Category Archives: Professional Development

Independent Reading

I’ve been meaning to get around to starting independent reading in my classroom for years. Honest. But like so many things I’ve been “meaning” to do, I put it off. I did finally buy Penny Kittle’s Book Love back in June, and I fully intended to read it. It is true that I had a busier than normal summer. So busy it might in fact be called a non-summer. But I didn’t pick it up and didn’t pick it up. Right around mid-fall, I could feel that malaise creeping in. I’m not talking about the students. I’m talking about me. Then I went to NCTE, which always rejuvenates me and keeps me going for the rest of the school year. Once again, I heard the discussions about independent reading. Finally, something clicked. I think there is a statistic about how many times you have to be exposed to an idea before you pay attention to it. I decided to do it, and I decided not to wait until the second semester starts in January. We’re starting right now, this first week of December. Independent reading is finally going to happen for real in my classroom.

At the beginning of the school year, I ask students to write an educational autobiography for me. I want to know what school has been like for my students. I want to know about how they perceive themselves as students, as readers, and as writers. Almost all of my eleventh graders confessed they don’t like to read and do not read for pleasure. That’s a staggering statistic. They are not going to magically become life-long readers, which I say is one of my goals for them, if I don’t do something. I think the students in my class, the ones who say they don’t like reading, just don’t know what they like to read. They haven’t found a book yet. I will admit that I try some different things that make literature study more interesting for students. Literature circles, for example. One of my students confessed he had never read so far into a book as he had the book my students were reading in November, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I attribute that stamina to the literature circle.

If I had ever been asked to choose my own books to read for pleasure in school, it would have been my favorite class ever, and those ten minutes or so at the beginning of the period would have been my favorite part of the day. But I was a reader, and I became a reader in spite of my teachers, not because of them. I don’t actually have memories of reading something I really liked in school (after elementary school, that is) until 11th grade, when we read To Kill a Mockingbird, but even in that case, I didn’t choose to read that book. It was assigned. I read my own things outside of school. I actually liked reading, and I didn’t enjoy the selections chosen by my teachers. Sometimes, I even faked my way through reading because I couldn’t keep up with the assigned reading. I didn’t want to fake it. I actually wanted to read the books. I even faked my way through one of the books I was assigned in college. Even though I didn’t always do my assigned reading, I actually really wanted to read and loved to read. If my students don’t love to read, think how much more they must be faking their way through reading. Sometimes, later on (never at the time), former students have confessed to me that they didn’t read a text I assigned.

I firmly believe no one is going to die if they don’t read a certain book. I know that feeling is pervasive in secondary education, but one reason I don’t share it is that I myself had such a patchy high school education that I managed to graduate and even major in English Education (which at my school, meant only two fewer English courses, before you complain it isn’t as rigorous as English) without having ever read such essentials as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, and so many others. In fact, had I not read them on my own, I also would have missed The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Can you believe I’m still here to tell the tale? What happened was that I read all those books later. I actually think I read them at the perfect time for me to read them, too. So even though I love leading students through a work of literature and watching them enjoy it, I also want them to become readers, and I think this year in particular, my students need my help to figure out how to do that.

Enter Book Love. Though I’m not finished reading it yet, I already have some advice on how to start, which is what I really needed. I had several questions about how this should look, including what to grade and how to grade it. Kittle covers all of that ground in the book. I scheduled a visit to the library, and our librarian plans to book talk some titles so that my students can make their first selections. I have already begun the process of hauling my own books to donate to my classroom library. I even spent some time last week organizing the books on shelves. Once my library is big enough, I’ll organize it by genre, which I think will help students find what they want to read more quickly.

One thing I especially appreciate about Kittle’s approach is that she doesn’t recommend scrapping the literature study in favor of all independent reading. I find our discussions of the literature we read together to be rich and rewarding. I have heard a lot of teachers who seem to me to be ditching the full-class novel entirely in favor of independent reading, and I am not ready to do that at all. Kittle says the key is balance. We need to create life-long learners and build time for independent reading. But students also benefit from full-class novels. I actually don’t teach a lot of novels in my eleventh grade classes, so I think weaving independent reading into the curriculum should be fairly easy and shouldn’t strain my curriculum too much. But I say that if it does, then perhaps some texts need to go. I am here to serve the students, and that doesn’t mean cramming as much curriculum in as I can.

