Good readers don’t balk at slow beginnings of novels. They are like swimmers who dive into cold water knowing there will be a delicious rush when they burst into a breaststroke or Australian crawl. But slow readers panic and drown. There are too many names, the location is unfamiliar, they don’t see the point. “What’s this got to do with me?” They give up too soon – before the writer has grabbed them.
In a class discussion about reading, I once asked strong readers to talk about their habits. Renesa said, “Even if I don’t like the first chapter, I keep reading. I know it will get better.” Marvin, a poor reader, said if he didn’t like the first few paragraphs, he would decide to stop reading. It tired him out just trying to remember the characters’ names, and long, descriptive passages bored him. Yet Marvin, like many poor readers, could memorize the lyrics to popular music and knew as much about rap artists as I know about most authors. The capacity to read was evident; the will was not. For nonreaders like Marvin, teachers must be willing to overcome years of resistance to reading as well as break well-developed nonreading coping strategies.
I use a “tea party” to entice poor readers into novels or historical periods. The tea party is like a movie preview – presenting brief clips of the storyline and characters to draw the audience in. It provides name recognition as well as key information about the characters so that students have fewer barriers to understanding. For nonreaders or poor readers, this preview is essential. In an untracked class, this participatory strategy equalizes students’ access to information and provokes discussion.
On the day we begin a new book, I bring cookies and juice to sweeten the learning. I type out five roles for main characters in the book. I color code cards for easy identification. For example, in James Welch’s Fools Crow all of the cards are blue for the character Fast Horse, cards are yellow for the character Yellow Kidney, and so on. I try to find enticing passages from the novel to use in these roles, or I write a piece from the character’s point of view. I want to create intrigue and questions as well as familiarize students with the characters before they begin reading. I write the role in first person, so students can more easily get into the character’s head. In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Nanny’s card reads:
Grandma/Nanny: I didn’t want Janie taking off and getting pregnant like her mother before her. I wanted more for her. That’s why I told her she should marry Mr. Logan Killicks so she could have something for herself. I’m the one who told Janie that I didn’t want menfolks, white or black, making a spit cup outta her. A black woman can’t have much in this world, but before I die I’m gonna make sure Janie’s got something.
I give each student one of the five character cards. On a separate paper, they write down the character’s name and key pieces of information that other people in the class should know: Who they are related to, what their problem is, what has happened in the past that they are worried about. In some classes, I ask them to write out the entire passage about their person. After students write key points or the passage, I instruct them to write some questions or thoughts they have about their person. They don’t have much information, so they often have a lot of questions. For example, “What happened to Nanny to make her so bitter?” or “Does Janie love Logan Killicks?” Sometimes I propose a topic I want them to write about as if they are the character. For Their Eyes Were Watching God, I ask students to jot down what their character – Nanny, Janie, Tea Cake, Joe, or Logan – might write about love – from their character’s point of view.
THE TEA PARTY
Then students in their character roles, get up, walk around, and introduce themselves to the other characters. In Hurston’s novel, I include roles for Nanny, Tea Cake, Janie, Joe, and Logan. Students must find the four other characters and write down key information about them before returning to their seats. After they’ve recorded the information on each of the characters, I ask them to formulate questions they want to find out more about as they read the novel. Because some of my more devious students find ways to cut their work short, I tell them that they have to talk to the other characters, not copy their cards.
We share their questions as a way of prompting the reading. After the tea party for Their Eyes Were Watching God, the class asked the following questions: Who were the men in Janie’s life? Who treated her like a mule? Why do people talk about her? How did Tea Cake teach Janie to love? Why was Nanny so negative? How did Janie do Logan wrong? What is a spit cup and what happened to Nanny that made her think like that?
I have found that some students work better graphically – both in organizing their thoughts and in seeing how others draw connections. So sometimes I ask students to draw a diagram of how they think the characters are related to each other. Students share their models on the board or overhead and explain their reasoning. After a tea party on August Wilson’s play The Piano, for example, one student put the piano in the center of a web and each character in a wheel around it, graphically showing how the piano seemed to be the center of each character’s problems.
Because novels and history too often marginalize people of color, women, and working-class people, I create roles to highlight that problem if it exists in the reading or the history we’re studying. For example, if a minor character, like a maid or “house man,” is invisible in the story, I “invite” this person to the tea party. Before class, I ask a dramatic student to take the “invisible” person’s role. I give them the card to read, then during the tea party, I ask them to help me serve tea and cookies. After the rest of the class has discussed the characters they met, this person stands and says something like, “I wasn’t invited to your tea party …” and then goes on to explain who they are and what part they play in the book or history.
Whether I am enticing reluctant students to read novels or provoking them to read between the lines of historical texts, the tea party provides an entrance into the new novel or historical study. But I have occasionally used this strategy at the end of a unit when students have conducted research or read novels on their own in literature circles.
For example, after researching people who resisted or worked for the abolition of African-American slavery, one of our culminating activities was a tea party. Student-created cards on the abolitionists/resisters they studied – Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Nat Turner, the Grimke sisters, and more. During the tea party, students collected information on the methods these historical figures used in their struggle to end slavery: uprising, writing, speeches, etc. Using this information, students wrote a paper comparing resistance strategies and advocating for the tactics they felt were most effective.
After a literature circle where students chose to read historical novels or autobiographies written by African Americans – including Beloved, by Toni Morrison; Frederick Douglass’ autobiography; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs; I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, by Maryse Condé; or Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson – students in each group created character cards for their novel. Their goal was to entice other students to read their novels as well as share historical information from the book.
In the editors’ introduction to the Rethinking Our Classrooms book, we note that, “A social justice classroom offers more to students than do traditional classrooms and expects more from students. Critical teaching aims to inspire levels of academic performance far greater than those motivated or measured by grades and test scores … [O]nly by systematically reconstructing classroom life do we have any hope of cracking the cynicism that lies so close to the heart of massive school failure, and of raising academic expectations and performances for all our children.”
How does the tea party do all that? Although the tea party is only one small strategy, the implications behind it are large: Students can succeed if a teacher is willing to find the strategies and lessons that hook them instead of pushing them out. As a high school teacher I’ve witnessed too many students like Marvin fail because they are poor readers. When we hand students texts or readings, we have to stop expecting that all students come with the tools they need. We need to take the time to teach students reading and writing skills instead of bemoaning the fact that so many come unprepared.