“Storytime with Wil”: A Read-Aloud for Grown-Ups

once-upon-a-time-whitley-mdThere’s no shortage of anecdata and evidence that reading out loud to children is incredibly important to developing language skills, and a love of reading. Reading out loud can help improve comprehension, vocabulary, and information processing skills. There are many resources to help adults read aloud to children, or help connect other readers with children, or help children read out loud to an audience of their own.

Do grown-ups benefit, too?

Some may feel it juvenile, but I enjoy listening to things. I derive a lot of pleasure from listening to music, for instance. Podcasts and radio programs are some of my favorite ways to absorb nonfiction text. I don’t listen to audiobooks, but I know many adults who do. Why wouldn’t grown-ups also benefit from read-alouds?

My district took the night off from our usual Twitter chat, so when I was dorking around Twitter at 9pm EST with nothing else going on, I saw a link to actor Wil Wheaton‘s Twitch channel, where he was doing a read-aloud of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. (This is apparently a regularly scheduled event.) So, I clicked.

I don’t often visit Twitch, but it’s a social platform for people to watch videos, particularly snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-aida-hiin the gaming community. (It makes sense if you spent hours of childhood waiting for your turn on the Nintendo, then realized that you like watching other people play almost as much as you enjoy playing yourself.) So, it’s an interesting platform for a read-aloud. But Mr. Wheaton has gamified the experience: when the time comes in the story for the reader to make a choice, observers in the chat make their opinion known about which choice they want to make. (The first few choices I watched were close to unanimous, but when it came too close and fast to call, a chatbot helped tally votes.)

However, there were over five hundred (!!!) folks watching the entire time I was participating. (Can you imagine being a teacher reading out loud to over five hundred kids? Yikes.) Still, that is a lot. There was no way you could reasonably expect to be singled out for attention. But, fellowship could be built between the observers, because the chat function (largely ignored by Mr. Wheaton as he read out passages between choices) was also a backchannel. People frequently reacted to Mr. Wheaton and/or the text, then reacted to one another.

I was impressed with (and enjoyed) the experience. Mr. Wheaton, as an actor, reads with gumption, something that would probably make former costar LeVar Burton proud. The community around the activity was energetic but without some of the negative interactions that can color an online experience. Not all five hundred-some viewers were chatting simultaneously, which probably would have been insane. But many were cracking jokes and so on. It was definitely more geared towards adults than for kids (I’d rate it PG-13 with an extra sprinkle of f-bombs).

While our principal reasons for reading aloud to children is to strengthen their literacy, let
us not forget that it can be fun and community-building as well.

Why Bad Things Happen in Good Fiction

Years ago, I had a conversation with a police officer visiting our school about the Percy Jackson movies. “I won’t see them,” he told me. “I can’t enjoy a movie where kids get hurt.”

I don’t begrudge him that at all. Usually when I watch a movie or television show, I am also looking for some level of escapism, and sometimes real or painful things take me out of relaxation mode. But that’s not to say there isn’t value to real or painful things in fiction, especially for children.

Because, real and painful things actually happen to children. And to people children know.

I remembered this conversation while watching A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix, which I find to be quite a good adaptation (and I am loving Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket). The theme song, which features slightly different lyrics every episode, continually exhorts the viewer to “look away, look away” from the distressingly unstable lives of the Baudelaire orphans. Naturally, curious children are tempted to watch further (or, read the books).

As an adult, I do feel the urge to protect children, not just from “bad” things, but sometimes the knowledge of “bad” things. But I am not a perfect shield, and we don’t live in a perfect world. Let kids read (and sometimes watch) the stories with the “bad” stuff. If they see it on the page or screen first, perhaps they’ll be more ready for it when the hits start comin’ in real life.

The Value of Stories You Don’t Like

A local police officer, who makes a habit of visiting our school, does not like the Percy Jackson movies. When he goes to the movies, you see, he is seeking escapism. And he can’t enjoy being absorbed in a world where children get hurt.

That’s perfectly valid, I think. He doesn’t have to like the Percy Jackson franchise. But my youngest brother does, and many of my students do. Just because one adult doesn’t like the series, doesn’t mean other people can’t enjoy it. And, even if you don’t like or enjoy something, you can still acknowledge some value in it.

Specifically, with Percy Jackson, I empathize with an adult who doesn’t like to see kids get hurt on the big screen. But refusing to enjoy kids getting hurt through violence doesn’t erase the truth that many children do suffer violence, directly or indirectly. And many children who don’t experience it directly still know someone in their life who does. Fiction may help us be more empathic people, so reading the experiences of a fictional character may better equip a child for dealing with similar circumstances in their lives or the lives of people they know.

