As many elementary teachers know, a shared read aloud can be an effective way to set a positive and welcoming tone in the beginning of the school year. For many years, the first shared read aloud in my class was the course syllabus. I would pass out the copies of the syllabus and highlight the most important points, often to a room of blank or confused expressions staring back at me. This did little to set a positive and welcoming tone.
While it’s no doubt important to establish expectations for the course, building a sense of community—finding ways to communicate to students that they are seen and valued—is perhaps the most important thing and, really, the only thing we need to do in those opening days. Reading off a list of rules on the opening day also sends students the message about whose voice is valued (the teacher’s) and establishes a power dynamic that prioritizes what a teacher wants versus what students need. Consider the difference between a teacher reading a syllabus and teachers and students unpacking a shared reading: the former tells students, I will tell you what we will do while the latter communicates, Let’s read and learn about something together.
Two shared texts that I’ve found particularly useful in my classroom are Clint Smith’s TED Talk, “The Danger of Silence” and Dr. Margaret Wheatley’s essay, “Willing to be Disturbed.” Because we will likely discuss some contentious or controversial issues over the year, I begin the with both of these texts as a way to remind students to keep an open mind when engaging critically in issues with multiple perspectives.
The Danger of Silence
In Smith’s TED Talk, he outlines four core principles for students that he believes are necessary in today’s world:
- Read critically.
- Write consciously.
- Speak clearly.
- Tell your truth.
We watch the TED Talk in class and then discuss these principles. I ask students to write individually about what they think each of these principles mean. We then compile our ideas using sticky notes and large poster paper for each principle (Figure 3.8). After a gallery walk to view the posters, students return to their seats to write again; this time, I ask them to reflect on what they’ve read and to write a personal commitment to themselves about how they might abide by these principles. I also post these four principles on the wall in my classroom so that we can return to them throughout the year.
“Willing to be Disturbed”
In this essay, Dr. Wheatley argues that in order to foster a more civil discourse in our society, we need to start from the position of being open to being disturbed — in other words, to listen to the opinions of others with whom we disagree, even profoundly.
Before we read the essay, I first ask students to consider the denotations and connotations of the word disturbed. We brainstorm synonyms, and as you might expect, most students conclude that the word is negative, especially in the contexts that are most familiar to them such as “disturbing the peace” or “mentally disturbed.” We discuss how each of these instances prioritizes maintaining the status quo or what is considered “normal.” I then ask students to consider contexts or situations that might need to be disturbed: When might the status quo be harmful? When is disturbing the peace necessary? Why?
We then read aloud Dr. Wheatley’s essay as a class, with every student reading one sentence at a time. This shared experience not only allows all student voices to be heard, but my hope is that reading the words aloud, students may begin to internalize some of its key points. Students read it a second time quietly to themselves, this time marking the text for the lines that stood out to them as particularly powerful. Each student shares one line they found powerful so that we are able to hear what has resonated.
Here are just a few of the lines that students often choose:
Curiosity is what we need.
We do need to acknowledge that their way of interpreting the world might be essential to our survival.
When so many interpretations are available, I can’t understand why we would be satisfied with superficial conversations where we pretend to agree with one another.
But when I notice what surprises me, I’m able to see my own views more dearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.
When I hear myself saying, “How could anyone believe something like that?” a light comes on for me to see my own beliefs.
But the greatest benefit of all is that listening moves us closer.
We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused.
The beauty of using a shared text like “Willing to be Disturbed” and “The Danger of Silence” is that they become touchstones that we can return to throughout the year. When we begin our formal study on argument or when I know that we’ll be discussing an issue that is particularly contentious, I remind students of these texts and our shared understanding that we need to be “willing to be disturbed” if we are to “read critically, write consciously, speak clearly, and tell our truth.”
What other types of read aloud can middle and high school teachers use? Consider the type of community you want to build in your classroom and the issues or content you’ll discuss. What attitudes or dispositions will be necessary for students to be prepared to engage in those conversations? Is there a line of inquiry or essential question that drives the course you’re teaching? Then find a brief text—something that can be unpacked during a single class period or two—that invites students to think about these ideas and their application to learning.