Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Reading the room

In a single day last week, I relived my short, hapless teaching career — persistent dread, barely suppressed by random ephemeral bursts of joy.

Just as with my career, by the time I finally figured out what I was doing, it was all over. 

I was tired by day's end, but also pensive and hopeful. Including the hope I didn't scar kids along the way.

Just as with my career.

It was the week a lot of schools celebrate reading, coinciding with the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, Dr. Seuss.

The Cat in the Hat, Seuss' iconic creation, serves as poster imp for the celebration.

I see from facebook®™ that children in England and elsewhere were celebrating a similar event, dressing as their favorite book characters, for example.

As part of the celebration, Priscilla Mariscal invited me and other members of the larger community to be guest readers.

Priscilla is a teaching specialist at a school a few miles from where I live. I had done some design work for her.

She wanted readers to share picture books for younger grades, and the opening chapter of a book to older grades, maybe enticing students to want to read the rest. Then she wanted readers to spend a moment in each class talking about how reading is important to guest readers' lives.

Tell me how much time you have available, and what grades you'd like to work with, Priscilla asked in the invitation. Plug me in wherever you need me, I said, and figured I'd read to a wide variety of grades.

With weeks of lead time, I went into full white-knuckle-fear mode to prepare. Just as with my career.

Step 1: Raid our household library. On the shelf in our dark hallway sit most of the books our kids have left. The collection comprises picture books we had bought when our kids were tiny, or books they had collected when they could read to themselves. An incomplete series of Harry Potter books, for example, and classics by E.B. White.

I found two books that might work for the younger grades: Bently and Egg, written and illustrated in muted mid-20th Century style by William Joyce, and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, written by Jon Scieszca and illustrated by Lane Smith.

We bought the first for our daughter when she was very young, and I remember that it was pleasant — not uproarious, but nice.

The Stinky Cheese Man is the uproarious one. It not only parodies folk and fairy tales, but plays with the conventions of a book, twisting type, rearranging the book's end papers, crushing several characters under the table of contents, even making fun of the bar code on the back. Our children loved it.

But what did I have for older kids? I pulled two anthologies and stuck in Post-It®™ notes where I found potential pieces. Casey at the Bat? Hey, I liked that as a kid, and it turns out the poet, Ernest Thayer, may have been writing about Stockton, a city just an hour south of us.

I was working feverishly to make connections, exercising my creaky teacher skills.

Second step: Mine other resources. One book came immediately to mind, but I'd have to get it at the library: Call it Courage, written and illustrated by Armstrong Sperry. It was one of the first chapter books I had read, about a boy facing his worst fears alone and surviving a wild and terrible adventure among the wild atolls of ancient Polynesia. Even when I didn't know from illustration, I was beguiled by Sperry's spare line that still managed to describe grand and distant landscapes.

I researched the South Pacific atoll where the boy hero lived, and looked up the Polynesian words so I could explain them. I read and re-read the opening chapter aloud, deciding it was the perfect length for the allotted 20 minutes.

I was ready.

In the school library, Priscilla and the librarian had decorated tables with propped-up Dr. Seuss books. Teachers had made snack foods for the guest readers and the students who would escort us from class to class. Someone had skewered banana and strawberry slices to make edible Cat in the Hat hats. Another had made cups of blue Jell-O™ and inserted Swedish fish, evoking One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish.

Yes, we could eat green eggs and ham if we wanted.

My schedule, I learned, would keep me throughout the school day. My student escort, wearing a Cat in the Hat hat, led me across campus. You'd have a hard time finding a more culturally diverse school than this.

First stop, second grade. The teacher ushered me to a desk near the front of the classroom, where a video camera pointed town to the surface of the desk. By placing the book under the camera, I could project the pages onto a screen all the students could see easily. No having to walk around so all the students could see the pictures. The teacher even offered a microphone, which I declined.

It was fun and awkward, twisting my body in the chair so it could seem like I was reading to them in the traditional way. I made the voices and sang the songs as I did to my own children, and was so glad that they could follow the thread of the story.

The teacher asked her students what the moral was. A couple of second graders answered. I wasn't even aware the story had a moral, but I kept my mouth shut about it.

