have seen it work and it worked for me as a child. I wish that politicians and administrators would get out of the way and let teachers teach.
Thank you! As a middle school librarian, I know part of my job is research and digital literacy and yes, it’s important, but the love of reading is MOST important!
I cannot think of a better exercise of rigor than reading aloud to students, of ANY age. I can read something that is way out of their Lexile, or any other measure of reading, and they will comprehend, learn new words, and experience empathy with any character that they identify with, whether they could read it themselves or not. And in my K-5 library, I can do it as often as I please because I’m on a fixed schedule and, after all, I only drink coffee and scan books, right? That used to be stamp books, but, you know…
Great point about read aloud allowing students to access stories that would otherwise be a challenge. So many benefits!!
Amen, Amen, and another Amen to everything you said! I loved reading aloud to my students, and they loved it, too!
“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.” Love, love, love!!
I love this too! We had a substitute for our caring loving first grade teacher 50 years ago. We were petrified. She was so strict. After lunch she read aloud to us and we were transfixed. The book came alive. After that if Ms Hettick came we must have thought we can get through anything in the morning because we know what’s coming after lunch. Never forgot. Thanks for such a well-written piece!
Love, love, love this post.
So, so true, I love this!