A New Take: “A Wagner Matinée”

I was fortunate to have a colleague (a former English teacher, currently an instructor in Humanities and Judaics) observe the second time I taught “A Wagner Matinée” — this time to my Honors class, and she gave me some excellent ideas. I was a little disheartened by the feeling I had after I taught the piece to my college prep class that the lesson had fallen flat.

Barbara, my colleague, told me that the best bit of teaching advice she ever had was (and I’m paraphrasing, since I left my notes at school) when you teach, don’t tell students everything you know. Instead, figure out what they know, and meet them there.

I told my students things that she and I would find interesting about Wagner, but she pointed out the students probably don’t care about it. Her suggestion for this lesson was to have Wagner music playing as they entered the classroom. As the students took their seats, I would tell them to listen to the music for a minute. I might then ask if they recognized it. Instead of giving the students a whole lot of information about the composer, I could tell them today we are going to read a story about a woman who loves this music. I should ask them how many of them love music, how many of them listen to it every day? What would happen if they couldn’t have it? I could then explain that the woman in the story loses music because of a choice she makes, and she has the opportunity to listen to this music she loves once more.

We also discussed reading aloud, and I would love to get your thoughts on this, because she confirmed something that I truly believe, but not many people seem to agree with me about. I think reading aloud to students is wonderful. I loved being read to. I still do. When someone is good at it, it is a pure pleasure. I have been told I should read for books on tape by my students, so I guess that means I’m good at it. However, I have been told by other teachers that this practice is not good for students. My supervising teacher asked me, when I did this, exactly whose reading comprehension was I working on? So while in my heart of hearts, I love it, I am always loathe to do it when I am going to be observed. It feels like a secret, “dirty” practice I don’t want anyone to know I do — for shame, I read to my students! Anyway, she asked me about reading to students. She said the student I chose to read aloud did a very good job, but asking students to read aloud in this way is always very risky. Readers need to be very good or it will actually hurt the enjoyment for others. That’s exactly how I feel! I can still recall my favorite high school teacher reading passages to us from Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and I loved it. I can recall Mrs. Elliott reading us The Boxcar Children and Superfudge and Mrs. Esquibel reading Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I loved being read to, and it broke my heart to be told by colleagues that reading to my students was harmful to them. Barbara telling me it was a good thing made me feel validated. This is an issue I have truly been struggling with for almost all of my teaching career — this feeling that I was going against something everyone else believed was correct because my gut told me to. What do you think of reading aloud to students?

One thought on “A New Take: “A Wagner Matinée””

  1. You loved being read to, especially by someone who knew what s/he was doing. Why would your students feel any differently? No, it probably doesn't directly improve their reading skills, but it does help some of them develop a sense of story, of flow, of the magic of words strung together, and fosters a desire to be able to "read like that." I think that's a substantial benefit. (Plus, it lets me use some of the voices in my head.)

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