Not only that, fiction can force us to confront the uncomfortable realities that other people live in. Books like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck were not books I would have chosen to read as an adolescent, and I failed to realize their full value as I read them. But they helped contextualize a lot of complicated lessons of history, economics, geography, and more. Those stories allowed me to talk about others in college courses. (I felt a lot more sympathy for Achebe’s Okonkwo after reading The Sorrows of Young Werther.) And while I still wouldn’t say I enjoyed these books, I can say I like them because they helped pry open the close-mindedness I had that I wasn’t even aware I had.

Shakespeare and Straight Outta Oz: A Case for Pop Culture in the Classroom

My spouse and I recently saw a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged at the local university. To be honest, I wanted to see it because my twin sister and I did it as a speech cut for duo interpretation our senior year of high school. I realize now how many of the jokes went over my head at the time!

More importantly, I realized how many things about Shakespeare are still deeply embedded in our culture. Turns of phrases like “my kingdom for a horse” and “to thine own self be true.” Characters like Iago from Othello remind me of political figures currently looming large. Narratives like from Romeo and Juliet have surfaced across cultures throughout all of history, and the lessons we mine from them depend on our context.

I first read Shakespeare when I was in fifth grade, perhaps. I first studied and learned some in class in ninth grade, then again in twelfth grade. We touched on some Shakespeare in some of my college courses, and I was in a couple productions of Shakespeare comedies at that time as well.
I’ve seen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Things inspired or influenced by Shakespeare like The Lion King and House of Cards. I’ve seen hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of Bollywood movies and I think about the structural similarities between those and Shakespeare’s contemporary stage productions.

When we teach Shakespeare, we’re teaching students to notice some of the water we swim in – things like references and vocabulary words that we might otherwise take for granted. And when we take them down for deeper dives through such material, we’re hopefully helping them to pay attention and interpret meanings for themselves.

And that brings me to “Straight Outta Oz” by Todrick Hall.

(Some language and visuals in the links may not be appropriate for work or classroom, depending on your work/school culture.)

So, yes, I’m running for president of awkward transitions.

“Straight Outta Oz” is an album by Youtube star Todrick Hall. While I think all the songs on this particular album are original, he has built a large following for himself by playing around with pop culture. Disney princesses singing a medley of Nicki Minaj songs and retelling Alice in Wonderland to a soundtrack of Taylor Swift. So it seems a natural choice for him to use an iconic piece of media – The Wizard of Oz – as the vehicle to tell his own life story.


Todrick Hall and actress Uzo Aduba, who portrayed Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz Live! (2015). Photo from Todrick Hall’s mobile uploads album on Facebook.

This is not his first time referencing The Wizard of Oz, but this is clearly his most personal turn. He depicts all the major players himself: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and even the Witch of the West. He uses events from the narrative of Wizard of Oz to illustrate his own journey through the fame machine. Along the way he explores, through song, reflections on sexuality, masculinity, race, and identity.

Were I a high school teacher with flexibility of curriculum, I might use this album as a way to introduce concepts of literary criticism. There’s a tendency to focus on “high brow” texts and media, things that are well-established in the literary canon. Or, if we include newer things, they are almost always books. I do love books, but they do not have a monopoly on storytelling. Here are reasons I might try to incorporate Straight Outta Oz:

  • Access. The visual album is available to all viewers on Youtube, for free. Many of the songs are available individually, though the voiceover narrative only comes up in the album video. Youtube can be accessed on many devices or at public libraries.
  • Intention. In weaving together autobiography and fictional narrative, Hall is very clearly commenting on culture or illustrating his ideas. The material is there to be mined. There is a clear arc, buoyed by symbolism, laced with themes.
  • Relatability. Adolescents are going through a stage in life where they question the world and how they fit into it. This piece of media would probably speak to many teens on an emotional level. Also, this is the water they swim in. Shakespeare speaks to us today because the stories are rooted deeply in our culture since before William put them into plays. But the language and the settings sometimes get in the way. When we change the setting and language to be more familiar, it is not just an update — it’s an attempt to reduce obstacles to comprehension.
  • Cross curricular potential. There’s no question that music, dance, and costuming are all integral to Hall’s style of storytelling; that brings in the arts. Commentary on current events could fit in with social studies.