Other teachers at our school are trying independent reading with great success. It feels great to be in their classrooms, watching them conference with students about their reading and talking about books. As much as I knew independent reading was the right thing to do and as much as I wanted to do it, I somehow didn’t find the time to make it work. I think I just needed to hear one more time how important it is. Here we go. I’ll let you know what happens.

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NCTE 2015 Reflections

I had a great time at NCTE this year. I have, as usual, a lot to process. I walked away with some great ideas, too.

I really liked the High School Matters session, which I typically miss. I have a lot of great ideas for books to read, especially after also going to Carol Jago’s “share what you are reading” session right before High School Matters.

I went to the CEL roundtable last year and found it to be just as good this year. The Carnivals of Truth: Rainbow Perspectives on Critical Issues in ELA Roundtable was also excellent but poorly attended (more on that in a moment). I got some great stuff I can take into my class next week. Because there were few attendees, I was able to talk one-on-one at length with the presenters and ask them some questions about their work with students.

I love this photo with Kwame Alexander, Gary Anderson, Russ Anderson, and Jaclyn Han (I’m photobombing in the back).

I also enjoyed the session presented by friends Glenda Funk, Paul Hankins, and Lee Ann Spillane with Melissa Sweet, Word by Word: The Art of Crafting Responsibility and Creativity. I pulled some ideas for how I might use art and picture books with my own students.

My favorite artifact of that session is noticing that Glenda, Lee Ann, and I have matching haircuts and part our hair on the same side.

Now for the part that’s going to get me in trouble. But I’m trying to be a bit braver about discussing things that make me uncomfortable. I tend to be a kind of positive person, and I avoid conflict if I can. But I feel I should speak up.

I am really concerned about NCTE. I’m concerned that we have a few very popular voices and that those voices dominate the discussion. I am concerned that a handful of folks who have written some popular books have been elevated to rock stars and that we are not listening to others. More people should have been at that Rainbow Perspectives roundtable. But they weren’t because that session was up against some popular voices. Let me be clear: I don’t necessarily blame the popular folks for being popular.  I don’t know that these few folks necessarily cultivate a cult of personality, but what if they didn’t present every year? Just a thought I’m putting out there. I know full well I’ve presented several times, too, and perhaps it’s not fair of me to criticize, especially because the voices about which I speak are strong educators and advocates for what is best in English classrooms. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps they deserve to direct the conversation.

My own session proposal was relegated to a poster session. Now, it is true that I have presented before, but so have the folks I’m talking about here, and from my point of view, they presented the same thing they have done in the past. It’s an important message that they have, and it should go out. I declined my invitation to present writing workshop and Socratic seminar as a poster session because it would not have worked. I cannot understand how NCTE thought it would. And I also cannot understand why we hear from the same voices every time. I cannot understand why proposals that involve people reading their papers are accepted. If I want to read a paper, I can read a paper. I go to sessions to learn about others’ ideas with the hope of adapting them for my own practice. I cannot understand why such presentations were given a room while my voice was effectively silenced in this conversation. I don’t mean to sound bitter because I’m not. I had a good conference, and I listened to some very good presenters. But I had some pretty good work to share, too, and it doesn’t fit on a poster.

It’s pretty easy to put slidedecks online or share links via URL shorteners. I don’t understand not putting your materials online, especially if you’re going through a slidedeck too fast for me to take notes. In 2015, this shouldn’t be a problem. I have to be firm on this one and take a stand. Participants will enjoy your sessions better if they are not scrambling to capture everything you say because you have not posted your slidedeck or materials online. NCTE makes this one easy, folks. You don’t even need to have a website or storage space. Having said that, if you don’t intend to share it, is there anything wrong with telling the audience and explaining your reasoning?

I have to admit I wasn’t happy about the protest. First of all, I fully support a boycott of Pearson. I support protesting their intrusion into education. I don’t agree with the things that company is doing. That said, the folks in the booth are not the people we are angry with. They are not the people we really need to listen to us. They are just some folks selling books and materials. Putting myself in their place, I would have felt mortified. True, they could work for someone else. But sometimes we don’t have a lot of choices about work. The people NCTE members need to mount a protest against are the Department of Education, the state governors, the legislators, and the administrators. By all means boycott Pearson by refusing to purchase their products. The protest was not aimed at the people that should have heard it. If we really want to be brave and reclaim education,  we could try directing that protest to the right people. Perhaps it’s not my place to say anything because I’m not a public school educator. I work in private school, and Pearson does not test my students nor does it/will it test me. Maybe I don’t have a right to speak out on this issue at all, as a result. But you know what? Some of the folks in the protest are also not K-12 public school teachers. If we care about education, we should be able to speak about issues that concern us, even if they don’t touch us in the same ways.

