We started reading Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony a couple of days ago. The plan is to read only the first 30 pages of this novel. Even so, this is the longest reading assignment of the year so far. My students are not used to reading for extended periods of time and this has direct implications in lesson planning. Part of my job during this time is to put pressure on them to actually get some reading done at home. However, I know from experience that it takes several tries before I have the entire class on board with the established reading schedule. We are not there yet. Today, for example, only 6 students finished the reading assigned for homework. This is not unexpected so I did include time in today’s lesson to give them much-needed independent reading time.
I begin class by quickly surveying students to see who actually finished the assigned reading the night before. Like I suspected, only a fraction actually did the reading. It is important to address this immediately. I have tried a variety of things to address this in the past and today I opt for a combination of accountability measures and lecturing. I tell students that those students who did the reading will get major credit on their grade. I also remind them that Ceremony will be the central text of the next couple of weeks of instruction and all assignments will require that they read so if they choose not to read it, they are putting their grade in jeopardy. The tone I use here is urgent and serious. At the very least, I am making it clear to students that I am serious about the importance of completing reading assignments.
I then tell them that they will get a chance to read in class so they can catch up, that I am assigning more reading tonight and that I expect them to do it. If I get the same results tomorrow, I will have to resort to a different strategy. I tell students that as they read, they need to add to their Setting/Plot/Character chart they started the lesson before. I also remind them they should be annotating the text as they read. They have been reading closely in this manner for every text we have read so they are now familiar with this task. The few students who did the reading can take more time to work on their chart or simply move on to the next pages of the novel, which means they will have no homework. As students work, I look over their shoulder and check the progress of their charts addressing any confusion I see.
Now that students have caught up with reading, I want to give them the opportunity to discuss what they have read and to ask questions about anything they found confusing. I want students to talk to each other first because this helps them develop their listening and speaking skills. It also allows them to collaborate to make meaning of this complex text and rely on each other instead of me. I ask them to turn to classmates sitting at their table and help each other clarify any confusion. I tell them they will have about five minutes to discuss in small groups. During this time, I walk around and listen in on their conversations to get an idea of the specific details they found confusing. In the pages assigned, they read more about Rocky. Specifically, they read a description of the time Rocky was injured at war and Tayo helped a corporal carrying Rocky in a blanket. Many students have questions about Rocky and whether he is dead or alive. In this video, students are discussing Rocky's injury. I make a mental note to make sure we address this question together. Several are also confused about another detail, but this detail is smaller. They are wondering who the kid is on page 8. They are not aware of the fact that a kid is a baby goat. This detail is easier to address so I open the whole class discussion with this.
I ask students to give me their attention and I tell them that the part of the story with the kid can be quite confusing if you don’t know that kid is the term for a baby goat. This quickly clarifies this for many. We move on and state that I overheard many ask about whether Rocky died. I ask them to share what they concluded with their small group. Students comment on a variety of things. Some want to make sure they understand what is going on by asking things like, “Is Tayo carrying Rocky? Is this during the war? Are the Japanese walking with them?” Different students respond to each question and I mainly guide the discussion and step in when no one else is able to answer a question. When we get to the question of whether Rocky is dead or alive at this point in the story, I remind them of the relationship between text/author/audience and make sure they try to figure out what the author meant the reader to understand. Some students end up concluding that Rocky is in fact dead and some end up concluding that he is just badly injured and we don’t know if he is dead or not. I require students to back up their conclusion with textual evidence. Interestingly, both conclusions are supported with the line, “…the Japanese grenade that was killing Rocky.” Students end up making an argument for both conclusions. Specifically, one side suggests that if the grenade is killing him, it means he is not yet dead, though he may be close. The other side suggests that if it is killing him, he is going to die soon and is definitely dead by the time the reader meets Tayo, which is at the start of the narrative when Tayo has already returned from war. I think both are strong arguments and praise both sides for this. Students also bring up the description of the rain and I make sure these comments are heard because they will need to remember this when they move on to the next page where the author reveals Tayo’s belief that he had caused the drought in the reservation. Together, the small group and whole class discussions are meant to guide students through their reading of this complex narrative.