Slice of Life: When we figure it out

It’s been a week since I’ve visited this page. Just a week and I’m bursting with things to write. Things to think through. Being back at writing and school is good. I’ve missed both.

Last week before Spring Break, my student Callie* asked, “Mrs. Harmatz, now that testing is over, what are we going to do?” The way she said it made me hear, Testing is done. Why are we still here?  So I asked her, “Is that why you think we are here? To take the test?” She looked at me sheepishly, “Well, uh, yeah.”

I can’t blame her for thinking it, and I thanked her for saying it.  I might say, It’s not about the test. But, what Callie* and other students feel is truer than what I want to admit. As painful as it is, I listen.

I assured her that the next eight weeks will be exquisitely focused on the joy of learning, reading, and writing.

Yesterday, we started a reading unit focused on Fantasy. The word fantasy was enough to send students into squeals of delight. But as I started our read aloud, The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, I was concerned.  Last year I tried it out with my students and stopped. It seemed to be too much for them. But this year, buoyed by Vicki Vinton’s new book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, and the pure strength of Barker’s story, I decided it give it another try. I knew if we had the strength to get through the tough spots, students would love this story and with that have moments of loving the work they would have to do to understand.

The story starts strangely as the “gray beast of February” threatens to swallow our hero ten-year-old, Harvey.  I stopped at the moment when Harvey feels like life might be over.

It was a monstrous month, that was for sure; a dire and dreary month. The pleasures of Christmas, both sharp and sweet, were already dimming in Harvey’s memory, and the promise of summer was so remote as to be mythical….He simply knew that long before the sun came to save him he wold have withered away in the belly of the beast.

I asked students to talk with their partners about what they were noticing and what they were wondering about.

Many took it literally: February was the name of the beast that was about to kill Harvey. Others were thoroughly confused and irritated. “I don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense!” Meanwhile, one student murmured to her partner that perhaps this was figurative language.

I charted their thoughts and said, “This is a complicated book, isn’t it? That is how fantasy can be. Particularly in the beginning. It’s our job to figure it out. We have to trust the writer and ourselves as readers. So let’s read on.”

It soon became apparent after a conversation with his mother, that Harvey was very much alive. Now students knew, that Harvey is just “lazy” and “kind of a brat,” and the gray beast February was not a real beast. It was figurative language. They figured it out not because I highlighted the one student who got it, but because they wrestled through it.

The confused and irritated relaxed in their seats. Yes, they could do this.

It doesn’t get better than that kind of read aloud experience.  Not just because the story brings us together, Not just because the story transports us to places far away. But because it gives all readers the opportunity to figure it out. There is nothing better than that.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesday. I am grateful for the community you have created and sustain. Read more slices here.