Blog-a-thon Post 5: #CloseReading Nonfiction (Why? and Oh!)

16 Sep

Welcome to the fifth post in our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading. Each week posts are added to the Contributors page and we are looking forward to your addition. Let’s closely read the practice of close reading together!

close reading button

Join!

Before we jump into the first post for this week, we have two quick announcements (think of these like infomercials, only without the poor acting):

  1. Be sure to click over to the Contributor Page to read posts of other educators. They have pushed our thinking and we know yours, too. If you are considering posting (or even a tad nervous to post or share a link), please do! We firmly believe the most important professional development is conversation and even a post of only ten words will get others thinking.  More on how to share your post here.  Remember, an essential step is to post your link in the comments section on this blog or Kate’s.
  2. We’re happy to (re)announce that we have two workshops coming up this December called “Fall in Love with Close Reading.”  I will be in Brookfield, WI on December 6.  Kate and I will be together in Amherst, NY on December 9. More information, registration, and the number to call for lodging information or other questions can be found at Heinemann. We look forward to working with you IN PERSON!

Close Reading Nonfiction (Why? and Oh!)

It seems that a lot of conversation around close reading practices centers around literature, so we wanted to share some of our thinking about close reading nonfiction.

It has been our experience in schools that when the topic of TEACHING NONFICTION READING comes up, a good percentage of us ask the very poised and reflective question: “Whhhhhhhyyyyyyy? Do I have toooooo?”

by memekode Used under Creative Commons lic

So, naturally, when you add “close reading” into the mix the question then becomes a dignified: “I don’t wanna. Come on. Whhhhyyyy? Please no. Whhhhyyyyyyyy?”

To be fair, a good deal of you love teaching nonfiction. But, in a number of schools there is an equally large number of you that would be delighted to leave the skills of informational reading up to your science cluster teacher (Poor Ms. Smith, she already has enough on her hands).

Therefore, we want to offer some inspiration for taking up close reading practices with nonfiction texts.

Loving Nonfiction

In Chapter 4 of my book on rethinking research instruction, Energize Research Reading and Writing, I write:

Great nonfiction writers become stars. Within the circle of their readers their names are praised. You probably know people who talk about their favorite columnists as if they were close friends: “That Maureen Dowd, she never holds back.” The world has bought millions of copies of books by Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. Co-workers trade quotes from Freakonomics, Outliers, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Some teachers say “Seymour Simon” and “Bobbie Kalman” with quiet reverence as if they’re shorthand for, “Of course we all know their books are terrifically written.”

            What do all of these writers have in common? It is certainly not just that they know a whole lot about their topics; it’s doubtful that a book full of dense facts alone would be a number-one best-seller (when’s the last time you read a textbook for pleasure?). What great nonfiction writers—best-selling, most-quoted, most highly praised nonfiction writers—have in common is that they do their very best, work their hardest, to be excellent teachers. They work to be engaging, clear, and always with sight of learners in mind. Terrific nonfiction does what all of us educators strive to do every day when we step into a classroom.

The truth is that informational writing, at its best, is as artfully crafted and nuanced as a poem or beloved novel.

In our new book, Kate and I run with the assumption that all types of texts can be loved more carefully as you read more thoughtfully, including nonfiction texts, arguments, and media. Some of the many purposes for reading nonfiction closely can include to:

by Markoz46 Used under Creative Commons lWe can read nonfiction closely to:

  • Understand what the author values (cares about, thinks is important, wants us to focus on)
  • Have a clearer understanding of a topic (clarify our mental image, see connections between ideas we may have missed)
  • Define terminology that is unclear at first
  • Find a topic more interesting
  • Develop ideas with peers
  • Spark imagination
  • and so on

Let’s take the opening pages to Seymour Simon‘s Coral Reefs (sample here from the publisher). 

Read page 5, then get ready to reread.

In a previous posts we suggested that looking for patterns is one important habit in close reading, and that as readers we actively bring in our prior knowledge including being actively aware of what we don’t know and what piques our interest. We invite you to reread this short section and allow patterns to pop-out to you.

For instance, I am struck by (as always) Seymour Simon’s carefully selected words. I’m noticing a pattern in the kinds of descriptions he includes: strange, brilliant colors, shimmer, vibrant, strange-looking, colorful, ‘like nothing you have ever seen.’ I find myself doing many things with these words. I have a clearer picture of this place he is describing.  I notice his relationship to the subject–he seems to be in awe, and his careful language is leaving me more in awe as well.  Let’s pretend the word “vibrant” is unfamiliar to me, with the collection of other terms I would be in striking distance of understanding what that one meant.