The Minneapolis Convention Center was a great venue. It was easy to navigate (that was refreshing for a change), and the rooms were a good size, so plenty of people could fit in the various sessions offered. Also, there were plenty of amenities such as snack bars, bathrooms, easy recycling. It was close to the hotels and restaurants as well as public transportation. NCTE is doing a much better job at least determining rooms for sessions. I didn’t go into a single session that was too full for me to find a seat. There were some issues with the coat check station, but those were the only inconveniences I experienced with the venue.

I realize some of the points I’ve made here are not popular ones, but I do hope we can have a civil dialogue about these issues. NCTE is important to me. I have been a member since I was in college preparing to be an English teacher. NCTE has been critical in my evolution as a reflective teacher of English language arts. I have actually left another organization because it is plagued with problems related to, for lack of a better way to put it, a sort of rock star faction that took over the organization and turned it into something cliquish and deeply uncomfortable to experience. I can’t foresee attending that other organization’s conference again. Ultimately, I could let it go because it wasn’t important for me to involve myself in that organization. But NCTE is too important for me to lose to that mentality, too.

As always, I appreciate the work that NCTE does to bring authors to the conference. I was able to meet and have books signed by Alison Bechdel, Deborah Wiles, and Laurie Halse Anderson.

Alison Bechdel

Deborah Wiles

Laurie Halse AndersonI plan to go next year in Atlanta. Despite some of the issues I raised, I still value NCTE as the best conference for professional development.

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Slice of Life #16: NCTE 2015

Slice of LifeI spent a good part of today looking over the workshops for the NCTE Annual Conference. I am noticing a few interesting trends.

First, there seem to be quite a few workshops focusing on using our voices for advocacy. It’s not really surprising that in a time when many teachers feel silenced or ignored, it’s great to see NCTE encouraging teachers to find their voices, and especially to blog. Many folks will say blogging is on the way out, but I maintain it’s still relevant (of course, I must; I’m blogging at this very moment). Time is a very important reason teachers give for not blogging (tech know-how is another). The tools are pretty easy to learn (most of them are WYSIWYG and are familiar to word processor users), but time is not so easy. I maintain, as I frequently do, that we make time for the things that are important to us, and if blogging is important, then we’ll make time for it.

Second, I’m noticing that I am much more drawn to Rainbow Strand and LGBT Strand sessions than I have been in the past. I have been doing some work with inclusive classrooms at school, and I find myself connecting to ideas around diversity. In fact, I have begun to approach my teaching of American literature through this lens.

I am also noticing argumentative writing as a motif in the sessions. I am really not up on the Common Core. I imagine this must be a part of it? (Folks who might not know: I teach in an independent school, and we have created our own Portrait of a Learner.)

I am not sure I can articulate this half-formed thought, but I’m going to try. I find myself at a crossroads of sorts. I’m trying to figure out what I believe as a teacher. I’ve shifted a lot since I started writing this blog. I have written about ideas and beliefs here, and I find that I no longer agree with myself. I don’t think I’ve really processed some of the ways in which I’ve changed. What is non-negotiable? In particular, as my role as a department chair/leader, what do I need to do to bring my department to the place where I want it to be and where the school wants it to be? Like I said, these thoughts are not fully formed. I am trying to figure out exactly who I am as an English teacher. I guess, in some ways, I am working on some identity issues. Perhaps that is why I am so attracted to discussions about students’ identities. I don’t know.

Am I going to see you at NCTE?

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Slice of Life #6: AP English Literature

Slice of LifeI have had a busy summer! It seems to be winding down now that I have completed AP English Literature training. Maybe now that I’ve finished most of my summer PD, I will have a bit more time to blog.

Years ago and early in my career, one of my schools was considering sending me to AP Language training, but I moved on to a different school before that happened. I don’t think my previous principal would ever have considered it for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons I finally did it was that our chief AP Literature teacher was overloaded, and I thought it would help him out.

