Yesterday you met Ruth Culham. Today you hear directly from her. She decided to share a preview, a glimpse into one of her upcoming books. So read on and enjoy! Ruth?
It is with great pleasure I offer you a preview of the introduction to a chapter I’ve written in the book, Developing Reading Instruction That Works. It will be available late January 2011. I can’t think of a better piece to share on David’s blog. In this chapter, I try to capture some of the reasons why it works so well to use reading to teach and inspire writing. There is a magical connection between the two disciplines that begins the moment the writer puts pen or pencil to paper and then reads it back to himself. Words inspire words. They give us chills, make us laugh, take us to new worlds, and most of all, inspire.
Great writing is a gift for readers. In this introduction to my chapter, I hope you’ll feel my sense of wonder in understanding how reading and writing work together to change lives for the better.
“Reading With a Writer’s Eye”
Preview of a chapter from:
Developing Reading Instruction That Works
The Leading Edge, Volume 6 Solution Tree Press, 2011
There they were: nineteen ninth graders suited up for the first home football game, squeezed awkwardly into their seats for my seventh-period English class. “Put your helmets on your desks,” I instructed, wondering how I was going to make it through the next testosterone-charged forty-five minutes. Surely the last thing on these young men’s minds was writing.
There must have been some wisdom in scheduling the entire football team into the same English class at the end of the day. I just had no idea what it was. This group was a challenge to motivate on a typical day, so it was going to take superhuman powers to pull off something good—even sorta good—on a game day.
After several unsuccessful attempts to engage students with paired readings, a routine activity for writing workshop, I grabbed a treasured book from my shelf—an autographed copy of Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey—and I asked the students to suspend their writing for the moment. “Just listen,” I said, hoping the book would do what I could not—focus and inspire my class. I began to read from chapter 1:
Charlie One Eye lifted the squirming pup by the scruff of the neck, and looked at him. His careless grip pinched the pup’s tender skin, and he wriggled and whimpered in protest. But the man studied him with no concern. The whimper turned to a growl. Suddenly the pup twisted his head and sank tiny needle-sharp teeth in Charlie’s thumb. (p. 1)
I read on. With each sentence, the mood became energized, like the feeling at a home game after a first-blood score. Motion ceased. Students who’d been squirming in their seats sat transfixed, hands gently wrapped around the top of their helmets, listening. Walt Morey accomplished more in five minutes than I’d been able to accomplish in twenty-five.
So I read on until the final bell. Though that was the sound my students had been living for just forty-five minutes earlier, they lin- gered a moment before Tracy broke the spell to ask, “Will you read more tomorrow?” I nodded, “Of course.” And then suddenly he and his teammates were gone—leaving a tangle of chairs and desks as they chest-butted their way out the door.
Now this story by itself might be useful to extol the virtues of reading aloud to even the most reluctant students, or to illustrate how to survive a challenging teaching situation. What happened over the next week was what really mattered and sticks with me to this day. As I continued to read aloud a little every day, qualities of Walt Morey’s writing began showing up in students’ work. Students who never tried a lively introduction came up with some gems. Those who had trouble creating insightful details were churning them out right and left. A student who rarely wrote more than a sentence or two shared a whole page at the next writing circle. Everyone, it seemed, was writing under the influence of Walt Morey. Everyone was a noticeably better writer from having a front-row seat to his work.
Until then, I didn’t understand the extent of the relationship between reading and teaching writing. I knew that students of all ages appreciate being read to. I knew they would agree to do disagreeable tasks if I rewarded them with more read-aloud time. I knew that even my most fidgety students would sit still and listen, soaking in the rhythm and cadence of well-written prose. But it didn’t occur to me that reading aloud was “teaching” them something. If the kids liked it, and I liked doing it, that was enough. I took great pains to make sure my principal and colleagues didn’t know just how much reading aloud I was doing. I wanted them to believe that what went on behind my closed doors was more rigorous and academic.
Today I know better. I know reading aloud is rigorous and academic. Some of the best teaching involves nothing more than a great book and a captive audience. There was a reason the freshman football players sat mesmerized by Walt Morey’s words. They were learning how writing works—how it should open, how it should unfold, and what chords it should strike to fully engage readers. Resolute in this new understanding, I’d now encourage my principal and fellow teachers to watch my students fall under the spell of a great writer as I read aloud and how simple it is to use their words to teach. And I’d challenge them to read aloud their own favorite books any time they wanted to do a really good job teaching writing.
Ruth, many thanks! Comments anyone? Please post them below.David