I have always encouraged my students to frequently ask questions. In my classroom, they know they are in a safe environment where there is no such thing as a dumb question and no one will mock them for not having an answer. This is very comforting to my students, as they cannot always guarantee they will be treated with such respect in all academic environments. As immigrants, they often feel embarassed or afraid to ask questions in front of their native English-speaking peers and many incorrectly assume that lack of proficiency in the language is an indicator of lack of intelligence.
Asking questions while reading is an ongoing process that indicates comprehension of the text. As a reader processes what they have just read, they are constantly generating questions in their mind that may be answered as they continue to read. Similar to making predictions, questioning is a reading strategy that should be applied before, during, and after reading. When a reader previews a text, they are questioning, as well as predicting, what will happen next. While reading, when one question is answered, others are often generated. Even when finished reading a story, there are also questions that the author leaves unanswered for the reader to draw their own conclusions.
It would be expected that my young ELL (English Language Learner) students would generate many questions while encountering the challenging works of Tolkien. Sometimes their questions shape the direction of our class discussions, while some students may choose to keep their questions confined to the pages of their steno pads, as a mere indicator of their thinking process throughout the text. While reading about the Bucklebury ferry, some students confused a ferry with a fairy, which impeded their comprehension of where the hobbits were headed on their journey. While we enjoyed a laugh over the students who were visualizing winged-creatures assisting Frodo, Sam, and Pippin; it allowed me to see deficits in their knowledge of English homophones, which I can use to redirect my instruction. Kili wanted to know how Farmer Maggot did not recognize Frodo the entire time he was conversing with him, but her inquisitiveness was rewarded when she read on and discovered the farmer was choosing not to remind Frodo of their last encounter. When my students interrupt their reading with questions, I encourage them to make a note of their question, but to keep reading because often the author will answer them in due time, if only they will be patient.
My students were amazed that the hobbits could walk for 18 miles, but we calculated that if a physically-fit adult could walk at a rate of 5 mph, then it would only take 3-4 hours to complete the distance. They were also entertained by the idea that Frodo was attacked by Farmer Maggot’s dogs after stealing mushrooms. This inspired Oin to draw a picture of the unfortunate event. Most understood at that point why chapter 4 was called A Short Cut to Mushrooms, which led us to another interesting discussion regarding the titles of Tolkien’s chapters. Kili voiced, “I like how all the chapters has a cool and mysterious heading. It makes me really excited and anxious to read the chapter.” When we reached chapter 5, A Conspiracy Unmasked, Bilbo said, “It means a mystery. They’re going to unmask a mystery, kind of like a Scooby-Doo cartoon.”
I love the connections my students are making as they read, no matter how strange, as I find their multi-cultural perspectives particularly insightful. Kili shared that her mother had been watching the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films and kept calling Gollum “Shaytan”, which she explained is Somali for satan. This generated a very lively reaction from my Asian and Middle-Eastern students who all shared that shaytan is also the word for devil in Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Punjabi, and Hindi. Kili concluded, “Now when I hear the word shaytan, I’ll always think of Gollum.” Some students also had a difficult time realizing that Peregrin Took and Pippin were the same character. I explained to them that Pippin is a nickname. Bombur connected that when he moved to America, he stopped using his Korean name because it was too difficult for most Americans to pronounce correctly. Instead he began using an American nickname in school, which helped him to understand why Peregrin could be called Pippin. Being from a country where alchohol consumption is not permitted in accordance with Islamic teachings, Balin wrote, “I thought the hobbits weren’t adults yet. I don’t know why they are allowed to drink beer and stuff.” I have to constantly remind my students to accept the characters in context and that drinking and smoking, despite what my students are taught in school and at home, are simply engaging in acceptable social practices within Middle-Earth, not the Middle-East.
My students have very perceptively picked up on Tolkien’s use of foreshadowing. They loved the tension building by several false alarms with the Black Riders. When the other hobbits mistook Merry for a Nazgul, Kili said, “So it was a prank? Merry and Pippin sound like they are both pranksters to me.” She also connected that the hobbits’ arguing over getting a bath first in Crickhollow was similar to her siblings saying, “I call shower first!” She found the hobbits’ tub tunes particularly amusing and voluteered as extra-credit to pen her own shower-inspired song to share with the class.
Often my inexperienced readers will have insight into the text that I have not been able to perceive, despite previous readings. Kili interrupted our reading and said, “Ms. Rodgers, I just noticed something. Why is Frodo always staring at fire? It seems like everytime he’s thinking about the ring, he’s staring into a fire. I think since the fire is where he discovered the story of the ring, that fires always remind him of the ring.” This is a thought that had never occurred to me, but I do agree that perhaps Tolkien’s simple use of fire is a symbolic metaphor for the ring heavily weighing on Frodo’s mind.
As a recent arrival to the US from India less than a year ago, Thorin‘s steno pad contains many questions that I try to answer for him on a daily basis. Most of these are simply matters of him needing clarification on challenging vocabulary words to support his comprehension of the story. He is keeping up with the other students though and occasionally has some great insights of his own. Today he wrote, “Can somebody write a book report on Lord of the Rings? I don’t think somebody can because it has a lot of pages, it has so many words, etc. So I don’t think somebody can write a book report on Lord of the Rings.” Thorin makes a good point, but what sort of English teacher would I be if I didn’t at least make them try, right?
My students are becoming more motivated as we begin to make more headway through the text. After completing chapter 5, Kili noticed that when she had the book open in front of her, the left-side portion of pages we’d already read was laying flatter against the table and getting bigger. “That means we’re getting closer to finishing the book”, she proudly declared.
Nori finally finished making our reading progress chart this past weekend (shown above). Across the top, she wrote the title of the book and illustrated both the ring and Mount Doom. She listed all the character names of our class members on one side and the percentage of completion towards the end of the book on the other. Across the bottom, she listed all of the chapters, which we will check-off as we progress through the book. My students continue to remain highly motivated to read the book and embrace the challenge to defy the odds, despite the fact that others underestimate their abilities. I will continue to encourage my students to make perceptive insights and connections to what they read, to never measure themselves against the mediocrity of others, and to always question everything, even Tolkien.