I had a great week at Fitchburg State University in nearby Fitchburg at the training. The other teachers in my group were a great group of educators. Most of them were public school teachers, so I learned a lot about public schools in Massachusetts. Interesting stuff. Frankly, none of what I heard made me want to go back to public schools, though my own children have received a good education from our local public school system. The system just seems designed to frustrate teachers nowadays. It makes me sad. I am a little on the fence about whether or not to continue pursuing my Massachusetts teaching certificate. In some ways, it seems like such a hassle. I am tempted to go for National Board Certification, even though I know the amount of work involved, principally because I wouldn’t have to worry about the different certification rules for different places. (Is that accurate, those of you who are NBCT?) I have wanted to do it anyway.

As to the AP training, my instructor is a brilliant AP teacher. We got a lot of great tools and no-nonsense advice. I liked her a lot. She really helped me clear up why TPCASTT was not working as well for me as I wanted it to (I was, naturally, doing it a little bit wrong—not totally wrong, but wrong enough that the kids were not doing more than scratching the surface). I was dreading the poetry part, I am not going to lie. I know that teaching AP involves teaching a lot of poetry, and frankly, I was feeling like I wasn’t very good at that, but the tools that my instructor gave me have made me feel a lot more confident. I am really excited about the course and getting going now. I was, I admit, feeling a bit intimidated and not at all sure about AP in general. I still think it should be a bit more open than it is at my school, but I learned a great deal about how it functions at other schools. I also learned a lot about the AP rubric and how to grade. I was fairly consistently two points below what the instructor said the College Board graded several of the essays. I guess if you are going to have a grading issue, then grading a little lower is better than being too high because the students will possibly do better on the exam. By the end, though, I was figuring it out pretty well, and the last round of papers we evaluated, I hit the mark each time. The last few days, I’ve been working on reading the books I want to teach and the course audit syllabus. I am feeling pretty confident about the way the course is shaping up.

In other news, I received my new work computer today, and I backed up my old work computer to an external hard drive and restored EVERYTHING without any help. Woo! I was pretty happy with myself. I am going to work a little bit more on my AP materials before I put the computer to bed tonight. The new install went great. It took a little while (but probably less than two hours). I was nervous when the status bar said the time remaining was over 100 hours at one point, but it turns out that the status bar was lying.

What are you up to this fine Tuesday?

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Multicultural Teaching Institute

think photo
Photo by jDevaun.Photography

I spent three days this week at the Multicultural Teaching Institute at Meadowbrook School courtesy of my Director of Diversity, who invited me to go when we had an unexpected opening to send a teacher to the conference.

If you have a chance to go to this conference, I would strongly encourage you to do so. The speakers pushed my thinking, but even more than that, the conference was organized with plenty of time to think, reflect, write, and work. Not many conferences offer this opportunity, and I appreciated it. We were each given a binder with activities, notes, handouts, and the schedule, but we are also each given a paper Moleskine journal in which to write our reflections. I really think it would be a great practice for all conference organizers to adopt: hand each participant a nice journal. We were also assigned to “home groups” to have discussions and process learning with a smaller group of people, and we were in division groups. I was with other high school teachers for a good portion of our time so that we could work together with others to design a lesson that deliberately included multicultural elements using a framework from Rosetta Lee, one of our speakers.

Rosetta said something that really resonated with me. I like to think of myself as a good person and an ally, but I am often quiet for a variety of reasons. I come from a background with a conservative family. I don’t like to offend. I don’t like confrontations. However, Rosetta said that when people are silent around issues that arise around topics of diversity and multiculturalism, she cannot tell whether the silent person is an ally and is quiet because of fear or not having enough knowledge or some other reason OR whether the silent person is an adversary who quietly agrees with the perpetrator of whatever the issue might be.

So not being silent is hard for me because it is my natural home. It is where I live. There are a lot of reasons for my silence that are lodged deep in my personal history. There are many ways I have been silenced and many reasons why I retreated to silence as a place of solace so that I didn’t have to confront something painful. But one big takeaway from this Institute for me is that if I continue to be silent about important issues, then no one can tell what I am thinking. So I decided I can’t be silent anymore, even if it makes people uncomfortable with me or even if it ends relationships. I am not going to be perfect, and I have a lot of years of learned behavior to work on, but I’m going to try.

