As I begin one of my favorite units to teach, Of Mice and Men, I started thinking about the first time I taught tenth grade and had to read this book two years ago. I had not read it until I was preparing the unit. Even though I had an idea of what happened, when I read the ending, I bawled. In fact, not just the ending. Basically from the moment Lennie sits in the barn with the dead puppy until the bitter end. I was a mess. All I could think was, “How am I ever going to be able to teach?”
My first year of teaching I attended Reading Apprenticeship training. This PD in a way changed my life. This made me passionate about literacy, especially adolescent literacy. Many parts of the training stick out clearly in my mind, but one stick out more than ever. Our wonderful presenter Barry was encouraging us to use reading minutes in our classroom and have a variety. He told us don’t even be afraid of crying in front of your students. He stressed the value of showing students a reading could move you to tears. As a 23-year-old first year teacher, I thought he was pretty crazy. Oh how the times have changed.
So, I started the unit on Of Mice and Men still not sure what I was going to do about the ending. One reason I love this unit so much is how Steinbeck make readers care so much about George and Lennie in so few pages. I was getting closer and closer to the end and more and more nervous. I loved my class but I was worried how they would react if I lost it. I somehow made it through chapter 5 with no incident, but the next day came the dreaded chapter 6. Knowing exactly what was going to happen seemed to make it worse. I know my voice cracked at least once, if not more. I remember gripping my podium trying to keep my composure. My voice was shaky and soft, and there is no doubt in my mind that the students knew how I felt. Yet the room was completely silent. Not a single word or giggle. The students were glued to the pages. There may have been a few eye wipes when we finished. We had shared a moment and a feeling. I told students how hard it was for my to read that and what had happened the first time I read it. They seemed to completely understand.
There is no shame in showing students how books can overpower us. As I have taught the novel more and more, I have more composure in the classroom now. However, I tell students about the first time I read it and the mess I had become. Last year, a student of mine yelled out, “NO!” being unable to control her emotion at the fated moment. While she was initially embarrassed at her outburst, again no one teased her or made a big deal. We let the moment happen and respected it.
I tell students all the time my reactions to books. When writing memoirs with my students, I focused mine on my experience with books. I modeled a strategy of ‘exploding the moment’ in the section where I wrote about The Outsiders. I was completely honest with the students as I explained how hysterical I was, to the point that my uncle and brother were concerned about my well-being. I tell how the Harry Potter series has made me cry many times. Even as I read Anna Dressed in Blood, I confessed how the book literally scared me to bad dreams one night. I have even laughed out loud during SSR when I come across a very funny part in my book. I want students to see that this is what books can do and there is nothing wrong with it. Students have begun to share more of their own feelings and experiences while reading…and not just telling me how bored they are.