On Pilgrims and Reading Out Loud


A pilgrim came to our class the other day. Ok, not a REAL pilgrim. It was a man from a historical society that sends re-enactors to schools that was pretending to be a pilgrim.

And, it wasn’t just any re-enactor pilgrim. It was Myles Standish – one of the passengers of the Mayflower – to be specific (its ok if you don’t know who he was – I definitely didn’t). We were starting our unit on the thirteen colonies and wanted a way to bring the material to life. Hence the pilgrim.

As excited as we were, we were a little apprehensive about how it was going to go. At first there was some confusion about whether or not he was actually a 400-year-old man. Once we clarified that he was an actor, not an immortal colonist, we had to explain how it would be pointless and not very fun if everyone just asked him questions about iPhones in an attempt to get him to break character. Some questions we brainstormed for the “bad questions” list were, “Are you a zombie?” “Why do you talk so weird?” and “How did you survive without video games?”

In the end we felt pretty confident that they would enjoy the re-enactor in all of his weirdness. But in all the time we spent prepping the kids, we forgot to tell the front office that he was coming and received a text message saying that a pilgrim had just arrived at school and was asking for us. One of those things you never thought you’d hear.

In all, it was actually amazing. The kids were a little wide eyed at first, but there was a great deal of laughter, questions, scrambling to try on the colonial clothes, and wishing that every history class could be told by someone who was there. Or, was pretending to have been there.

I think one of three things happened.

First, they were scared. It is pretty weird to see a 6-foot tall man in colonial clothing speaking to you in accents in a very authoritative way (he was a military commander after all).

Second, they were so confused that they were speechless. He switched between Dutch, Scottish, and English accents depending on who in history he was impersonating and often spoke to the students as if they were the king or queen of England. What else are you supposed to do but laugh and nod along when someone is speaking to you, King James, about those troublemaking puritans?

Confused and scared as they may have been, I think it was a third option. I think the reason they sat, enraptured and bewildered and hanging on his every word, is because there is something intensely captivating about story telling.

They were mesmerized by this pilgrim because suddenly the things they had been reading came to life and their minds were free to wonder and imagine. They could let go of everything and just listen. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the magic mesmerizing powers of story telling.

Two of my students are very difficult. Difficult for different reasons, but still difficult. We face challenges daily on everything from completing classwork, following directions, and staying out of the principal’s office. I have learned (and am still learning every day) different ways to manage their behavior and help them get through school, but the one thing that works for both of them is reading out loud. No matter how angry they are at me, no matter how disinterested they are in what we are doing…both of them become calmer and more focused when someone is reading out loud to them. They can forget everything else that is going on in their lives and simply be, for however many uninterrupted minutes, little kids.

We read out loud to the students every day for a half an hour during group reading. The idea is that it is useful for growing readers (with quite varying levels of skill) to listen to experienced readers model what good intonation and pausing sounds like. Their vocabulary increases as they are exposed to more and more words they might not ever see otherwise (and they encounter them with an adult at the ready to provide a definition). They have completely low stakes and supportive environments to practice reading out loud themselves.

And, most importantly, they get to see how wonderful stories are. Like when we were all almost in tears when a beloved character’s dog died or on the edge of our seats when a young female protagonist picked up a sword to defend her house from burglars. That doesn’t happen (as often) when you read to yourself. When you read silently, especially if you are a struggling reader, the words don’t come to life. There is no pilgrim.

At my last school we read out loud to the small children every night and it was their favorite time of day. Every single day they would ask for one more story, no matter how long we read to them. There were times when it felt like a chore. There were times I just wanted that time to myself after dinner. But every single time I was so happy I did it because there is no greater joy than watching them burst with laughter when one person is reading The Sleep Book and the other person pretends to fall asleep and snore every couple of pages. Or when you read the Jungle Book and someone is the leopard, prowling around and looking for unsuspecting five year olds to eat. Or when inspiration hits and a voice you don’t even recognize comes out when you are impersonating a moose named Morris (and have the first graders tell you every single day that they want to hear Morris and Boris go to the Circus – if you haven’t read it, you should). Or when the middle school boys ask for a scary story during a storm so you recite the plot to Paranormal Activity and they all scream when the power serendipitously goes out the moment you reach the end.

Reading out loud has a number of benefits (better focus, vocabulary, comprehension), but mostly it gives adults an opportunity that is hard to come by sometimes: the opportunity to play.

But the joy for adults isn’t just in telling stories. It is in hearing them too. It really, truly does not matter how old you are – there is something innately comforting and captivating about oral story telling. Theatrics are an added bonus, but they aren’t necessary. I only started listening to podcasts once I graduated from college, but now I am hooked along with the majority of my friends (most of whom can’t stop talking about Serial). Maybe podcasts are just a grown up version of story time.

I want to share an excerpt from a WSJ piece called, The Great Gift of Reading Out Loud.

To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical means of cultivating warm fellow feeling, shared in-jokes and a common cultural understanding. Harvard professor Maria Tatar has written of its origins in medieval fireside storytelling, “before print and electronic media supplied nighttime entertainments.”

Certainly in the modern era there is something quaint about a grown-up and a child or two sitting in a silence broken only by the sound of a single human voice. Yet how cozy, how impossibly lovely it is! Unlike tech devices, which atomize the family by drawing each member into his own virtual reality, great stories pull people of different ages toward one another, emotionally and physically. When my children were small, I would often read with my eldest daughter tucked in by my side, the boy draped like a panther half across my shoulders and half across the back of the sofa, a tiny daughter on either knee, and the baby in my lap. If we happened to be on one of our cycles through “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbuckling classic, my husband would come to listen, too, and stretch out on the floor in his suit and tie and shush the children when they started to act out the exciting bits.

“We let down our guard when someone we love is reading us a story,” Ms. DiCamillo says. “We exist together in a little patch of warmth and light.”

It isn’t always possible to bring the pilgrim. Sometimes it isn’t even necessary because the simple act of reading out loud (pilgrim or no pilgrim) is enough to bring joy to both children and adults. But, I still think we should try because you never know what magic could happen.

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  1. Mariam George says:

    Another marvelous writing!

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