I appreciated the real, tangible tools I received at this conference that I can use in my classroom and in conversations with others. I think one of the most helpful aspects was time to work together with other educators to plan a lesson. I really can’t overstate how valuable time to journal and time to work was for me in this conference. Most conferences are a series of presentations or speakers, and you sort of have to opt yourself out of attending a session in order to have this kind of time. I feel like I made some good connections with other educators, and I really don’t think it would have happened if I had done nothing but listen to speakers. The speakers were great, though.

I still have a lot to think about, including the ways in which I have, either through silence or even unintended actions, contributed to hurting someone, but the important part (for me) is not to flog myself, but to move on and do things differently. I tend to beat myself up quite a lot, and that’s a whole different post, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything (except for making me feel bad).


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Slice of Life #3: Leading and Learning

Slice of LifeToday marks the end of my first year leading the English department at my school. I have been department chair previously, but the circumstances were quite different. In that situation, I led a department with four other teachers, grades 9-12, at a relatively small Jewish school.

My department this year included 14 people teaching grades 6-12 (plus post-graduate students). It was a different challenge to work with so many moving parts and personalities. Sometimes, it was a fun challenge, like a puzzle. Sometimes it was not such a fun challenge. I am still really glad I’m doing it. I like working with teachers, and I really think I have a good idea or two on occasion. Otherwise, I wouldn’t want to do it.

Some of the things I think I do well:

  • Listen. This is hard for some people, but I try to hear what the teachers in my department are saying, good and bad. I think often teachers don’t feel heard. I have not always felt heard in my history as a teacher. And in some places, I felt I was actually not valued. I want teachers to feel their value. Listening to teachers is an important part of valuing them.
  • Share good feedback. When things are working, I let teachers know. If parents pass on compliments, I tell the teachers. I think we are under-appreciated in our profession, so I have always made it a habit, even when I wasn’t chair, to pass on the good things that others say. I had a great opportunity to do that today after a parent told me at graduation what a fine department I led, and how much her daughter had learned from our teachers. She didn’t have to tell me that. I never taught her daughter. But it means a lot to hear, and it should be shared with those who need to hear it, too.
  • Make suggestions and share ideas. I love to plan units and lessons, and I always love to share ideas for approaches I have taken with teaching material. If you have read this blog for a while, you know that I am invested in backward design or UbD, and I am a passionate advocate for using UbD with teachers.

Things I am getting better at:

  • Having difficult conversations. I sometimes have to explain why something isn’t working and that it has to change. I sometimes have to share tough feedback. I sometimes have to help colleagues who might not be working well together. These conversations are hard, and I am a bit of an introvert, and I don’t necessarily feel like I have all the answers all the time. But I am learning how to have these conversations, and honestly, they have gone much better than I anticipated they would (in most cases).
  • Juggling the work. At the end of the year, it was a lot of work planning schedules, navigating the tiredness of my department (teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and like a marathon, sometimes you have to pull out that burst of speed right at the end when you are exhausted), and engaging in the hiring process for the first time in my role as chair (we didn’t make any hires when I was last chair). I am definitely tired, but I am going to do some things differently next year after learning this year.

Things I need to work on:

  • Directives. To be fair, this was a year of figuring out the state of the department and learning the various intricacies of leading an eclectic group of teachers. I didn’t want to roll out top-down initiatives. That is changing. I have some ideas about writing and reading. The best thing is when the teachers present the very ideas I had themselves. They already have buy-in, and the initiative will be more successful as a result. However, at some point, certain things need to happen, and the students come first. They need to have a high-quality education. The teachers need to be on board with the school’s mission and initiatives.
  • Inviting conversation. I do listen, and I do encourage teachers to talk with me. I do think that not all of them felt they could, to varying degrees (some felt I was completely open, while others might have perceived that I was closed). It is a bit strange that I consider listening a strength even if not everyone felt I was inviting conversation. I can get better at this. I can go to teachers and actively seek them out. I tended not to do that with some teachers.

So having said all that, I think it was a pretty good year. Teaching—it was my best teaching year yet. I felt the design of my classes really hung together well, and my students saw the relevance of what they were learning and connected it to work in other classes and to events in the world. That’s a success.

This summer will be a bit busy. I am going to the Multicultural Teaching Institute next week. At the end of this month, I go to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. I am presenting a day-long digital storytelling workshop in July. I am going to AP English Literature training in July. In August, I am participating in critical friends training at school. Because I’m teaching AP, I have some light reading to do:

BooksMost of these books are texts for AP. You might be able to see the Newkirk and Kittle on the bottom. Those are professional reading. I also plan to bring in A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. I have read some of these books, and even taught them before, but not in a while. Others I have read only but not taught. Others I have not read. I have some work to do this summer. One thing I love about my job: It’s never boring!

