The incredible power and seduction of
Reading out loud.
In a class. In a group.
Yes, yes, I know, lots of exceptions to this, so let’s get that out of the way, I am generalizing. Read on…maybe read out loud? In a group setting?
What is it that makes us want to read out loud in a class? Even the average reader wants to hear their voice, sounding out the words. That’s what used to count as reading, as we sounded out words, said them with decoding confidence, even though we had no idea what we were reading. Most of us learn to read by de-coding, leaving overall comprehension in the dust in our race to the finish line of learning to read.
I think we continue to learn, and practice, reading. An extraordinarily fascinating and challenging concept, sitting right up there next to language acquisition, a little cousin perhaps, to this area of our development as children.
But I’m talking about reading out loud today. I teach theater, remember, so we read plays—a lot of plays—out loud in class. I assign readers like I’m casting a show, trying to match up personalities, voices, energies with certain roles. My gut feeling for 25 years is that (almost) everyone wants to read! They are silently and invisibly raising their hands, “ Pick me, pick me!” At this time, they know the text is a little challenging. – we’re currently reading Sophocles. Theses texts are not difficult to me, but for my students, the fact that they are written in verse both compels and worries them. But they want to read, I can feel it. I have seen it with my own two eyes: when I give someone a “title role,” they light up—I’ve seen it, I can feel it too. Sometimes I give a large role to a not-so-good reader, even a marginalized student. They have been chosen to take on a major role. I’ve witnessed the transformation in broad daylight. That student gets their ass to class on time, with forward-looking energy. They know what page we’re on…okay, that might be a slight dramatization, but it’s just plain true. Take “Dante” for example. Dante is barely passing my class last year—I give him the role of Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. He’s not a great reader, but something happens, something I’ve seen before, but never fails to thrill me. I tell him after class how glad I am that he is reading the part, how well he’s doing. He is. Now Dante comes every day, on time, book in hand, lines underlined for him to remember. Sound Polanna? Sorry, it’s true as true is. I have, for the moment, turned a “non-student” into an engaged and engaging young man. His smile is wider, his gait more energetic. That’s it, people, it’s the best I can do, for the moment.
I remember back in 2nd, maybe 3rd grade, so so eager to be chosen to read out loud. It was most often a paragraph from a tome, a history tome, most likely. I just wanted to show the world that I could read fast, loud and with expression, we called it: Expression. It meant that I had a feel for commas really. That was more than 50 years ago and I’m still in love with the comma, its beautiful effect on the sound. This is no lie people. When my third grade teacher explained the construction of a sentence, listing three things with the use of commas and “and,” I fell in love with those sentences—real beauty. “The words were beautiful, powerful, and magnificent.” I loved the final comma, followed by “and.” Wow, I can see some words on the chalkboard in my memory even now as I write to you.
How is this connected to reading Out Loud? Is this just ego? Do we just want to show off, sound smart in front of the group? I don’t think so. I think it has to do with making music perhaps. We have our instruments, but to read a beautiful set words is to play some notes, make music for ourselves and for others. We want to hear the text, we do. Reading on our own has its own power and pleasure, but reading in a group is a different animal. Students, generally, want to read out loud. They take an immediate ownership of the work. “No that’s my line” They almost say this when someone makes that kind of mistake. They hold their place in the book, they follow closely and accurately along with the notes I require them to take.
(that’s another blog – trying to get my students to aggressively mark up their books with notes, to have a relationship to a text)
It’s a power beyond me. I am amused when the discussion takes us way far away from the immediate text. I. e., I ask them about definitions of irony in their lives, and blahalhblah the discussion ensues. But this discussion, which feels contained and whole OUTSIDE the reading of our play, never cuts into where we were in the text. The students who are slated to read know exactly where we left off. This ownership of the text is tight, strong, and transcendent of the subject of the lively discussion. The students, after 20 years of training, know when and where to return to the text. I’m more playful, ready to abandon the text altogether, ready to follow the flow of an energetic subject. For example, we’re reading Antigone. I ask them about irony. This discussion takes up to 30 minutes. But when we return to our text, the gal or guy reading the title role knows exactly where we left off. I have long since forgotten that detail, engaged as I tried to be with their personal shares. Fuck the play, we’re talking about personal stories right now, that’s what matters most, right? But no, the students take ME back to the text. They marry it in a way that I don’t. There’s a glue of some kind there, hardened over 10 years of classroom protocols. This happens again and again in various forms, becoming a fugue, of sorts, throughout the term. I lead a discussion away from the play. Again, fuck the play, we’re sharing our personal lives and making connections. BUT the students reading out loud want to get back to the play, back to their lines! They own them. For that moment, I have done it, with the help of a power I do not wield.
It’s the sound of their own voice in a room, the incredible power of our voices in a room, vibrating inside of us, bringing us a level of pleasure, of calm too. The power of vibration, the power of the sound, the power of song. The power of the hearing yourself read…we love it, we crave it, we say, “Pick me, pick me.” So go ahead, read my blog out loud. See what happens…