Some have suggested that educators' attachment to print literacy reflects an outmoded viewpoint that has more to do with the old-fashioned world in which we were educated than with present reality. Whatever the truth of that assertion, we at the University Laboratory School in Honolulu believe that reading is still good entertainment, still an exquisite way to enhance the ability to think, imagine, and communicate.
Everybody loves a good story. At its heart, literature is simply a lot of good stories. It can be far more than that, of course, but it can't become more unless it's fun first. At the Lab School, we rarely assign books. Instead, we read challenging books aloud while students follow along in duplicate books, and we share our pleasure by reading with expression.
In other words, we perform. It's as natural as storytelling. It is storytelling - by masters whose influence can only raise standards of appreciation and understanding.
One year we had a new 11th-grader, Texas-cocky but grudgingly cooperative. He said it was the craziest thing he'd ever heard, reading out loud in high school.
He scoffed. He sulked. He shook his head. But he kept his book open and read along. By the time we were halfway through "To Kill a Mockingbird," he was interested.
When we reached the end, Tex sat with his classmates in stunned silence, "watching" Scout Finch and Boo Radley walking hand-in-arm for the first and last time. "Uh, what else did this Harper Lee guy write?" he wanted to know.
"She never wrote another book," I told him. "But she helped research "In Cold Blood." You might be interested in that. Did I tell you that the character Dill Harris was based on the writer Truman Capote? "Huckleberry Finn" might be fun if you haven't read it." Tex was eventually turned on to John Steinbeck through "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath." Although he didn't stay long enough to graduate, we hope he stayed long enough to chart a reading course and that it has taken him to worthy destinations.
Reading along is readers' theater. The whole class participates as both audience and cast. Everyone is simultaneously elated or saddened, informed or provoked by the same adventure. Camaraderie grows among students, as it tends to do among members of any audience. Teachers rarely have to ask the significance of this or the relevance of that. Anyway, who says teachers' questions are more significant or relevant than the ones students ask?
Like an audience, read-along students play the story over for one another, dramatizing the parts they especially like. The relationship between George and Lennie in "Of Mice and Men" is especially fascinating. Lab School hallways have resounded for generations with extemporaneous impressions of these lonely farmhands - for fun. Parts of "Huckleberry Finn," "The Grapes of Wrath," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and even "Paradise Lost" also find their way into spontaneous dramatic improvisation.
Over the years, with whole classes building constantly on their shared reading experiences, students learn to see them as reference points that permanently enrich their personal and intellectual lives. Literature becomes an integral part of the social experience of Lab School students. Graduates come back and tell us so.
* James Harstad teaches at the University Laboratory School in Honolulu. The school's web site is http://www.hawaii.edu/crdg/