When I decided to become a full time substitute teacher, it was all about the shortened workday and ability to be home in the afternoons with my boys. I wasn’t able to imagine all of the other side benefits I would get out of it. Chief among them is stories. Every day is an adventure. I am full of stories about what goes on every day in schools. Part of that is seeing what school is like for my boys, and better understanding them and their academic experiences.
My youngest son, John ,is not a fan of most stories, and he would read the first 20 minutes into a book, and decide he hated it. Rinse and repeat for years. The teachers never pushed him to read more, because he did what he was asked to do, and read for 20 minutes a day. But to my way of thinking, timed reading discourages kids from really sinking their teeth into a story and (I know, this is crazy talk) actually finishing it.
So John decided he hated books and reading. I bit my tongue until this year when he started 6th grade. Watching him whine and moan his way through language arts was more than I could bear. John might be an engineer someday but he’ll have to get through high school and college English to get there. He needed to learn a different way to read. And as is often the case, I decided that if I wanted things to change, I’d have to take matters into my own hands. And so Book Club With Mom was born.
John’s been very interested in politics and government lately, and often wants to know why things happen the way they do. He’s also been interested in WW2 for years. So, in looking for a book we could read together, I looked for something short(ish), with simple language, a straightforward story, and maybe, most importantly, a book that would give John a sense of accomplishment after he read it. I picked Animal Farm.
There was much whining about it. But I explained to John that this was not a kid book in any way, shape, or form. This was a book for adults and if he listened very carefully, he would come to discover that’s it’s an extended metaphor for the Russian Revolution.
So we started reading the book together.
I found the audio book on spotify and bought us each a paper copy. We take time every day to listen to a chapter together. Using colored pencils, we highlight parts green for setting, circle the characters’ names, and important parts of the plot are orange. After we go through the chapter, we go back over the chapter to re-read the important parts. John asks questions, I point out things I want John to think about and ask him why Orwell might’ve used certain words or certain descriptions to say certain things. We talk about the narrator (who is surprisingly very opinionated for a narrator), and the different characters and what they might represent. For example, today we talked about the fact that Moses the raven reminds John of a minister, and the Sugarcandy Mountain he talks about sounds like heaven. John said “Oh, he’s named Moses, like in the Bible, too.” I told John that that is a clue that his inferences are correct and we talked about who Moses was and what he did in the bible, which also seemed to mirror his character in the book.
For the first time ever, John is really engaged with his reading and seems to enjoy the book a lot. He asked me today if we could play the chapter all the way through without stopping one time and then go back and listen one more time for the highlighting part, because he’s getting into the story and doesn’t like the starting and stopping. Whoohoo! Mission accomplished!
John doesn’t know it yet, but when we get to the end of the book, he’s going to write an essay with me on the theme of the book. I’m going to show him how to use his highlighting to help make his literary argument. More than anything I want him to be a confident reader and writer. He doesn’t have to love it. I just want him to get through it with a minimal amount of aggravation.
This goes along with something a friend posted on Facebook, too. It was about executive dysfunction and ADHD. The article posited that part of the reason that students with ADHD often have trouble completing a task is because they lack the ability to visualize what the task completed would look like. I think that is part of John’s problem (but I imagine it’s true for many other students as well). I’m showing him (I hope) what it looks like to read a book critically, and then to use that critical thinking to write about it. I’m going to show him what a completed critical essay looks like and go through all the different parts with him so that he feels confident doing it himself.
At first I thought this would be a one book thing, but it’s going so well that I’d like it to become a regular part of our routine. Maybe we’ll try The Metamorphosis next.