Street Humanities and reading aloud in the classroom

I’m going to be volunteering with the Street Humanities program this semester–it’s a Clemente Course style program (similar to UBC’s pioneering Humanities 101), designed to offer marginalized and multi-barriered learners a chance to experience a college course. In the program’s previous incarnation at CNC, I taught a Women’s Studies module, but this time I’ll be doing a literature module.

My plan is to do something radically different from what is normally done in a literature class. Based on the research I did on group reading/book clubs this past year, I’m going to approach it book-club style, drawing heavily from the Get Into Reading read-aloud approach. There will be less formal teaching and more reading out loud and exploration and discussion of the book. Our sessions will be once per week, with a maximum of 3 hours class time (with break). I think we will probably go for about 2 hours with a dinner break of 30 minutes or so–the coordinator said not to feel pressured to go for the full 3 hours, which gives me some welcome flexibility. I’ll be able to adjust the class time by monitoring student attention levels–if everyone seems tired or flagging, we’ll cut it short; if they’re eager to continue, we’ll go the full 3 hours.

Here’s my basic plan for each session:

1. Read a chapter or short story out loud
2. Discuss
3. Maybe do a little reader response writing

I used to think getting adults to read out loud was a bad idea because it would be anxiety-provoking, possibly insulting, and probably boring. But when I started teaching in the CCP Program (adult basic ed/upgrading), I did it with my students because that was what the previous instructor had done. And much to my surprise, students loved it! I never forced students to read and always gave them the choice to pass. It worked so well with my CCP students that I started doing it with the university level students I was also teaching at the time. After all this experience, it came as little surprise to me that the research supports reading out loud as valuable, at any level of education.

This article by literature professor Mark Sample sums up nicely why reading out loud can be energizing and valuable:

Sheridan Blau argues in The Literature Workshop that one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of readers is rereading. And reading aloud—reading out loud—is in turn one of the most powerful ways of rereading. It’s active, performative, and engaging, an incredibly rewarding strategy for understanding difficult texts.

I particularly like the technique Sample describes as “popcorn reading,” or “jump-around reading,” where one person reads a passage, then stops, and another person picks up where s/he left off. It’s much less formal than having students sit in a circle and read (round-robin), and it’s just more…participatory. I poked around on the internet to find out more about this approach and was surprised to see it is mostly characterized as terrible (one article was titled something like, “The Perils of Round-Robin and Popcorn Reading” and another “Why Popcorn Reading is Evil”). However, I think the key is to make it voluntary. Popcorn reading where the teacher calls randomly on people to read sounds stressful and counterproductive. This is not what Sample describes in his classroom:

We began by reading the passage aloud using what Blau calls the “jump-in” method. I’ve heard other people call it popcorn-style. We simply bounce around the room, with students voluntarily jumping in to read a few sentences to the class, after which somebody else jumps in, as if taking the baton from the previous reader. The professor doesn’t interrupt or call on anybody to read; the reading is totally student generated.
I’m convinced that such a productive discussion wouldn’t have occurred if the students hadn’t first reread the passage aloud. I’m likewise convinced that merely asking students to reread the passage silently before the exercise wouldn’t have yielded such rich interpretive fruits. It’s the reading aloud that does it. The vocalization for the students who did the reading, the texture of the voices for the students who listened, the attentive anticipation of everyone as they awaited the next reader to jump in from the seat next to them or from across the room.

The participants in the Street Humanities program tend to have varying literacy levels, so I think having a read-aloud component will also be really useful in case we have someone who can’t read the text on their own at home. (This is often the case.) That way, low literacy is not a barrier to discussing the literature, because anyone is welcome to just sit and listen to the work being read out loud. Interestingly, listening and reading along at the same time has been shown to improve literacy learners’ reading level, speed, and fluency. We know it’s important to read out loud to kids who are learning to read; why wouldn’t this be a useful method with adults learning to improve their reading too? And the nice thing is, with a mixed level group, the high literacy folks (and there are always some of these in the group as well) can participate without being bored–they’ll probably (though not necessarily) be the ones volunteering to read more often.

I’m still pondering my choice of reading material. However, the college was lucky enough to receive funding for class book sets. Originally I wanted to use Miriam Toews’ novel Summer of My Amazing Luck, but I think it is too long for us to finish in that time. Too bad, because it’s wonderful. So now I am thinking of using the play version instead, or maybe using one of our Canadian short story anthologies and reading one short story per class. I can also access book club sets from our public library.

I’m really looking forward to the Street Humanities class this semester.

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