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NCTE 2014 Recap

Audience at B.24
Audience at B.24. Photo by Lisa Iaccarino

NCTE is over. My brain is full. I have a few major takeaways:

  1. My students are not given nearly enough opportunities for independent reading. As in none, really. I am not going to go so far as to flagellate myself for malpractice, but I definitely need to bring in opportunities for students to select what they read. There is a good balance I can strike with required reading and self-selected reading.
  2. My classroom library needs an overhaul. I have two bookshelves (inherited) in my classroom. One is broken. The other is leaning precariously against classroom heating system. Both of them need to go. I want my students to be able to peruse the shelves. Seeing a picture of Penny Kittle’s classroom library gave me serious shelf envy. My husband and I talked about it, and he would be thrilled if I would get some of our books out of the house and into my classroom. I really just need to get some shelves and fill them.
  3. I missed YA fiction. I haven’t read any in a while, and one aspect of NCTE that I have always enjoyed is the access to titles and conversations about YA literature. I had Eleanor & Park on my Kindle, and I hadn’t read it yet. I started reading it last night, and I didn’t stop until I was done. I found John Green’s quote particularly compelling: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.” You know what book I keep thinking about now that I’ve finished Eleanor & Park? Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. I fell in love with that book hard. I wore out my copy. I still remember the cover.

Tiger EyesMore soon. Still decompressing.

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NCTE Bound

letter N letter C letter T letter E

I’m starting to get excited about the annual NCTE convention this year. I will be presenting Writing Workshop with two colleagues who are sharing their experiences with student blogging and online discussion forums. Here are our session details:

NCTE SessionI’m also looking forward to visiting all the Folger folks and seeing Julius Caesar at the Folger theater with my friend, Glenda.

Are you going to NCTE?

NCTE image made with Spell with Flickr

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Book Club Suspended: Falling in Love with Close Reading

The post on chapters 1 and 2 has been up over a week with very little activity in the comments. I think folks are busy going back to school and perhaps don’t have the time they thought they might have to engage in an online book club. I have so much I must read to prepare for the coming school year, and it seems as though the best idea is to suspend the book club.

Perhaps we can start a book club up after the school year begins in earnest and things have settled down for everything.

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Falling in Love with Close Reading: Chapters 1 and 2

I apologize for not getting this first post up sooner. I have been having some problems with my blog. I just installed a plugin that I hope will help prevent some of the slowness and page load issues you might have noticed. However, I used a similar plugin some years ago, and it totally messed up my blog, so if you notice something technically amiss, please let me know. On to the discussion of  Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life.

In chapter one, Lehman and Roberts discuss New Criticism, suggesting that close reading really emerged for the first time as a means of “trying to tune out everything else while looking at the style, words, meter, structure, and so on, of a piece of writing” (2). They go on to discuss the other styles of literary critique that emerged either at the same time as or after New Criticism. It reminds me of something very interesting Jasper Fforde once said at a reading. Jasper Fforde is, if you haven’t heard of him, the writer of the popular Thursday Next series, and honestly, if you are a book nerd of any stripe, you should check out those books—especially the first few. Anyway, this was right after his dystopian novel Shades of Grey came out (not to be confused with the 50 shades variety). In this novel, people can only see one color, so they stratify society based on what color they can see. People who can see only grey are at the bottom. One person at the reading asked Fforde if he was trying to make a comment about racism with the novel. He said truthfully that he hadn’t thought about it, but then he went on to describe reading as a highly creative act. He added that a book only belongs to an author as long as he/she hasn’t shown it to anyone. After that, it belongs to the reader, too, and the reader brings everything he/she has read, experienced, or thought to bear on that book as well. It’s one of my favorite things anyone has ever said. I think it’s true that two people can read entirely different books. In fact, one person can read an entirely different book—I have read books at different times in my life and had very different reactions to them.

Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent, but I feel strongly that we can’t cut the reader out of equation. The reader is possibly more important to me than the author’s life (though I do find I discuss biography more with students when it seems more obvious to me that the author’s life impacted the work in some significant ways).

Lehman and Roberts go on to discuss the place of close reading in the CCSS. I think the bottom of page 3 is the first time I’ve ever seen a tweet cited! It’s interesting to think about the ways in which social media will impact the way we write and what we write about.

