For my students, scarcity is a basic fact of existence, and yet--in spite of their threadbare circumstances--they come to school with gaping appetites for wonder. It is, perhaps, because they are so frequently starved of intellectual, emotional and physical nourishment that they seize upon them with such ravenous force when they find them at school.
But, as recompense for their sometimes unforgiving voracity, they repay us by producing wonderfully creative, and often unprompted, artifacts of their own design.
This morning, for example, a student who routinely misses my first-hour language arts class left an envelope on my desk and asked me to read it after she left. Inside the envelope, I found a beautiful letter about how I have inspired a love of reading in her. Doodles peppered the margins of the page, depicting scenes from each section of her note--appended to which (with a simple stitch of tape) was a piece of candy. Separately, and most impressive of all, there was a collection of note cards that had been hole-punched and ingeniously bound with a hair-tie. Each note-card bore an original illustration of her favorite scenes from Stave I of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." An illustrated Dickensian daydream!
I teach three periods of 6th Grade Honors English, and at the beginning of the year, I ask all of my students ten questions about their reading lives. I call the questionnaire "The Afterlife of Reading." It is designed to determine the extent to which students have a reading life outside of school. Sadly, they don't seem to have much of one, and so the goal of my project is simple: to encourage students to develop a reading life of their own.
Every year, I read Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" with my honors students, and for the most part, they love it.
Nevertheless, the difficulty of Dickens’ prose poses an obvious impediment to their complete immersion, and it is necessary for me to read it with them in class in order to orchestrate a musical and meaningful experience. All this is to say that it's unreasonable to ask 6th graders to read “A Christmas Carol” on their own. And then last year, something novel happened. My school hosted its first Scholastic Book Fair in over a decade, thanks to the unflagging efforts of the new librarian. As I made small talk with her, my eyes drifted like slow globes orbiting an invisible mass, and I was arrested by the ghostly flash of that favorite word of mine: “The Afterlife of Holly Chase,” by Cynthia Hand. I bought it, read it and knew immediately that each of my students needed a copy that they could check-out from me and take home to read.
I want all of my students to have a copy of this modern fairy-tale to take home and weigh against the classic in the privacy of their rooms, in the same patient, mental space where we sometimes dream of loved ones lost: the afterlife of reading.
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