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Audiobooks and Autonomy: A Lesson in Disclaimers

September 28, 2018

Audiobooks and Autonomy: A Lesson in Disclaimers


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I’m ashamed to admit this, but for the last several years, I’ve only physically read a few books each year. Yep. I’m an English teacher admitting this. However, I have listened to about 50 a year—one a week, on average. Sometimes I listen to books I’ve already read because I find the voices and accents entertaining, and in many ways it rounds out my experience as a reader. I certainly understood The Book Thief better as I listened to Death narrate versus having to conjure the tone in my head. Sometimes, I listen to an audiobook to reaffirm ideas. That’s why I listened to The World is Flat and The Tipping Point last year. I just finished all of Elizabeth Strout’s books this summer. As a teacher, I’ve always honored the 504s or IEPs that requested audiobook versions of books we read together in class.

This year though, I’m embracing listening as a “new literacy” for all students in my eighth-grade inclusion classroom, and adding it to my syllabus at Canisius College where I teach Adolescent Literacy in a New Literacies World. In my last post, I explained my theme for the year in Conformity, Identity, and Rebellion: A Thematic Approach to SEL. However, as I sometimes do when I walk away from a blog, I got hung up on one thing I said:

"It only has a Lexile level of 590, but that doesn’t matter to me because we are going to read and listen to it together. The point of this first novel in the Stargirl series isn’t to develop students’ reading skills, but rather to let them see that reading can provide fodder for excellent conversation, debate and self-discovery."

I don’t say anything controversial, but in the back of my mind, I knew that I had included a disclaimer that reading and listening together is OK, because I fundamentally knew I had to defend this opinion. I was trying to relay to the reader this: “Don’t judge. I’m not an easy teacher who just lets kiddos listen to the book instead of read it.” Except I do let kiddos listen to the book as a part of reading it, and in some cases, in lieu of reading it. I’ll confess, when my principal walked in and my students were lying there, or leaning back or curled up, reading along as John Ritter read Stargirl to my eighth-graders, I felt a rush of embarrassment.

Does he think this is lazy or not rigorous? Does he think this is a waste of time? Before I let myself get too worked up, I came back around to the truth: Listening is a literacy skill, and there are valid reasons to listen, or to listen and read along. It is a skill that needs nurturing. Check out “Now Hear This,” a webinar on developing students’ listening skills, or introduce them to podcasting.

How long will it take for educators to recognize that just because their learning environment doesn’t look or seem like the traditional classroom,  it doesn’t mean that learning isn’t happening? I, of all people—with my flexible seating, project-based, paperless, SEL-infused classroom—had felt nervous that the approach I am using is not “good enough.” As a professional, I must lean into what I know: These kiddos will need to absorb podcasts, learn from tutorials, and will very likely be doing much of it from their own homes. When I’m meeting the needs of students for the world they already live in and prepare them for what their future holds, I don’t have to second-guess myself. And neither do you.

Amber Chandler
  Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification. She is the 2018 Association for Middle Level Educators’ “Educator of the Year.”  Amber has enjoyed a wide variety of... See More

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