Last spring I read Mary O’Hara’s 1941 classic, My Friend Flicka to our eight year-old daughter and within the first three chapters the entire family was hooked. There were nights when tears rolled down my cheeks and dropped to wet and rumple the pages like a splattered cookbook. We fell in love with the n’er-do-well Ken McLaughlin; were inspired by Nell McLaughlin’s strength and faith in her family; and we all knew a hard-to-please Rob McLaughlin in our own lives. During those weeks of Flicka, “reading too late” was our excuse for weary-eyed and sluggish mornings, but as a mother and a teacher I believe in reading aloud.
Months later, we saw a trailer for Hollywood’s new Flicka in which Kenny is Kate and school is an expensive private academy. I was overcome by the urge to give my fourth graders the original. The film would premiere on October 20th — I had less than four weeks to do O’Hara justice.
Well, the reading of My Friend Flicka took eight weeks, but we settled into the story and lived Ken’s days with him. The time we took to read the book was the time it took for Ken to prove himself responsible, to gentle Flicka, to write the composition that got him his place back at school, and to earn his father’s pride.
Reading as a teacher, I modeled the use of expression, enunciation, and punctuation. I carefully replaced Rob McLaughlin’s swear words with the more classroom appropriate “gol’ dangs” and “ah hecks.” I created the context of the story along the way, relating it to our own Wyoming history and geography. And we discussed Ken’s foibles – his lack of focus, identity, and sense of purpose are like those of many eleven year-olds.
In today’s educational hurry to “leave no child behind,” I spend increasing time teaching skills to take tests. My colleagues and I are required to cover an inordinate amount of material, guaranteeing that we will not have the time to uncover its meaning. In an effort to balance this, I give my students rich literature and I read it to them. I choose novels that connect to our curriculum so that some of the sense-making takes place during Read Aloud. I give different voices to different characters and I’ll read a passage a second time because it is so good we have to hear twice. I believe my passion for language and empathy for the characters is contagious and what we as adults model for children they will do themselves.
As I plan for Parent/Teacher/Student conferences, where a good deal of emphasis will be placed on standards of achievement and grades, I’m prepared to tell parents I believe in reading aloud.
My family and I saw Flicka and enjoyed it. I left the theater knowing though, that 100 minutes of big screen and surround sound can’t do what 285 pages and eight weeks can. This, I believe.