Every so often, I am struck by the fact that I have been making a huge mistake as a teacher and I suddenly wish that I could run around and gather up all my former students to apologize.
Well this morning, while on a family walk, I had one such realization. My wife and I had taken our daughter and our dog out for a Sunday morning walk. My wife and I were chuckling as we watched my almost-two year old struggle to hold the leash of my rather unruly lab-mix. And I was struck at the “conversation” that was occurring amongst the three of us. I say “conversation” in the loosest sense of the word because my daughter has a whole lot to say, but only about 10% of it is understandable to any other human.
Anyway, I realized that all of these words that we had been trying to get her to say earlier in the day, were suddenly flying out of her mouth because she needed them and they were useful to her. She didn’t say them when we wanted her to say them. She said them when she had something that she needed to say.
And then it hit me.
For some reason, this moment, this walk, this authentic use of language by my daughter, it all made me realize that I had been making a terrible mistake.
You see, I have always said that I valued authentic talk about books in my classroom. I have always said that one of the most important things to me was that my students were able to talk about the books that they are reading with passion and enthusiasm. I have always said that, for me, one of the greatest markers of deep reading comprehension is that students can be engaged in conversations with their peers about their books. I have always said that these things were important, but today I realized that I might have been putting a stop to THE most authentic conversations about books that my kids have been having.
Let me paint you a picture and see if you can catch this mistake that I have been making for years. One specific image that says it all sticks out in my mind. This image is so clear in my mind. It is independent reading. There is a silence that fills my classroom. A silence that I am proud of, that makes me feel as if really important work is being done. A silence that I have worked hard to create. A silence that I have demanded of my students, because I can’t think if there is even a quiet buzz in the room, and so obviously neither can they.
I then gather a group of students and purposely break the silence because I have a lesson I need to teach to this group of students. It is, of course, okay for me to break the silence. That is different than if the kids were to do it. So I am leading my small group of readers, in something that I am sure is really important. And all of a sudden I am distracted. There are two boys over in the pillow corner. They are curled up amongst our collection of pillows and they are both reading Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. And they are whispering. GASP. That’s right, they are whispering and gesturing in an exaggerated manner.
I am appalled that they have interrupted my work with my small group and that they have potentially interrupted the other students who are trying to maintain my demanded silence. So I give them the look. They ignore me. I try again. They ignore me. They are way too wrapped up in their conversation to notice my looks. So then, I apologize to my small group of students, I walk over to the two offenders, I bend down next to them and explain that when they talk during independent reading, it stops the rest of us from being able to think as deeply as we need to and want to. I smile. They smile. They look at me. And they say, “But Mrs. Lifshitz. We were talking about the book.” I smile. I nod. And I say, “That’s great boys, but not during independent reading.” And I walk away. And they are good and kind and respectful so they do what I tell them to do.
And they stop talking about the book.
And. It. Is. All. My. Fault.
There you have it. This scene has repeated itself in my classroom over and over again throughout my many years of teaching fifth grade. I have been the one who has single-handedly stopped what could have been THE most authentic book discussions that have ever taken place in my classroom. The discussions that spring from a genuine NEED to talk about a book. The discussions that come from the very heart of my fifth grade readers. The discussions that are caused because a reader is so overjoyed or so dismayed or so disappointed or so angry, that he or she MUST talk to someone about it right at that very moment. The discussions that are 100% motivated by the students themselves and not because it is their scheduled time to talk about their books and not because I told them that we are going to be practicing talking about our books and not because they have been assigned to talk about their books. They are talking about the books because they have thinking that they must share with someone else. Because they have thinking about their book that is too good to keep to themselves.
And I have stopped that.
I have stopped that because it wasn’t time for book discussions. I have stopped that because I placed silence as a priority over authentic conversations about books. I have stopped that because it wasn’t our scheduled literature discussion time. I have stopped that because in my classroom, in the past, I have been the one to say when we will discuss books and how we will do it. I have stopped that because I felt the need to teach my students how to have literature discussions correctly before I trusted them to actually have those discussions. I stopped that because I didn’t know what exactly they were talking about or if they were doing it in a way that would allow them to build off of each other’s comments. I stopped that because I wasn’t in control of it and I didn’t think it was the right time.
And I look back now and see how very wrong I was. These kids were itching to talk about books. They were so motivated to talk about book that they defied the silence of our classroom even though they knew they would be risking my very serious teacher look. And I put an end to it.
I just can’t get over it. How did I not see what I was doing?
But here is what I know. There is no point in lamenting what I have done in the past. I have recognized that it was a bad choice and now I need to look ahead. Now I need to think about how I am going to do things differently. Now that I know what I know, I must think about how I am going to run my reading workshop so that it nurtures authentic discussion about books instead of hindering it.
Of course, as often is the case, I have no real idea. But I know that I am going to start by talking to my students. I want them to know that if they are so moved by a book that they need to talk about it, I want them to feel like they can do that. And then, together, we will come up with a way for them to have those conversations so that it does not stop those around them from their work and so that it does not take away from their own time to read. I think that we will find a way together for there to be more conversation when the students authentically need and want them.
And if nothing else, I know that the next time I hear students talking during independent reading, I am going to think twice before giving them any sort of serious look. I am going to start by trusting them and giving them a chance. I am going to start by believing that the work they are doing is helping to make them better readers. And then maybe, I will pull up a chair and just ask them what it is they are talking about. I have a feeling that more often than not, I will be genuinely pleased with what they have to say.