Westward Movement

Monday, November 7, 2011


My favorite part of the school day is read aloud. There are so many great books written for kids. I often wish reading aloud to my kids was my only responsibility. I choose the titles we share carefully, attempting a balance of humor, drama, and intensity. I aim to build interest in history through amazing literary figures and brilliantly written historical fiction and nonfiction. 

I am not great with Eastern European accents, but I do a mean British, a decent Italian, and a bang-up little kid. My southern dialect rocks, though don't ask for a New England elder. Thus far, we've read Benjamin Dove, a story involving severe bullying, incredible friendship and sacrifice, Scottish royalty and death. (It takes place in Iceland, but I've no idea how Icelandic sounds, so did a very mild British), Second in line was a story of wonderful friendship, jealousy, acceptance and what it means to be blind titled Granny Torrelli Makes Soup. (Very fun Italian there). Nightjohn is our third read aloud of the year. We are about 1/3 of the way through this incredibly intense Gary Paulen novel. The story of two slaves ... Sarny, a 12 year old girl, and Nightjohn, a freed slave who deliberately reenters the horror of enslavement in order to teach others to read and write, has captured my students' hearts and minds. In order to ease them into the intensity of the subject and to give them an opportunity to share their prior knowledge of slavery, we engaged in a "tea party" a day prior to beginning the book. Students read from strips of paper on which were written phrases and short sections of text from the novel. They shared thoughts and predictions as they shared their strips of text, and anticipation was built. 

One of my students, T, had just finished reading another book on the subject of slavery. She was in the middle of explaining what slavery is to a couple of my third graders as we gathered on the rug for our first read of Nightjohn. Because there are some very difficult scenes in the story, I stopped several times while reading to check for understanding, to have students explain or retell portions, and to answer the many questions my students had. In the first 10-15 pages of the novel, there are brutally descriptive passages telling of the horrendous mistreatment of the men, women and children living on Master Waller's plantation in the 1850s. Our first read aloud was over 30 minutes. My kids had so many questions, and struggled to understand how anyone could survive such brutality. They didn't want to stop, but our day was ready to end. 

The next day, I continued reading. Nightjohn was introduced early on. He's brought to the plantation stripped of clothing, and immediately sent to work in the fields. That night, as most of the others sleep, he whispers into the dark that he'll trade for a lip of tobacco. Sarny berates him, telling him he was brought in naked, so what could he possibly have to trade. "Letters," he responds. "I got letters."

I stopped there and explained to my students that reading was punishable by dismemberment (explained that, too), and asked why there would have been a law against slaves reading or writing. T immediately responded that being able to read and write meant being able to tell your story and to pass along knowledge. Another student, J, said she thought that if you could read, you would be able to know how much you cost. She added that reading gave you information and that made you dangerous. "But good dangerous," J said. They are so smart ... so thoughtful!

A is one of my struggling students. He has a tough time with math, reads far below grade level, takes twice to three times the time necessary to complete a writing assignment, and would much prefer to be on the playground than do nearly anything else, although he often enjoys our read aloud time. He gets little to no support at home. He is a challenge for me. I am constantly looking for ways to motivate him.

A was sitting to my right as I was reading to them. He was mesmerized by the story. Little by little I noticed his chair creeping just a little closer to me, his head angled toward the book. I held the book out a bit so that he could read along. As the chapter continued, Nightjohn showed Sarny how to make the letter 'A.' He explained how it sounded, and promised her two more letters the next night. I stopped there, to groans and "Noooo - don't stop!" (The best, the best, the best)! As we stood to get ready to move on, A murmured, softly enough for my ears only, but loud enough to be heard clearly, "Wow, imagine not even knowing what letters are. That's terrible."

From any other kid this would draw from me simply accord. From A, it drew tremendous hope. My challenge took on a new dimension. 

I just ordered A his own copy of Nightjohn. I think he'll murmur his thanks. For my ears only. For both our hearts. 

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