What Inspires Me

An honest look into the life of an eighth grade teacher

By: Michelle Best, OCTELA President

“There is no way he killed himself. That was crazy!”

“You should read the book we are reading in second period. It is amazing!”

“There’s no way it’s better than this one man, I’m telling you.”

You have got to be kidding me. Is that the sound of eighth grade students arguing about books? Ten years ago, with sweaty hands clutching the Sharon Draper book, Forged by Fire, I began a devotion to a practice that I feel passionate about: reading aloud daily to thirteen and fourteen-year-old students. This journey did not begin on a lark of course. It was in fact inspired by first the path that brought me here and second by the experts in our field.

Middle school was rather horrible for me. There was a group of girls who were wealthier and prettier than everyone else and they liked to make sure that everyone knew it, or at least thought it. They made going out in the hallway or to the restroom alone a nightmare. I vowed that I would never step foot into a middle school again when I left eighth grade. I have been doing so every school day for the last eighteen years. I believe that’s considered irony. I always thought that I was chosen for middle school because I was so acutely aware of the dangers that await for the least suspecting, that I could make a difference. This was one way I was making a difference.

As schedules have changed, minutes have been cut, and testing pressure continues to build, educators are constantly faced with the dilemma of what is expendable in the ELA classroom. Our hearts scream Nothing! Yet our legislators beg to differ as data and numbers are required for the justification of every lesson being taught. Yet just recently, Stephen Layne, Penny Kittle, and DonnaLynn Miller continued to argue for the need to keep reading out loud to our students, regardless of their age.

Thus, I continue to laugh, cry, and puzzle my way through YA literature every single day, devoting ten minutes religiously to oral readings for my students. One might think that at a certain age children outgrow this practice, however even Maya Angelou was taught the power that the human voice has to infuse written language with deeper meaning by her mentor Mrs. Flowers.

As I take my seat in front of thirty skeptical faces, I can feel the challenge hang like dread in the air: go ahead, try and make me like this. I take a deep breath and slowly, I get lost in the words. The blank stares one by one turn to engaged gazes, the disappointment that ten minutes is already over is a palpable sigh through the room. I know that reading aloud is not perfect for every single student. Yet I also know that for the child who is trapped hearing only the droning of his or her own voice inside while reading, those ten minutes become a magical look into what the world of books can look like. Read alouds provide a vehicle for non-readers to join the conversation and become an equal member in a classroom to which they otherwise felt like a foreigner.

The world of books can set a person free. If students can see themselves within the pages, they can see options, possibilities, hope. Literature inspires me because I have seen what it can do for everyone from the bullied girl in the hallway to the struggling reader hiding behind the confident smile. Be sure to check out Jennifer Baker’s book reviews in our Ohio Voices for the latest and hottest YA literature out there.