Finding Readers’ Voices through Listening and Reading Blended

Yoo Kyung Sung, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM and Junko Sakoi, Tucson Unified School District, Tucson, AZ

Blended coverThis week we share the digital natives’ experiences in the 8th grade classroom with a print–based text and an audiobook from the classroom. Recently, fifteen 8th grade students at the Drachman Montessori K–8 Magnet School in Tucson read Blended by Sharon M. Draper (2019). They are going to read two different formats of Blended; the 320 paged printed–text reading that consists of 80 chapters and the audiobook listening that takes 5 hours and 42 minutes. The students read and listen to chapters in turn intentionally to challenge their reluctant attitudes towards printed texts that RPR (Reluctant Printed–Text Readers) have.

Blended is a contemporary, realistic fiction novel about an eleven–year–old named Isabella and her “blended” family. She lives in two different worlds. Many of the chapters in this book are titled as Mom’s Week and Dad’s Week so that Exchange Week brings extra dynamics to the story. The main character reflects how divorced parents influence her life structure. For example, Isabella’s dad and his girlfriend live in a fancy house with her son. They are the only black family in the ‘fancy’ neighborhood. In alternative weeks, Isabella stays with her white mom and her boyfriend in a small and comfortable house. Isabella often feels stuck in the middle and even feels ripped into two. What does it mean to be half white or half black? Isabella looks for a sense of identity and place while struggling with her parents’ separation and racial issues at school.

The 8th graders have just started listening to and reading the story last week. They have completed 25 chapters (104 pages) in five sessions. Each session took about one hour and flows as follows:

1. Listen to the audiobook. (four to five chapters)
2. Read the hard copybook. (one to two chapters)
3. Work on literacy activities.

While listening and reading, the students jot down their quick responses mixed thoughts, connections, wonderings, and tensions by writing and sketching. After listening to chapters, they synthesize their notes by journal writing. They are also invited to various activities for literacy engagements such as written conversation (Short, 2009). In a written conversations, students in pairs have a silent conversation about the story by talking on paper.

Students’ Responses to Blended

As expected, most of the students loved listening to the audiobook. All of them requested to play the audio first. The audiobook appeared to be inviting to all students, including struggling readers. Some struggling readers listened to and read the physical book at the same time. Several students showed willingness to read the printed–text further.

Several students have shown understanding and empathy with the protagonist, Isabella, by making connections to their personal lives. The 8th graders not only made connections but elaborated on their thoughts and questions and expressed firm ideas about custody as if they represented Isabella. Students’ comments below nearly transformed the RPRs to become proactive audience members.

• I feel like it can be relate–able to some children.
• How many kids go through this (parents’ separation)?
• Why did she (Isabella) not get to go to the court for the custody arrangement?
• I think she (Isabella) should’ve been part of the custody hearing because it is her life.

Race–related dialogues at school and home also raised questions about hate crimes and racial discrimination through Isabella’s point of view. This further encouraged students to rethink how they need to identify themselves. Most of the 8th graders in this class are bi–racial or multiple–racial and have multiple sides of Mexican American, African American, and Mexican–Native American. They indicated that racial and ethnic identity shouldn’t be what people see in them, but instead their inner identity, such as personalities and values, they have as young people. Students’ comments below display their thoughts of their identity as young people.

• What I think it means to be bi–racial is to be more than one race and if I was in that situation, I would want to be looked at like a person and not a color.
• I would want to be seen as a person [and] as a teenage girl, not as a little girl.
• I would like to be seen as the person I am.
• Personality matters.

Responding to Digital Native Readers’ Needs

The teacher and us had one big question: What can we do to help our students read for fun? Some of the eighth–graders were not seriously attracted to book reading as much as hoped. They acted like they were allergic to books. However, they have no fear to read from their little smartphone screen. Perhaps their understanding of what reading is doesn’t involve physical books. This attempt to embrace digital natives reading culture helped us to look for other “reading methods” and audiobooks.

This attempt let the students experience what fun a book story can be. So, books are not as boring as they would think. An audiobook can help students face the ambiguous fear that they think they are not strong readers. When we pushed them to read a hard copy of Blended for one or two chapters, they did. Listening to chapters in audiobooks helped them develop a relationship with Isabella and they came to care about Isabella’s life since she felt stuck between divorced parents and her biracial identity–her mama is white while she looks rather black. The book helped them to feel empowered through Isabella’s story. It was not uncommon that the 8th graders barely had readers’ agency prior to the audiobook experience. Reading a book is the last thing they desired to do.

Now What?

This audiobook project showed new possibilities and potential as to how we can help our digital natives, yet novice immigrants to “old school” literacy methods. Like Miss Brittany Butler at Magee Middle School shared, it is time for us to start a classroom library of audiobook files that a community of students can listen to together while they develop a quite strong readers’ membership that is no different between old school and digitally native worlds.

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