The collection of words is not only bringing me closer to the page, it is also working in the opposite direction, bringing me out of this page and into life (Kate’s brilliant 3-D “fifth corner”) and leading me to wonder: why are the reefs and fish so colorful? Haven’t I heard many reefs are in danger? I realize I have never been to a coral reef…. hold on, I  just need to do a little vacation research…

There is no magic trick here. It’s not just this particular page or the topic or the book. Rereading in this careful way, looking for patterns, can lead you to new ideas about nonfiction in almost any book you read.  Or documentary you watch. Or radio commercial you hear. Or editorial you click to.

Whether you are a self-professed nonfiction-avoider or -lover, looking closely at nonfiction can lead you to love the subject, the writing, heck perhaps even the entire text-type more.

Your Turn

How do you feel about the teaching of nonfiction reading? In what ways have you, or could you, included close reading in that study? What nonfiction texts are your go-tos?  What experiences beyond text come to mind for you? Add your comments and/or links to your own posts. Several links will be added to the Contributor Page.

Share your insights, we are closely reading close reading together! 

Look for Kate’s blog-a-thon Post 6  on Thursday!

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9 Responses to “Blog-a-thon Post 5: #CloseReading Nonfiction (Why? and Oh!)”

  1. Tara September 17, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    I think I began to feel differently about teaching nonfiction once we began non fiction book clubs, specifically our social issues book clubs. This was a transformative experience for all of us, teacher and students. Because we had high interest, beautifully written books (in the Seymour Simon tradition), with photographs and maps to consult and deepen our understanding, we read to come to better understandings and develop theories – paying close attention to the perspectives of the authors, and the idea of “who is missing from this story, what might they have felt?” I used the remarkable book, Making Thinking Visible ( http://www.abebooks.com/Visible-Thinking-Using-Routines-Foste-Students/4780274896/bd?cm_mmc=gmc-_-gmc-_-PLA-_-v01) to ground many of our close reading strategies. It was a wonderful experience, and I have proceeded with nonfiction with so much more joy ever since.

  2. Donna September 17, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    I love teaching non – fiction. Even with middle schoolers, I still take time to closely read the text features of non – fiction. I personally enjoy non – fiction reading over fiction. In the college course I teach I ask my students to write reflectively to the reading in their textbook. I discuss with them in length that I want them to discuss what they learned from reading the non – fiction text we have, how they made connections and grew as a learner. I still often get “summarizing” from them. It is a shame. It is obvious that many are not engaging with the text, but just trying to complete the assignment. Those who engage and read closely usually teach me something I have not recognized yet. Another reason why discussion of close reading provides equity of voice and collective wisdom. A great post.. keep them coming!

  3. kateandmaggie September 17, 2013 at 7:11 am #

    yes! I love how you took us closer to the language of nonfiction – and how that closer inspection can reveal much deeper thinking and engagement to the text – and in the case of nonfiction – to the world itself. This is so powerful to me. That by closely reading nonfiction we not only read better, we appreciate the topic – and therefore our world – so much more too. Love.

  4. jarhartz September 17, 2013 at 2:24 am #

    It is so interesting that I read mostly non fiction and I read it closely for professional purposes. I love the beautiful prose of my mentor teachers. I read and re read for clarity. Yet I am one of “those” teachers who feel more comfortable teaching literature. Perhaps it is the vastness and complexity of non fiction that gives me pause. It’s hard to feel mastery of this varied genre. But, perhaps that is just the space that is most suited to address the challenge of close reading. Using “patterns” seems like a safe and familiar way to move from literature to non fiction. Thank you.

  5. Dr. Dea September 16, 2013 at 11:57 pm #

    An informational text from the Appendix B I enjoy sharing with teachers is Gordon Kane’s article “The Mysteries of Mass.” At first, they are put off by the title, but once they make it through the introduction, they begin to see the beauty and efficacy of well-written prose in the act of learning about difficult concepts and topic through the act of close reading. If you haven’t read it, you should. His prose makes the basic concepts of quantum physics not nearly as scary as it has been to me and to the hundreds of teachers I’ve shared the excerpt. As a matter of fact, I contacted Dr. Kane via email and found him as assessable as his prose! Delightful!

    • Dr. Dea September 30, 2013 at 10:41 am #

      accessible not assessable–self-commenting.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] reading Chris Lehmann’s blog post, #CloseReading Nonfiction (Why? and Oh!), I found validation for my own appreciation of nonfiction. Unlike many English teachers, I was […]

  2. Blog-a-thon Post 5: #CloseReading Nonfiction (W... - September 23, 2013

    […] Welcome to the fifth post in our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading. Each week posts are added to the Contributors page and we are looking forward to your addition. Let's closely read the practice…  […]

  3. Close Reading Informational Text? Absolutely! | Resource - Full - September 18, 2013

    […] students and teachers must use informational text for close reading as described by Chris Lehman in post # 5 here.  The substance of “instruction” for that close reading will depend on the grade level […]

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