Blog-a-thon Post 9: Complex Texts or Complex Kids: Which Texts Are “Worth” #CloseReading

30 Sep

Welcome to the fifth week of 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!

Also a reminder 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. Registration as well as the number to call for lodging information or other questions can be found here. We look forward to working with you in person!

close reading button

Complex What Now?

If you are a Common Core State Standards state, the standards your state adopted have only one thing to say about the complexity of texts students should be able to read by themselves: In Reading Standard 10, across grade levels, the standard reads: “By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature/informational texts in the grades X-Y text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed…”

One phrase that I find important: “by the end of the year.” What is clear here is that a standard is a standard, an expectation. One educators have always wanted, I argue.  As page 6 of the standards further clarifies, you can decide how to get there, which research to follow or avoid, which path to take.

by basibanget used under Creative Commons lic

The message of  students must read complex texts all the time, then, does not come from the standards themselves.

Instead, that message comes from documents your state did not directly adopt (though in the case of states like New York, it’s as if they had).  Documents like the “publisher’s criteria” and the “tri-state rubric” offer interpretation of the standards–often based on theory more than research or knowledge of practice.  These documents make broader reaches into suggesting that lessons should include texts that are “similar to CCSS grade-level text exemplars” or one of my least favorite phrases, include complex texts that are “worth reading” (insert a condescending, “pshaw”). The documents were intended to impact textbook companies, and it is evident that in many cases they have.

The good news is that if you agree with these or any other documents, you are free to follow their lead. If you disagree, the standards say that should be up to you to decide.

I Choose Complex Kids, First

What has felt so joyful about this blog-a-thon is that many of our fellow contributors struggle, dream, plan, and reflect on the love we hope for our children and young adults to have with reading and thinking.  We aim to not just “do” close reading as an initiative, but instead to invite our students (and ourselves) to see this skill as a way of looking at the world in an eyes-open way.

In the opening to our book (sample here), we write:

“…teaching readers to look at texts closely—by showing them how one word, one scene, or one idea matters—is an opportunity to extend a love affair with reading. It is also a chance to carry close reading habits beyond the page, to remind students that their lives are rich with significance, ready to be examined, reflected upon, and appreciated.” 

Close reading is not the only way, but instead one of many ways to invite our students to admire text and more importantly bask in their own deep, imaginative thinking.

Love is In the Eyes of the Book-Holder

Love is a fickle and uniquely personal thing. Along our lives we fall for the wrong people at times, we don’t make our friends happy with our choices, our love goes unrequited.  When our hearts start beating fast and our palms sweat it’s often hard to know how or why. It just is.  Who you fall for is unique to you.  (It’s why those blind dates your friends set you up on don’t always pan out.)

by CarbonNYC used under Creative Commons lic.

Herein lies the perennial challenge of all reading instruction, close reading related or not: Just because you love and adore Text X with all of your heart and soul, does not mean your students will.  Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Soto, Myers, Woodson, Dahl, DiCamillo–it doesn’t matter if you are “CANON” (boom!) minded or a young adult “fangirl/boy,” what you love will assuredly not be what all of your students do.

Sure, they may love YOU. May even love the experiences you have shared with them around a book. I argue, that still does not mean they would or could read Text X on their own and think within its pages.  Heck, I will always remember James and The Giant Peach for the young, female teacher that read it aloud to us… I think there was a boy in it and maybe some bugs…

Learning to Love

Does this mean you should never choose texts?  No. Exactly to opposite.

We learn about love and relationships through example. We watched our parents, television, movies, and our friends. Then, with those examples of what to do (and not to do) in mind, we let our hearts lead us.

Across this blog-a-thon, in our book, and in all of our work, we aim to support students in learning the habits of close reading so they can carry them beyond that one lesson and into their lives. A portion of this is how we are teaching these skills, another portion is the texts we use to demonstrate and inspire.

When choosing texts for close reading instruction we suggest you consider several actions:

  • Model your own joy of reading, often. Not just the texts you are using for instruction, but also talk about  texts from outside of the classroom. The question, “So what are you reading right now…?” or the statement, “I just started an amazing book…,” are important across the school day and beyond.
  • Choose demonstration texts you love. Choose texts that you are authentically excited about, that is rule numero uno. If some curriculum guide you were handed says “This Text Was Deemed To Be Close Reading Worthy” but you find your soul wilting as you read it, then it is not worth reading. Your enthusiasm and wonder matters.