I know a high school teacher who last year taught a unit on the first season on popular podcast Serial, to great success. I know another high school teacher who, powered by the momentum of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit, has been coaching students through Chernow’s biography of Hamilton for summer reading (and using Twitter to send reminders!). From Khan Academy to Crash Course, a resource like Youtube has found a place in the classroom in STEM subjects. So why not humanities as well?

Now, I make a case for Straight Outta Oz on the basis that I really enjoy it. Obviously my enjoyment of a piece of media is not the sole rubric to measure its appropriateness for the classroom. (Otherwise The Little Prince book would have gone over much better years ago when I taught sixth grade.) What relatively new medium do you dream of teaching in your classroom?

Rewind to 1993

A friend of mine, who uses English as a second language, posted this on Facebook today:


“In my old posts in the past, my English was so miserable, I feel embarrassed.”

I relate to this feeling. Sometimes it’s hard to put yourself out there because, even though you might be proud of yourself in the moment, you might be embarrassed in the future. Honestly, it’s a fear I have every time I post here on this blog.

Interestingly, in doing some new year cleaning today, I came across an artifact from my past: my third grade “Learning Log.” This was a bracketed folder which we added our own writing to throughout the year. We were, I think, supposed to include samples of writing from several different genres: poetry, fables, fairy tales, biographies, etc. Apparently, though, I got really, really hooked on writing poetry.

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I especially liked writing poems that involved the word “underwear,” which eight-year-old me thought was the height of comedy.

By December I had over two dozen poems in there. Because some of them were typed and printed out, I assume I did some of them at home — because we had a computer and printer at home, but I don’t remember having much access to them in third grade.

Throughout the log, my teacher wrote little notes of encouragement or requests for clarification (I did veer into Suessian nonsense territory every now and then). Gosh, she had beautiful cursive handwriting. She wrote an overall evaluation and grade every few weeks. At the end of the log there is a certificate indicating that I no longer needed to turn in the log for a grade.

But not before I got to publish my own original fairy tale! And by original, I mean derivative and embarrassing, but I was super proud of it at the time. I wrote it and illustrated it all by myself. We even wrote them on special paper and bound them together between laminated cardboard covers, like real books!
The book itself is lost to history (thank goodness!) but the first draft, from October 1993, survives.


Stop trying to make “sprarkling” happen, eight-year-old me.

So why dig this up? This stuff is over twenty years old.

Because this was my beginning point. Before third grade, I learned how to make letters; then make letters into words; make those words into sentences; then make those sentences tell more and more. I had used reading to absorb the thoughts and ideas and stories of others. But with writing, I had the chance to communicate my own thoughts and ideas and stories to others!

We all start somewhere as learners. Some of us move faster on that journey than others. Some of us start further back, and some of us have head starts. Is it embarrassing to look back and see where we used to be? Maybe. But I like to think of it as looking back and realizing just how far I’ve come.

And I’m still going. Hello, 2016!


Dear Santa, I Didn’t Do It!

My current student group for the after school program have written a Christmas-themed online picture book centered around letters to Santa. Well, more like excuses to Santa. What can I say, we were under the spell of a bad influence.

Here is the book trailer. (I used screenshots from the video to actually create the ebook.)

Download the ebook version for free! There is more heartfelt content in addition to the mischief. And keep an eye out for more ebooks in January – we hope to each write our own (now that the teacher has taught herself how to publish an ebook to begin with!).dearsantacoverart

Questionable Morals (Aesop’s Fables) Show Notes

Show Notes for Questionable Morals (Aesop’s Fables).

Research sources:

Sound Effects:

Music from the Youtube Audio Library.

  • Sand Castles by the Green Orbs
  • Blank Holes by the Jingle Punks
  • Blank Holes (Sting) by the Jingle Punks
  • Rustled Feathers by Silent Partner

Image: Bats by Bartek Ambrozik at FreeImages.com


The Fairy Tale Magic Complaint Department – Podcast

Length: 4:48

Five fractured fairy tales, cobbled together. In a perfect world, the voice of the Fairy Tale Magic Complaint Department would have been Kristen Schaal, and I would have been able to pay her oodles of money. Oh well.

Check teacherofftopic.com to see the show notes. Email teacherofftopic@gmail.com if you have a question you’d like answered.

The Fairy Tale Magic Complaint Department – Show Notes

Show Notes for The Fairy Tale Magic Complaint Department.

I fractured the following fairy tales:


Sound effects:

Image: toadstool from fairy tale by melanie kuipers at FreeImages.com