07 October 2012

Close Reading, Text Dependent Questions, & Academic Writiing = Nothing New

...or Considering a Balanced Approach to Literacy Instruction

As a teacher who was educated at a liberal arts college, close reading, text dependent questions and academic writing have been part of my educator tool box since I began teaching in 1998.  Now, however, these practices are seeing a resurgence of emphasis because of the Common Core State Standards. 

This was one of the ways I introduced my students to what it means to be a good reader. 
We would discuss which four were accurate according to Nabokov.
Some of my most vivid college memories include my English professors asking us to defend our readings of various poems, stories and novels with evidence from the text.  We read the works of Keats, Kipling, Yeats, Shakespeare, Woolf, Faulkner, Nabokov, O’Connor and more.   Most of my professors didn’t lecture; they taught us to read closely and defend our responses.  We discussed great literary texts and were encouraged to leave our personal responses behind.  In fact, I often say I never really learned to read critically until my first poetry class with Dr. Whited in 1994.

In my junior year of college a new, dynamic, and cutting-edge thinker joined the English faculty, and she believed we should be taught multiple ways of reading and interpreting text.  She challenged our formalist readings and asked us to consider the ideas of Foucault and Barthes.  While I considered the idea of authorship coming from outside the text, read the theories, and practiced them in this professor’s course, I had a difficult time thinking an approach to reading a text other than the New Critic approach would lead to an accurate reading of a text.  I successfully argued my point in my final Master’s Capstone Presentation and went on to teach high school English for the next seven years, utilizing primarily a formal close reading of text to teach my students to read and comprehend. My formalist teaching style worked effectively on the Cherokee Indian Reservation where my students’ performance in writing and reading improved each year I was at the school.

Flash forward seven years from my master’s capstone presentation.  I was in a new state with a new curriculum and a new, more diverse population of students and was working toward my National Board Certification.  A major part of working on National Boards is the intense analysis and reflection required.  I was also mentoring student teachers from the University of Kentucky.  One student teacher, in particular, challenged my thinking with her dynamic approach and different ways of considering text.  She reminded me of my college professor.  She understood the ideas of Foucault and Barthes to be relevant to our classroom and she considered poetry beyond the traditional cannon I so loved and faithfully taught, even as I paired literature with non-fiction texts.  Accordingly, I acquiesced to the importance of a balanced approach in my high school English classroom and sent an email to my college professor telling her I should have listened sooner.

So when The Atlantic published Peg Tyre’s article and Applebee’s response, I decided to reply with my own thoughts on the importance of academic writing in our classrooms today.  Two days after I blogged about Tyre’s article, I had the opportunity to hear Manuel Scott speak to my district about his personal experiences in public education.  He shared the story we all saw in the movie Freedom Writers and shared that his story most resembled that of Manny, a character created by combining multiple individuals from the original group of Freedom Writers.

Mr. Scott shared the story of his teacher, Erin Gruwell, and her persistence, patience, and passion for helping her students learn.  She started the year with “dead white guys in tights” and ultimately combined the beauty of Shakespeare with lyrics by people like Tupac to make learning more relevant and meaningful to her students.  As Mr. Scott shared, his teacher didn’t stop teaching Shakespeare and the power of words to tell a personal story—she just hooked the kids with Tupac.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Erin Gruwell’s interview with The Atlantic and her defense of teaching students memoir writing.  In our rush to improve public education, I hope we all remember to keep a balanced approach to literacy instruction because it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario.  We can teach academic writing and memoir writing, and we can teach the Cannon paired with other non-traditional texts, both fiction and non-fiction. 

My favorite resources for close reading and text dependent questions in order of  personal preference.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them  by Francine Prose

 Douglas Fisher: Close Reading and the CCSS, Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w9v6-zUg3Y

Douglas Fisher: Close Reading and the CCSS, Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhGI5zdjpvc
Text Dependent Questions & the Common Core http://www.achievethecore.org/steal-these-tools/text-dependent-questions