    by Jack Mallon used under Creative Commons lic

  • Choose demonstration texts that will speak to students. The second step is to ask yourself if the texts you will model with will be compelling to (at least some of) your class. Does it strike an emotional nerve, engage them intellectually, speak to them? Learning happens with wide awake minds (versus sleeping with your eyes open in class).
  • Vary Your Texts Often: In Tone, Complexity, Topic. The more variety in your text choices, the more students’ minds you will ignite. If you spend time with a particularly dense text that felt like an uphill climb–both exhilarating at the top and exhausting–, then next read a text you can sprint through. If you just read a tear-jerker, don’t forget the kids with the infectious sense of humor. Recall, as well, that texts need not be only literature. Nonfiction, movies, songs, video games, primary source documents, overheard conversations–close reading is not only academic, it is a way to think through the stuff of life.
  • Readers Choose (And Choosey Readers Read Tons). Ultimately, allow your readers plenty of opportunity to choose the texts they will read independently. With choice come volume, engagement, and opportunity for developed thinking. (See Penny Kittle‘s brief video interview of her high school students talking about their lack-of-turned-growth-in reading, link here.) As we mentioned in a previous post, we have to be careful that we are not simply close teaching, but offering our students many opportunities to practice becoming close readers.

All of this is to say, we believe you do not choose your text, first, and then decide out how to bring it to your students. Instead you choose your students, first, and decide how to bring them to texts.

Your Turn

What do you think about when choosing texts? Do you agree with our points? Do you challenge some? Share your ah-has, hmms, and huhs with the community. This blog-a-thon is about all of us sharing ideas! See the Contributor Page for more posts and information out how to add yours.

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

Look for Kate’s blog-a-thon Post 10  on Thursday!

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5 Responses to “Blog-a-thon Post 9: Complex Texts or Complex Kids: Which Texts Are “Worth” #CloseReading”

  1. Jennifer Priddy October 1, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    What I love about your thoughts this week is the reminder that teachers play such an important role in what is chosen for a close read and how that read is used in class (and that not all text require close reads). You remind us of that awesome responsibility of inspiring readers. Our days get so busy in the classroom, we forget to share our passion for reading. And sometimes we forget to empathize with our students and remember that each student is different–just because we love a text, does not mean our students will follow suit. I have thoroughly enjoyed this blog and am curious about what’s next? Sad that there are only two weeks left.

  2. Anna Gratz Cockerille September 30, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

    I think the idea of choice is huge, huge, huge! Choice, and variety. Both seem so important as way to ensure close reading is relevant for our students and, as you say, as a way to ensure that they become close readers. For always. I am thinking so much about what close reading looks like in the world. I am happy to say I have joined the many who are loving the #CloseReading blog-a-thon. My post on close reading in the workforce is here: http://annagcockerille.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/close-reading-in-the-workforce-closereading-blog-a-thon/. Side note – love your sample pages and can’t wait for the book.

  3. franmcveigh September 30, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    Chris,

    I so love starting out Monday with heavy thinking to get the week moving! There are so many points in your post that I am going to ponder.

    However, I wonder if this quote will create a roadblock for teachers . . .” we believe you do not choose your text, first, and then decide out how to bring it to your students. Instead you choose your students, first, and decide how to bring them to texts.”

    I am thinking of teachers who:
    1) will argue that they have no “choice” in their students (not realizing that their text choice can be determined by the “group” of students that they wish to target with this particular text);
    2) the teachers with the 122 page packet for “To Kill a Mockingbird;” and/or
    3) “How will I ever use the texts in Appendix B of the Common Core if ‘I’ don’t choose the text first?”

    If the “passion” for the text is totally gone for the teacher, I am pretty sure that I can imagine the view from the student side. And yet, even when the teacher is passionate, it doesn’t mean that enthusiasm will carry over to the students! I am reminded of the teacher who said to my son, “You probably won’t like this chick lit book” when he could have been hooked by “You will love this book because the heroine is orphaned and has many parallels to your favorite – Harry Potter!”

    Presentation, passion and knowing your students does matter! Thanks!

    • Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) October 3, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

      First of all, Fran, you rock.

      Second of all, Christopher, my brother from another mother, I have been loving your blog since subscribing at the start of the blog-a-thon, and have finally entered into the convo. I’m actually hoping to start some debate with one of your more controversial claims–check it out: http://www.teachingthecore.com/where-does-text-value-come-from/

      Hoping to hear from you in the comments! And again, thank you for your work.

      • Chris Lehman October 3, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

        While I love the opportunity for a debate, and I actually would love to see what discussion comes up at your blog, I think taken out of context that line seems more controversial then it is.

        I don’t believe I was speaking in “choice-only camp” per se, because I wasn’t referring to kids. Instead, and I do believe, we as teachers need to find joy in the texts we read to our class, then add to that being sure that we vary texts so more students see themselves in this as well. A teacher who LOVES Shakespeare potentially can bring more passion to their instruction then a teacher who doesn’t, no? Just as a teacher who LOVES Sharon Draper will demonstrate more joy then one who doesn’t. If it’s controversial to suggest we should love what we do and watch for engagement in our students as well, then mark me controversial.

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