Reading with emotion

Please don’t judge me, but I balk at reading lengthy books, particularly emotional ones, aloud to my class.

I’m currently contemplating all the fantastic material around to enrich the educational experience of my terrific Year 6 class in September, yet feel a strange knot in my stomach about the emotion and anxiety about engaging emotionally with a bunch of characters… in front of a class of 10-11 year-olds.

Thirteen years since qualifying, I have come to realise that, while I have started many entertaining books to read with classes, I have rarely finished them in earnest.

Yes – I know the value in modelling good expression. And yes, I love doing all the voices – especially the women. I also do read lots of children’s books for pleasure.

But it’s still a barrier – an unspoken mystery wrapped in an enigma of a butterfly in my stomach.

When talking to my dad about reading aloud the other day, I was struck by a memory that may just explain why this is… and my dad, mum (and Roald Dahl) are to blame.

It was July 2006. I’d was finishing my NQT year teaching Y3/4 at a large school in Harrogate. My parents, both teachers (Mum – primary, Dad – English), had come over from Barnsley to see the big end-of-year show. Although I taught in Y3/4, I was heavily involved in the Y5/6 show as musical director (pianist and enthusiastic busker/arranger of music). We’d done ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Loads of fun. I even shoe-horned in a few musical cliches as a nod to my early 20s musical sensibility, including a very try-hard and poignant minor key version of ‘Over the Rainbow’. And a techno version of ‘The Lollipop Guild’. (Yep – you had to be there).

Mum and Dad watched and enjoyed the dress rehearsal (“Your piano playing was really measured and subtle – well done, son!”), then, like good teachers, they helped tidy up while I took my Y3/4 class for the last 15 minutes of the day. They were tired, unsettled and hot and it was July; the best thing to do was read our class book.

And here’s where Roald Dahl, and my crippling emotional anxieties about emotional books, possibly started.

It just so happened to be the day when I read the final few pages of Danny the Champion of the World to my class. They had loved it. It wasn’t a topic-related text that we’d galloped through, or even a particular favourite of mine from childhood, just a good read that had grown in importance as we progressed through it.

It was around 3.10 pm. I had my back to the classroom door, and had just reached the last page. I don’t have the book to hand, but am positive it ends in an eloquently expressed passage about how Danny’s father is the best father in the world.

Just as I read those last few pages, I realised that my parents had quietly walked in the room behind me. They stood in my classroom, vaguely ridiculous, holding a stacked sets of chairs and a large piece of Yellow Brick Road. As I turned and noticed them, my breath caught in my throat and Dad’s face crumpled. I stopped reading, mid-sentence. Mum finished off the last few sentences of the book. My class barely noticed.

And I like to think that his face crumpled thinking about the how his youngest son was following in his footsteps as an educator, a reader and an inspiration to the younger generation. But I actually think he just heard words from me (through the book) that he dared hope were true.

The class were dismissed in a sweaty, carefree, July haze. My mum hugged me hard, while Dad composed himself. We’ve never talked about it since.

I have two boys of my own now. I’m always going to read aloud to them – whatever the emotional subject. But, more importantly, I’m going to speak to my mum and dad about ‘Danny the Champion of the World’.

“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.”

Mem Fox

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