One thing I do like about this book is the cutaway figures that pull out the essentials: the definition of close reading on p. 4, the central tenets of close reading instruction on p. 5, and so on. It is helpful to have the big ideas emphasized.

Lehman and Roberts describe the structure they advocate for teaching close reading as a sort of “ritual,” and I like that thinking (7). The ritual involves

  1. Reading through lenses.
  2. Finding patterns.
  3. Using the patterns to understand the text.

When I taught Things Fall Apart for the first time, I feared my students would have a lot of trouble relating to Okonkwo and would probably dislike him quite a great deal. I don’t like him, truth be told, but I am able to sympathize with his plight. Achebe lays that foundation to help us see as readers where Okonkwo’s failings come from. But teenagers are much more critical and have a more difficult time with the other person’s point of view. So I decided that perhaps the way we should read the novel is in a detached way. We took on the role of anthropologists, studying the Ibo (Igbo), and we each picked a lens that interested us: gender, religion, farming, etc. We paid attention to what we could learn about the culture’s beliefs through our chosen lens. I think the students found the book more interesting, and they were able to think perhaps a bit more like scientists.

You know, you don’t have to like the protagonist to like a book. It took me a while to figure that out, as I think it takes most readers a while to figure it out. I love Lolita, for instance, and Wuthering Heights, but I hate the protagonists in those books. I think often times, teenagers have difficulty with books that have antiheroes or unlikeable protagonists because they really want to like and to root for the protagonist. But teaching students to read through lenses and to get at what a character wants and thinks, and what motivates a character, really helps students go beyond a simple gut connection with the lead character.

Chapter 2 of the book takes the reader through the process of the ritual Lehman and Roberts mention in chapter 1. I was struck by how similar the process for close reading is to “close looking.” I recently took an Art and Inquiry course through MoMA online with Coursera (great course), and one of the techniques for encouraging inquiry is to ask students what they notice and keep probing. The MoMA does this with student visitors. Questioning students about what they notice is akin to the strategy Lehman and Roberts describe as gathering evidence and then developing an idea (12).

Sprinkled throughout the book are QR codes linked to websites and other media mentioned in the text. Scanning a QR code leaves less margin for error than trying to type in a URL, and I rather like the idea that the book feels more dynamic. Obviously, the changing nature of the web will mean that down the road, the codes might not direct to the right link anymore, but it’s a good idea until we figure out how to put dynamic links in a static book.

I’m not sure I’d have chosen the same song to introduce students to close reading (see page 14), but that’s just me. I might not do a song at all. No reason not to do a poem. I assume the song choice was an attempt to connect to the students using music they like, but my experience is that Justin Bieber is a polarizing figure, and aside from that, I mean, the lyrics are not poetry (not that Lehman and Roberts are trying to convince us that they are poetry—just using them as a vehicle for teaching their close reading approach). In fact, they go on to say that choosing a less challenging text when teaching this ritual is helpful because of the confidence it gives students. It also helps the teachers pinpoint which close reading skills students are struggling with (as opposed to struggling with comprehension). I can get behind that logic.

Lehman and Roberts then include a model for the instruction of the ritual on pp. 17-24. I found the model helpful as it drilled down to each part of the close reading ritual to show what teaching it to students could look like. Then, on pp. 25-27, Lehman and Roberts apply the model to informational texts. I found this model helpful, as many books on teaching reading skimp on informational reading.

Lehman and Roberts advise teachers to “plan to pay careful attention to what [the students] produce when working independently” (27). They provide a helpful chart for revising our thinking about a reading and additional tools for providing extra support to students—using conversation (small group discussion) to evaluate evidence, ranking evidence in terms of which details best support students’ thinking, and teaching students when to close read for evidence (29). In addition, and also helpful, is a list of tools for challenging more advanced students: expanding lenses, seeking out contrasting patterns, and using analytical lenses (29).

The chapter closes with a discussion of close reading details in our lives, which I found helpful in thinking about the digital storytelling project I’d like to do with my juniors this year. I scanned the QR code on p. 31 and found it linked to a StoryCorps recording that would be perfect to share with my students as they create their digital stories. I hadn’t thought about doing close readings of the models I might provide for students preparing to create digital stories, but it makes perfect sense.

Please share your thoughts about the chapters in the comments below. Let’s discuss!

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