Sunday, March 10, 2013

Argument, Close Reading, the "Who" and the "Why"

We all have our favorite authors, whether we are recalling our youth, enjoying our limited free time as adults, or furthering our professional learning.  For most of my life, I have thought about authors in terms of novels, and with professional reading I thought about topics or themes.  It has taken until now to recognize that the quality of the source can be found more in the works cited than in the table of contents.  I am finding that the "what" of the book is becoming outranked by the "who" and the "why."  Additionally, I advocate reading professional articles, books, and other resources to stay connected with the "who" and the "why" of our disciplinary fields.  If we only focus on the topics in the table of contents, we lose sight of our educational vision.

When I re-entered graduate school two years ago, I still researched by using key terms.  Yes, to me the topic was the most important aspect of the research.  Over the last two years, however, it has become clear there are hallmark voices in the educational profession whose words continue to speak from the pages of theory, research, and practitioner volumes.  The keywords on theory in my research have evolved to include the names of Vygotsky (zone of proximal development), Bakhtin (dialogic discussion), Dewey (inquiry), and Guthrie (reading motivation).  Applications of these theories in the classroom include my searches for Beers and Probst (tools for reading motivation and teaching reading), Harvey Daniels (teaching writing), Nancy Steineke (reading/writing strategies in the classroom), Smith/Wilhelm/Fredrickson (teaching modes of writing).  The lists are far more extensive than this, though, since these authors are also cited by a number of other writers in the field of literacy education.

So what do we do with this information?  
The shift in my thinking came while exploring the historical frameworks of different classroom strategies.  By reading the theories and research studies I gained a grasp on why some classroom practices work and some...well, do not.  Is it any coincidence that the new Common Core invites students to research topics in answer to a question and come up with their own questions?  Inquiry as a method for learning has been suggested by theorists and researchers in a number of publications and studies notably John Dewey, Jeff Wilhelm and Michael Smith.  Reading complex texts with productive struggle suggests that reading a text multiple times for multiple purposes will enrich a student's understanding to a greater degree than cursory readings of multiple texts.  New interpretations and understandings emerge with each "conversation" with the characters or components of the text (Bakhtin). This close reading stance has been taken up most recently by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst in their new text Notice and Note that I am eager to read.  But right now, John Dewey and his Child and the Curriculum is taking my full attention because he is the center of a current book discussion group.  I want to know how he developed his theories on inquiry and why so I can apply this framework to future searches for classroom applications.

And what about the students in our classrooms?
It's time for students to examine who is writing the articles, short stories, novels, blogs and whatever else we are reading.  I knew this at some level when I was a younger student, but I continued to cite the sources that said what I wanted them to say.  It did not matter to me who said it.  But it does matter.  The director of the Holocaust Museum will have something very different to say than a one-time visitor or perhaps even a person who denies the Holocaust.  To do this we have to select complex but reasonably accessible texts and devote the necessary time to analyze them.  With the Common Core's increased attention on argument, both analyzing and writing, students should be given the time to dig deeper into what they are reading, why it was written, and, yes, who wrote it and the investment that person has in the topic.  So slow down.  Keep the educational vision by looking at the big picture--more rigorous does not mean just more of everything (remember quality versus quantity).  This 2 1/2 minute video by America Achieves says it well.  Take the time to find out who is speaking and maybe our students will find their lost voices in the process.  Let's give it a try...for our students' sake and for ours.


  1. Thanks for sharing and for getting discussions going. I've been working with my colleagues on thinking about the concepts of close reading, too.
    Here is one of my presentations that might be helpful. Feel free to share.
    Kevin Hodgson
    Western Mass WP

  2. Your Prezi demonstrates exactly what I'm talking about. Thank you for commenting; I am eager to share this with my colleagues.

  3. Ms. V,
    After reading your most recent post, I decided to go backwards through your thought. And I was immediately rewarded. While it's not your primary concern here, I find you've expressed something I've felt in my own consideration of the Common Core SS. For English teachers--I can't speak to other subject areas--the new standards actually seem to encourage us to spend time with our students doing the things we love doing with literature and language: spending time, exploring depth, discovering what is there beyond the collection of words on the page. For my part, the love of that exercise is one of the reasons I teach literature and language and not something else. At the risk of oversimplifying, it is a pleasant thing to consider that what we ought to be doing in the classroom is precisely what we love doing.

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful response. I often feel that my blog posts do not capture the true daily struggles of pacing calendars, curriculum maps, common lesson plans, and gut-wrenching frustration with the anti-best-practice race through instruction. What I hope is that when my students and I experience learning, deep investigation, and inquiry I can capture those moments. My wish is for those moments to be much more abundant as we all become more familiar with the vision of the Common Core.

  5. Loved this post! I just recently read Notice and Note and am co-moderating a twitter chat on it if you're interested. We will be discussing Part 2 this Thursday at 8pm CST and Part 3 next Thursday at 8pm CST. :)

    I'm wanting to use shorter texts for the close reading than the ones in our reading program which are 8-14 pages long. And of course I want them to also do close reading when they read independently. I think class discussions (whether they are in whole group, small group, partners) will support us in this endeavor to read closely and think.


    PS-Found your blog through the NWP-I'm taking part in it here in Alabama!

    1. Thanks, Shannon! NWP has been a life-changing experience for me and am so glad you are participating in it this summer. I hope that it becomes a cornerstone for you as it has for me.

      Beers and Probst offer great strategies and I would love to learn more. I may have to figure out how to participate or at least follow along on the twitter chat.

      Another option for close reading is to take a short section from a longer passage and zoom in. It is good, though, to also have shorter texts that would lend themselves to re-readings to gain insight into how the piece works as a whole (and the richness that can be discovered by re-reading an entire selection).

      Good luck!