“Mrs. Powley! How do you know all this stuff?”
I sometimes heard that question when I was the teacher at the front of the room, leading my students through Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby…and a library of other literary staples in the English Language Arts canon.
Such a remark was gratifying to hear because what it really meant was that the students had been awed by the text.
“I’ll never be able to read a book like that,” they would say.
“Yes, you will,” I’d answer. “It takes practice.”
And I had to be honest: “Do you think all this comes to me the very first time I read a book?”
I reread the text, I told them, every single time I taught it. And every single time, I picked up on more subtleties, developed more insight, made more connections within the story and to the world outside my classroom.
“That’s what I’m trying to teach you,” I’d say. “How to read.”
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about an instructional strategy called “close reading.” It’s the opposite of reading to get the gist of a piece; that is, reading to summarize. The Common Core Standards document sets out as its aim that students should be able to “deeply” analyze a piece of “rich text”—it doesn’t matter whether fiction or non-fiction—in order to understand how an author has constructed meaning.
A close reading of text is a rereading of a small slice of a story (or something that is short to begin with, like a poem or an essay)—perhaps rereading it many times. Then, through careful inspection of words, sentences, paragraphs, and the way they work as parts and together as a whole, the teacher leads the students to discern the author’s meaning. Students are guided to provide “textual evidence” that the author’s meaning is what it is. They can’t guess, based only their prior knowledge and a cursory look at the words on the page, what the author intends. This means, practically, that a Cliff Note’s acquaintanceship with the text won’t cut it.
The more I have read, these past few months, about “close reading,” the more familiar it has seemed to me. That’s because, in the very best of my literature lessons, that is what I had been working at for years.
Reading about this “new” instructional strategy has set me to thinking about my long journey through pedagogy and practice, about all the strategies and instructional supports I’ve used throughout the years as I’ve tried to help students make meaning of words on a page.
When I began teaching, the hardest thing for me was to get a good class discussion going. I didn’t seem to ask the kinds of questions that led to scintillating discussions of life, death, and everything important in between, the kinds of discussions star teachers reported having, discussions where the classroom rhetoric soared and kids came away with life-changing notions about the universe and their place in it.
My questions were the standard ones—and don’t get me wrong, they weren’t unimportant—about the plot of a story, the characters in it, the symbols, point of view, setting, and how they all contributed to the themes of whatever book we were reading. I’d plod along, chapter by chapter, and it seemed to me the conversation was stiff. I wasn’t sure where discussions might go, what kids might say, so I pretty much stuck to the script. Still, kids read the books and told me they enjoyed them. (Some didn’t, I’m sure.)
I thought maybe the stiffness came from the way I was approaching the stories, so for a while I depended upon the textbook to set the pace. Sometimes, I found, those questions were fine, but sometimes I thought they required the kids to make fantastic leaps of insight. Other times I thought they didn’t emphasize what was really important.
Like a lot of novice teachers, I used to think the textbook company was the authority on curriculum and instruction. I guess I imagined the editors sitting around having deep conversations about theories of writing instruction and seminal works of literature and the evolution of the novel as an art form. Presumably, those fervent conversations ended with the editors scurrying to their office cubicles, like monks burning with the faith, to annotate a text and develop the accompanying questions.
Eventually, thank goodness, I realized that the editors were concerned with real things—like wooing customers and cutting production costs—and that the actual writing of the text and the materials to go with it were contracted to consultants. Thus, the questions in the textbook were only as good as the consultant who wrote them. And that consultant was a human being—just like me. With that bit of enlightenment, I felt justified in choosing not to use the questions at the end or to use only some of them.
I tried various “frames” for asking questions. One that teachers use frequently to develop comprehension skills sorts questions into a three-tiered hierarchy. The first questions are “right there” in the text—a student has only to skim and scan for the answer; the second ones require making inferences—the student finds two (or more) bits of information and puts them together in her head. The third tier questions require the student to make a connection to something else she has learned in English class or in another class or even to something she knows from life experience. Not bad, this frame, but it didn’t always serve my purpose.
There are 4-level frames and other 3-level frames, too, but none of them were fail safe structures. Besides, I’m an English teacher, and what I really wanted—increasingly so as the years went by—was for kids to see how the metaphorical language worked, how the word choice mattered, how images supported meaning, how rhetorical devices helped the writer accomplish his or her purpose. I was interested in how the author made meaning, in the craft of writing.
I grew to dislike the 4-pound literary anthology that, for the most part, gave students snippets of text (the last one devoted exactly one page to Moby-Dick), the easiest or shortest story an author had written, and poems that were perhaps the most accessible to students but not necessarily the richest. Today, a typical anthology is accompanied by an even heavier teacher’s edition, the pages so packed on the sides and along the bottom with suggestions for teaching that the literary text in question is condensed to 8-point type. I could barely read it.
And that doesn’t include the ancillary materials supplied by the publisher—supplementary vocabulary instruction, grammar exercises, practice tests, overhead transparencies, writing prompts, and daily oral language items (DOL, as we say in the business)—that escalate the cost of these anthologies. So much help for the teacher is provided that I found it paralyzing. Too many choices.
I yearned for it to be just the text, the students, and me.
And that is how I came to “close reading,” even though I had never heard the term. I stopped plodding through the anthology, stopped trying to create artificial discussions, stopped trying to cover everything. From a chunk of text that I believed was pivotal in terms of the story or central to developing the themes of a book or key to understanding the author’s style, I’d ask questions that demanded a close look at word choice, at sentence structure, at metaphorical language, at rhetorical devices. Slowly, sometimes dramatically, big ideas would emerge. Then kids would say, “I get it!” or “Wow!” or “Oh, my gosh.” They’d grasp the beauty of what the author had accomplished and appreciate—really appreciate—how she had accomplished it. Sometimes we made connections from there—to their own worlds or to other things we’d talked about or they’d learned elsewhere—but these connections stemmed from real knowledge of the text, not from idle remarks, snatched from thin air.
Of course, “close reading” is not all that I did in the classroom. And I wish I could say this kind of epiphany happened every day and every time I taught a poem, an essay, a story, or a passage from a book. It didn’t. But when it did, it came about from something deep inside the text, the students, and me. And it came often enough that I know this “close reading” strategy isn’t just another instructional fad.
Besides, the best teachers I know do the very same thing. They bring their students face-to-face with the words in the text. We don’t all follow the same procedures or choose to emphasize the same thing, but we get the same results: Kids learn to read, really read.