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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3 thoughts on “Falling in Love with Close Reading: Chapters 1 and 2

  1. My thoughts may appear a bit random, which is not intended to be postmodern!

    Reading your post and chapter 1, I keep thinking about the ways I see "close reading" conflated w/ New Criticism. I think that's a mistake. New criticism requires close reading, but it isn't synonymous w/ New Criticism. Other literary criticism types also require close reading. Unfortunately, poor Louise Rosenblat's Reader Response theory has been so misinterpreted that it's often viewed as just about the reader rather than as a transaction between reader and text.

    I remember Junot Diaz speaking at NCTE a few years ago and saying that the last person one should ask about the meaning of a text is the author. Yesterday Andrew Smith posted a status about a letter he received asking for the meaning of something in his book. He told the letter writer, "you don't get any free words." Both are responses similar to the Jasper Fforde one, yes?

    I'm not particularly fond of Lehman's and Roberts's use of the phrase "literary lenses." Really, what they're describing is reading for the elements of New Criticism, yet they don't really admit that. To my thinking, various critical lenses include feminist criticism, New Historicism, post-colonial critique, etc. I see what Lehman and Roberts advocating as important to developing critical reading skills, but there really is nothing new here. Indeed, the methodology they use is very linear; for example, they suggest making lists.

    I do something similar to what you describe w/ "Things Fall Apart" when I teach "Frankenstein." We begin w/ the idea of beauty as a social construct (chapter 5: "I selected his features as beautiful.") I have a chart I made from several theories in "Doing Literary Criticism" and from "The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism." I give the students the chart, and they select a critical theory that controls their reading of the book. I keep the chart on the wall (had it made at Costco) so we can reference it during open mic discussions.

    What Lehman and Roberts describe is really inductive reasoning (specific to general). I'm fine w/ that because it teaches students to draw on textual evidence as the basis for the claims they make about a text; too often students want to offer a hasty generalization about a book's characters or themes w/out close reading.

    I've been reading several books about creative thinking and the relationship between images and text this summer, so see student work, especially at a MS grade level, seems a bit reductive to me. I'm trying to move away from that in my English classes, although it's still the focus of my dual enrollment communication class.

    I haven't tested the QR Codes, but the opening activity of analyzing a song has been around for a very long time. The closing illustration reminded me of "The Joy Luck Club," which was cool.

    I really like the inclusion of a quote from Tom Newkirk's book "The Art of Slow Reading." It's one of my favorites, and Newkirk is nothing short of amazing.

    Are you familiar w/ body bios? When I first started using them I called them "Life-size Paper Dolls." I had the crazy idea that I came up w/ a new idea. I find having students do this project is a much more engaging way to teach them how to analyze character. From there they can look for patterns, and the added visual elements work nicely w/ various types of learners.

    • I think that Lehman and Roberts were good about pointing out that it doesn't have to be New Criticism, but they did start with the idea, which is why I bring it up. I am glad you brought in what Diaz and Smith said, too. Both interesting points. I do think the routine or ritual is probably good for middle schoolers. I kept thinking that perhaps the authors had middlers in mind. I might be mistaken. I think both of them are now working for Columbia Teacher's College, but Roberts's website says she was a middle school teacher, and Lehman's says that he taught middle and high school (and was a literacy coach).

      I had not heard of body bios, or at least not in the way you are describing them. They sound fun.

      • I can't remember the book title w/ the body bio chapter, but I have an assignment somewhere w/ details. Interesting that you haven't heard of them; maybe that's a sign it's time to resurrect the idea. I haven't used them in a couple of years. You know there are trends, and it's easy to forget. I get burned out on assignments so tend to have a rotation.

        I think the book is geared toward MS, which might be why I didn't buy it before now. If you don't have "Doing Literary Criticism," I highly recommend it. My only issue w/ it is that it doesn't have student examples. It does, however, have handouts for average and honors level students and very readable explanations of theory.

        Even if Lehman and Roberts have MS students in mind, I think the linearity of the book is an issue.

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