Just because I like to sit quietly and read for an hour doesn’t mean that’s an enjoyable experience, or even possible, for all of my students. To combat text-fatigue, especially for reluctant readers, a variety of strategies can keep things fresh as the class moves through longer works.

Each day during a novel unit, I present an activity or lead a discussion/close reading based on the previous night’s reading assignment. (For a quick and easy-to-manage way to make sure everyone actually does the homework reading, click here.) After wrapping up the main lesson of the day, I try to reserve the last 10 minutes for students to get started on their next slice of homework reading, usually about 20 pages or so.

Early in a novel study, I’ll start the homework reading aloud for the class, pausing to ask clarifying questions as I go and doing a different voice for each character, which they love. Or, at least they say they love. I’m not sure if they’re actually amused by the Teacher with a Thousand Voices or if they’re just humoring the old bird at the front of the room. I mean, have you ever tried to read ch. 29 of Huck Finn aloud? You know, the scene where the King, a Southern charlatan, is doing a terrible British accent only to be called out by Harvey Wilks, a preacher from England with an actual British accent – oy! I apologize to my kids ahead of my time.

Other times, I bring in the hired help, having actors read to my students either on audiobooks (special shout-out to Gary Sinise and Jake Gyllenhaal) or from free sites like LoudLit and YouTube.

The best strategy, though, is to turn a chapter into a Readers’ Theater. Now, there are official Readers’ Theater scripts available out there for purchase (our elementary friends know what I’m talkin’ about), but I prefer to keep things simple – and free. Just take any chapter with a lot of dialogue and jot down all of the characters with speaking parts. When it comes time to get started on the homework reading assignment, I ask for volunteers for each of the speaking roles in that scene/chapter, always casting myself as the narrator. The student volunteers – plenty of hambones in my world who are happy to oblige – accept the challenge to keep up with my pacing, adding their own dialects. It’s lively fun and even brings some crackling electricity to the room when all of my actors are on cue with voices that are on point. Now, that’s the stuff!

Here’s an example from my freshman class reading of The Odyssey at that pivotal moment when our hero Odysseus, finally home after 20 years of war and wandering, confronts the boorish suitors who’ve been making the moves on his wife; he begins by sinking an arrow deep in the throat of Antinoos, one of the worst of the lot:

Original text (Robert Fitzgerald translation):

Wildly they turned and scanned
the walls in the long room for arms; but not a shield,
not a good ashen spear was there for a man to take and throw.
All they could do was yell in outrage at Odysseus:
“Foul! to shoot at a man! That was your last shot!”
“Your own throat will be slit for this!”
“Our finest lad is down!
You killed the best on Ithaka.”
“Buzzards will tear your eyes out!”

For they imagined as they wished—that it was a wild shot,
an unintended killing—fools, not to comprehend
they were already in the grip of death.

But glaring under his brows Odysseus answered:
“You yellow dogs, you thought I’d never make it
home from the land of Troy. You took my house to plunder,
twisted my maids to serve your beds. You dared
bid for my wife while I was still alive.
Contempt was all you had for the gods who rule wide heaven,
contempt for what men say of you hereafter.
Your last hour has come. You die in blood.”

As they all took this in, sickly green fear
pulled at their entrails, and their eyes flickered
looking for some hatch or hideaway from death.

Eurymakhos alone could speak. He said:
“If you are Odysseus of Ithaka come back,
all that you say these men have done is true.
Rash actions, many here, more in the countryside.
But here he lies, the man who caused them all.
Antínoös was the ringleader, he whipped us on
to do these things. He cared less for a marriage
than for the power Kronion has denied him
as king of Ithaka. For that
he tried to trap your son and would have killed him.
He is dead now and has his portion. Spare
your own people. As for ourselves, we’ll make
restitution of wine and meat consumed,
and add, each one, a tithe of twenty oxen
with gifts of bronze and gold to warm your heart.
Meanwhile we cannot blame you for your anger.”

Odysseus glowered under his black brows and said:
“Not for the whole treasure of your fathers,
all you enjoy, lands, flocks, or any gold
put up by others, would I hold my hand.
There will be killing till the score is paid.
You forced yourselves upon this house. Fight your way out,
or run for it, if you think you’ll escape death.
I doubt one man of you skins by.”

Now, the same scene as a Readers’ Theater:

Me/Narrator:
Wildly they turned and scanned
the walls in the long room for arms; but not a shield,
not a good ashen spear was there for a man to take and throw.
All they could do was yell in outrage at Odysseus:

Student 1/Nameless Suitor #1:
“Foul! to shoot at a man! That was your last shot!”

Student 2/Nameless Suitor #2:
“Your own throat will be slit for this!”

Student 3/Nameless Suitor #3:
“Our finest lad is down!
You killed the best on Ithaka.”

Student 4/Nameless Suitor #4:
“Buzzards will tear your eyes out!”

Me:
For they imagined as they wished—that it was a wild shot,
an unintended killing—fools, not to comprehend
they were already in the grip of death.
But glaring under his brows Odysseus answered:

Student 5/Odysseus:
“You yellow dogs, you thought I’d never make it
home from the land of Troy. You took my house to plunder,
twisted my maids to serve your beds. You dared
bid for my wife while I was still alive.
Contempt was all you had for the gods who rule wide heaven,
contempt for what men say of you hereafter.
Your last hour has come. You die in blood.”

Me:
As they all took this in, sickly green fear
pulled at their entrails, and their eyes flickered
looking for some hatch or hideaway from death.
Eurymakhos alone could speak. He said:

Student 6/Eurymakhos:
“If you are Odysseus of Ithaka come back,
all that you say these men have done is true.
Rash actions, many here, more in the countryside.
But here he lies, the man who caused them all.
Antínoös was the ringleader, he whipped us on
to do these things. He cared less for a marriage
than for the power Kronion has denied him
as king of Ithaka. For that
he tried to trap your son and would have killed him.
He is dead now and has his portion. Spare
your own people. As for ourselves, we’ll make
restitution of wine and meat consumed,
and add, each one, a tithe of twenty oxen
with gifts of bronze and gold to warm your heart.
Meanwhile we cannot blame you for your anger.”

Me:
Odysseus glowered under his black brows and said:

Student 5/Odysseus:
“Not for the whole treasure of your fathers,
all you enjoy, lands, flocks, or any gold
put up by others, would I hold my hand.
There will be killing till the score is paid.
You forced yourselves upon this house. Fight your way out,
or run for it, if you think you’ll escape death.
I doubt one man of you skins by.”

Go forth and conquer, teacher friends!

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. I was wondering how you tackle difficult material, like Shakespeare. Does your district use the “No Fear Shakespeare” version or something similar? What are your thoughts on creating a bridge of comprehension for students between Shakespearean (or other difficult reads) & modern-day tongue?

    Like

  2. Great question, Katherine! For students with IEPs, I’ll quietly slide ’em copy of a No Fear edition for them to keep at home for nightly review and test prep. In class, though, we act out each and every line of the Shakespeare plays we study. We go slow. I recap a ton. I tell jokes. I explain (most of) the naughty bits. We act things out with lightsabers. It’s a whole thing.

    Because of the opening games that we play (tone, puns, insults/flattery), the kids are raring to go once we actually start the play. When they first recoil at the language, though, I tell them that reading Shakespeare is like jumping into a swimming pool on a hot summer day. At first, the water will be freezing and you think you’re going to die, but very quickly the water warms and you’re so glad you decided to go swimming.

    With the right support, ALL of our kids can understand Shakespeare. Promise. 🙂

    Like

  3. Awesome thoughts & suggestions, as always. Thanks! 😉

    Like

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