Second stop, fifth grade. I read a story called The Dancing Skeleton, by Cynthia DeFelice, a funny kind of bayou story about a ghost who tormented his widow, finally dancing until his skeleton fell apart and he stopped his torment. A student said she didn't believe in ghosts.

I read Casey at the Bat, front-loading the poem with all kinds of details. Students didn't seem as dejected as I had been to learn mighty Casey had struck out at the end, crushing fans' dreams. I don't think baseball was their thing.

Third stop, first grade. Did I want to read Bently and Egg again? Would that bore my student escort, who had to sit through it? But the first graders immediately saw The Stinky Cheese Man poking out of my armload of books, and screamed for me to read it.

Afterward, the teacher told the students I had tricked them by making them tell the real fairy tale so we could then read the parody. I was glad and amazed that students knew all old stories. The Stinky Cheese Man doesn't really work without knowing them.

Fourth stop, fourth grade. Perfect! I'll unleash Call it Courage! I set the time and place of the story, and drew pictures to explain an albatross and an outrigger, both of which are important to its telling.

Then I read.

Have you ever noticed how a book you loved in childhood, a book that you have read aloud to yourself to test its worth for a classroom read, suddenly becomes the most time-sucking instrument of boredom you could have unleashed on poor, unsuspecting children?

I didn't notice this until three pages into Call it Courage. The dialogue was spare, the words and phrases suddenly syrupy and heavy, conjuring no images whatsoever, only white noise and sleepiness.

Three pages in, though, I could not stop. I had to keep going, keep reading with all the brightness I could muster. I willed the glands on my forehead not to sweat, the glands in my mouth to keep producing saliva. None of them complied. Just as in my career.

It reminded me of too many times as a teacher, unrolling a lesson, trying to plan for every variable, only to watch the lesson implode under the one variable I hadn't expected, didn't even know to worry about. The jammed photocopier, the unannounced assembly, the crashed server in the computer lab. I had to find a Plan B as nonchalantly as possible on the fly, when Plan A wasn't all that promising to begin with.

With two pages of Chapter 1 left, my student escort was pointing to her watch with great energy: I was running out of time. And yet I still had to read, and read, and read some more to finish this chapter, with hope slipping away that the students would like to read this to themselves. The students tolerated me gamely. I had no time to talk about how reading was important to me, and they probably had no more patience to hear it anyway. I left as quietly as I could, knowing I had killed any chance the students would ever want to read Call it Courage.

Fifth stop, fifth grade. The teacher and class let me read aloud the book they were close to finishing, Holes by Louis Sachar. It was one of the books in my armload. I read a couple of chapters but stopped before the end; it wouldn't have been fair for me to finish their work. Students were creating their own graphic-novel summaries of the book.

Sixth stop, fourth through sixth grade. No more Call it Courage! I put it away in my car, along with a few more books I now judged too boring for read-alouds.

With this class I chose The Dancing Skeleton (the earlier class seemed to like it) and Tîa Miseria, a trickster tale about a woman who cheats Death.

It has Spanish phrases. First I praised students in the class who speak more than one language, which I said makes them very powerful. Next I apologized for the Spanish I would no doubt mispronounce.

Tía Miseria is a funny tale, and the students laughed. One student, a diplomat, complimented me on my Spanish.

I had finally found my groove. Two more classes to go, both sixth grade. I decided to finish with a winning formula: Tîa Miseria and another ghost story, The Golden Arm, retold by Mark Twain.

The day was finishing up, languishing in the afternoon doldrums, and I figured the students needed a jolt. Twain's retelling gives them just that. It's a perfect read-aloud campfire story. It builds to high tension — a dead woman moaning for her stolen golden arm — before the storyteller suddenly shouts to scare listeners.

I told the last class that their teacher was doing the right thing by making them write and rewrite all the time, because it comes in handy when they get to be my age. The only time I'm not reading, I said, is when I'm driving. I'm even rewriting sentences in my head while I'm walking the dog.

Priscilla and the staff thanked readers for giving of themselves, though I think the teachers deserve the greater thanks for organizing such a grand gesture for their students.

Back home I shelved each book with a gentle pat, glad I could give them another workout after all these years.

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