My wife and I just finished the seventh Harry Potter novel a few weeks ago. Now before you start thinking of us as johnny-come-latelies, or really slow readers, I should note that we bought our copies on the night they were released, and spent a frantic couple of days reading them while also managing to take care of our newborn Connor and our two older kids (who were reading their own copies; yes, we bought four).
What I mean is that we just finished reading it aloud. It’s a project I stated ten years ago and have undertaken now at three different schools. For the first couple of books, I did it on my own, but eventually I was joined by a wonderful and inspiring teaching partner whom I managed to convince to marry me.
Every time there was a Harry Potter movie in the offing, we would make announcements and form a club, promising to take the faithful attenders to the movie when it came out. Sometimes our clubs ran every day before school, sometimes just a couple of lunch-hours a week. Along the way, we also read all of Lord of the Rings, one Narnia book and most of Twilight.
It’s been a ten-year long act of love, every moment of which I’ve been glad to have participated in. More than a million words of Harry Potter, every one of which either I or my wife or both of us have read to our students (chapter titles we read together in OMINOUS BOOMING VOICES).
When I tell people that we do this, I often get very bemused reactions. They can’t believe that high school teachers read aloud to students, and find it equally hard to accept that teenagers would give up their lunch-hours or come in early to school just to hear a couple of teachers read.
I’ll admit that when I started the project, I didn’t know if it would work. I was at a predominantly working-class tech school. Most of the students there were academically delayed and very discouraged. It seemed crazily optimistic that they would be interested in sitting quietly while a teacher read to them. I figured I’d get four or five lonely stragglers, and that I’d be doing good by having a place for them to hang out.
I got thirty-five. There wasn’t enough seating for everyone. Oh, sure, I lost a bunch along the way, and by the time the movie came out, I only took fourteen with me, but that was still a special trip. We hadn’t quite finished the book, so I read the last two chapters to them as we took the subway to the movie theater. This past December, when my wife and I took the club at our new school to see part one of Deathly Hallows, we went one step crazier, wearing Hogwarts teacher robes and exhorting our students not to use any magic on the muggle bus.
The same sort of numbers held true at our new school, by the way. We started out with thirty-one and took fourteen to the movie. For the second half of the book, we dwindled further, and were in the end reading to only eight kids, all of whom intend to join us for the last movie, even though it will come out three weeks after their summer has begun.
I could go on about how there’s research that supports reading aloud to teens (in many different subject areas) but that would be disingenuous. Even if there were no such findings, I’d be in for this sort of thing, and so would my wife.
For us, it’s about love. Love of the books, love of the words, love of the kids. A lot of parents stop reading to their kids too soon. Time presses on us, and between music lessons, karate classes and soccer games, something has to give. I’m not suggesting that such parents love their kids any less; I’ll even admit that with our two older kids, reading aloud has been relegated to the summer, and the little one only gets a couple of books before bed-time right now.
But when we do get it? Man, that time is great! It’s fun to watch kids’ faces when you read to them — at just about any age. At the good parts, there’s a look that’s halfway between beatific and mesmerized, enlightened and vacuous. And when you finish a chapter, and tell them that’s it for now? Mostly they just kind of shake themselves loose of the dream, smile a little, and head on to whatever’s next. That’s when I read to my kids and to other people’s kids.
My main reason isn’t that it’s good for them, though it is. It isn’t for the gains in vocabulary, fluency, confidence, concentration and whatever else gets measured by those good people who do educational research. It’s for that little shake of the head that brings them back into the real world; because that’s what tells me that I just took them into another one.
PS: I’ve already asked this on IO9’s observation deck, but anyone got any suggestions for what we ought to read next year? We want to tie it to a novel, and want to find something our students will enjoy. The Hunger Games is out because someone has it on a course reading list, and we don’t want to step on any toes. So please, please, please leave any suggestions in the comments below. If I get enough, I’ll make a poll out of it.