On Pilgrims and Reading Out Loud

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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.

“The Case for Bad Coffee”

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Originally published here. I love this article and the memories it stirs of gas station coffee road trip breaks in the middle of nowhere New Mexico, instant coffee powder with my morning chai in India, styrofoam cups of Folgers at a community bake sale, and late night/early morning IHOP runs during a debate tournament. Bad coffee is about the moment and I’m glad this article celebrates it.

I don’t have memories of such bonding experiences taking place over a flat white at a Manhattan coffee shop or a $5 cup of nitro iced coffee at a Brooklyn cafe. High-end coffee doesn’t usually lend itself to such moments. Instead, it’s something to be fussed over and praised; you talk more about its origin and its roaster, its flavor notes and its brewing method than you talk to the person you’re enjoying it with. Bad coffee is the stuff you make a full pot of on the weekends just in case some friends stop by. It’s what you sip when you’re alone at the mechanic’s shop getting your oil change, thinking about where your life has taken you; what you nurse as you wait for a loved one to get through a tough surgery. It’s the Sanka you share with an elderly great aunt while listening to her tell stories you’ve heard a thousand times before. Bad coffee is there for you. It is bottomless. It is perfect.

Fate is funny

I found this while clearing out some old pictures on my phone. He got this fortune during a late night Chinese food run, back when we were only dreaming of traveling together.

 

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I am very excited about this post. Not only is this my first one from India…it is my 200th post on this little blog. Almost two years ago, I realized I was in a personal rut: lacking motivation, starved for creativity, and desperate for focus. Having never been a big blog person, I surprised myself when I started consistently following food blogs (because I was slowly learning how to cook) and then began branching out into blogs that were personal. I enjoyed reading others’ thoughts on life, hearing their stories, watching as their lives unfolded and even experiencing emotional parallels with them. Writing had always been a part of my life and while I wasn’t sure what stories I had to tell yet, I figured I would find out eventually and could have fun with a project along the way.

I didn’t think it would last (cleaning out my room before I left and throwing away handfuls of two-entry-deep diaries really hammered this home) and I am still trying to find my voice, an objective for my writing, some consistency to my posting, and grappling with the decision to invest more time into learning about photography and web design. Those things are important to me because I’ve found that I truly enjoy writing here….but am often unmotivated because I know that this is not a professional endeavor. As a personal hobby, I feel the liberty to come and go as I please, put this baby on the back-burner until I feel I have the time and energy to sit down and write. Writing and stories (both reading and telling) are a large part of my life, though, and I do intend on making it a consistent and ever-developing endeavor. I’m just not sure exactly how.

But for now–I am in India! My job comes first and I am already realizing that it will be more difficult to write than I previously thought (we are at school by 6:30 and leave school—hopefully—around 10:30). I guess I will have to work on the short-but-sweet posts and suppress the novel writer inside who wants to spend hours typing away into the night.

I arrived at Shanti Bhavan at 4:30 in the morning, after two egregiously long flights (10 hours to Frankfurt, 8 hours to Bangalore) and a two-hour car ride through rural India. I read, I watched movies, I slept (but not really), and did everything I could to calm my nerves. It wasn’t travel jitters. Flight jitters en route to a new destination for a trip are always eager anticipation. This was a more dangerous mixture of excitement and nervousness. I have never traveled to another country for work before, so on top of the typical nerves involved in moving someplace I have never been for a job different than any other I have ever had….I had 21 hours to think about it. Will I be a good teacher? Will I be a good leader? How will I adapt to a new country, a new environment?

For the first day and a half I felt like I was at camp: shacking up in a little room with unfamiliar furniture, letting myself get a little grimier than normal, constantly being surrounded by kids, starting my day with the sun and ending too close to midnight.

The kids were curious about me, but very shy. Except, of course, for the kindergarteners that immediately held my hand and knelt down to touch my toes because they were painted. At dinner the music alternated between Hindi songs and American top 40 tunes. One little boy—who told me to call him Peanut Butter—said his favorite song was Payphone by Maroon 5 and requested that I sing it. The 10th grade girls and I discussed our favorite Disney princesses and they told me they want to watch She’s The Man for Saturday movie night. Everyone—and I mean everyone—is obsessed with Despicable Me minions.

The second day, however, I was harshly reminded that I was in India. We drove into one of the nearby villages—a trip they take with every new teacher (they don’t use the word ‘foreigner’ at the school, believing that it creates boundaries) who comes to the school so that they can see where the children are coming from—and I couldn’t believe that the kids I laughed with, the kids who were so happy, loquacious, loved Disney movies, and knew all of the words to the songs I listened to at home, had been born here. Some homes were nicer–colored walls, floors, and doors. Some were only concrete and scrap.

All eyes were unabashedly on me. One woman followed as we walked, her spine so contorted the top of her head reached just my elbow. Even if she could stand to my height and meet my gaze, her eyes were milky white with cataracts. I had never been so self-conscious. About everything. My skin, my clothes, my nails, my watch. We walked around briefly, either ignored or gawked at by the villagers. Even as we left, they stood and watched. Maybe they were laughing at us—hoity foreigners in Indian clothing. Maybe they were curious. Maybe—and most likely—they could care less. We weren’t the first ones to drive though and we wouldn’t be the last.

Driving away, gripping the dusty seat of the jeep as we bounced, I wondered how the kids must feel when they go home. Are they ever excited? Do they miss their parents when at school? What must it be like to, after a certain age, surpass the intellectual capacity of everyone around you? Is there resentment from their siblings who cannot attend Shanti Bhavan?

The magnitude of their daily routines—announcing the news to the entire school, selecting topics of their choices and giving speeches and debates, practicing piano, guitar, and drums—didn’t hit me until I saw the village. I didn’t realize how miraculous it was that the pre-schoolers were so talkative until I learned that six weeks earlier they didn’t know a single word of English. I saw the school, with its clean facilities and technological capabilities, in a completely different light.

Later that evening, the school’s founder—Dr. George—actually addressed what I had been thinking about earlier. He talked about the choices the children have to make every time they return home, to places where the values that are instilled in them at school might not exist. They have to choose who they are and how they relate to their parents and siblings. Dr. George was so honest with them that I was a bit taken aback. They can’t watch movies where people kiss, but he is honest with them about things like alcoholism, domestic abuse, child marriage, and poverty. Not that he needed to sugarcoat it—many have already experienced these things. One girl—a graduate of Shanti Bhavan—has plans to write a book about her life, her truth.

A little over a year ago, for my 100th post, I was in Northfield, Minnesota listening to people’s stories and marveling at how people can surprise you if you listen. Now I am in India, constantly bombarded by stories (the kids never stop talking). They are my favorite things about this place so far and some of them have difficult stories to tell. I thought about what Dr. George said to me at lunch yesterday, that their goal is to break the children out of the poverty cycle, but that their ultimate goal is not to produce virtueless brianiacs.

“We may not make Einsteins, but the children are good human beings.”

Einsteins or not, it has only been a week, and I know I am going to learn a lot from them.

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