What our students read into our example

Dick and I had decided to explore this newfangled sustained silent reading (SSR). It sounded so much like what we did at home, what real readers do: Read, talk about our reading, enjoy, and read some more. But to set aside fourth grade "learning time" for "just reading" and "just" talking about our reading was not yet de rigueur.

Before he broke for lunch, Dick would ask his pupils to put their desks in a rectangle. Then each student put an SSR-approved book on his or her desk so that when lunch ended, the book would be ready to pick up.

For some reason Dick didn't get to eat lunch when the kids ate theirs, so when the students returned and began to read, he had to eat and read at the same time.

The idea behind SSR is that the teacher reads while the students read, modeling what it looks like to read silently over a period of time. The theory was that our students needed sturdy role models for what reading silently for a sustained amount of time looked like.

So during these early years, Dick would sit at his desk holding his book in his right hand. Because he hadn't eaten lunch, his other hand was occupied with food. His lunch and drink were arranged off to his left. With his left hand, he would dip into his lunch bag, extract a PB-and-J sandwich and take a bite.

With his reading glasses perched on his nose and his head tilted back a bit, he would read, munch, and turn the page with the pinky finger of the hand that held the sandwich. Flicking away the crumbs, he'd pause to sip milk or, sandwich eaten, he'd nibble Fig Newtons. I sat at a student desk in the rectangle, keeping my book flat and turning pages with my left hand. My right hand twirled the curl that fell in front of my right ear.

After about 20 minutes, Dick would say, "Finish the paragraph you're into, and we'll talk a bit before Math."

Then Dick would turn to five or six students (he made sure that he got to each student during the week) and ask something like, "So where have you been for the past few minutes?" Or "Joe, last week you weren't sure about 'The Midnight Fox,' but I see you're still at it. What's keeping you riveted?"

Then he would ask the students to talk with their neighbor about their books for 43 seconds. Finally, Dick and I would talk to each other about our reading while the kids listened.

Lots of grand things happened that year as books rinsed through the class. Students read the books that other students talked about. What one person said about a book intrigued someone else. A student who loved nonfiction got several other kids who previously had read only from the "Goosebumps" series to sample the Jim Murphy and Seymour Simon books on nature and space. Poetry became popular.

The students learned what it felt like to read without being interrupted by questions or calls to attend a small group.

At the end of the period, they always groaned, "Not yet, Mr. Peters!"

At the outset, Dick and I had discussed what would give students an image of themselves as readers. I'd told of how, when I was pregnant for the first time, I had no image of myself as anything different from what I had been before. Not having a full-length mirror at home, I hadn't seen myself tip to stern. I was shocked when I walked along Main Street and glanced at a showcase window. I didn't recognize this huge tent of a person.

So, to develop both the mental and physical image of being a reader, I wondered if it would help the kids to see themselves reading silently. In addition to arranging the desks so that they could see one another and their teachers reading, we decided to videotape them. But we were neophytes with the technology: Something always went haywire with the extension cord or the tape or the camera. We would forget to press "Play," the outlet would be dead, or the tape ran out. Despite the hurdles, we managed to collect footage from the beginning and the end of the year.

As it turned out, the videotaping didn't have the impact we had anticipated. When we showed the students the earlier tape, they laughed.

"What's Mary staring at?"

"Look at that jersey!"

"What's under the desk, Rhiannon?"

"What were you doing, Alphie!?"

They were distracted by the details of being 9 years old.

In contrast, the last video of the year held little interest for them. No entertaining foibles, no heads bobbing up. Everyone just read steadily.

"Borrrrrring," the kids said.

But it was this last video that resonated the most for Dick and me.

All the boys were sitting with their books in their right hands with their left hands flat on the desk where their lunch bags would have been if they'd had them. They lifted their left hands only to turn the page with their pinky fingers.

All the girls had their books flat. They used their left hands to turn the pages and their right hands to twist their hair, curls or not.

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