Archive for Close Reading

Close Reading Strategies and the CCSS

Anyone else feeling the stress of the Common Core State Standards?  I find the barbed “c” and “s” sound appropriate for the moniker CCSS: devious and calculating.  In reality though, the CCSS isn’t out to get teachers.  Instead, I think it is to refocus how we approach literature with our students and encourage us to stop relying on content-based assessments and really evaluate close reading, not whether or not a student remembered what he or she read the night before. Read more

Teaching the 2013 Rhetorical Analysis Question

When the 2013 AP English Language and Composition exam prompts were released, I was instantly enamored with the second question, the passage from passedRichard Louv. The passage is highly accessible while also being highly complex, allowing a variety of interpretations.  As a result, I’ve decided to use it with both my AP English Language students and my academic-level 11ths graders.  To develop deep analysis from a variety of ability levels, I have created several activities.  These activities can give students an entry point into the text and then help them develop their analysis to better understand and appreciate rhetoric.

  1. I would begin by having my students read the passage silently, then I would read it to them aloud to help deepen understanding. To help narrow interpretations, I would then give them a variety of topics (nature, advertising, parenting, human interactions, technology) and ask them to determine which is the central argument and how the remaining areas relate to it. This allows them the opportunity to think about the complexity of the argument.
  2. To get students thinking about style, I would also adjust the arrangement of the passage.  I’d switch the first two paragraphs with the last two paragraphs.  When students have a comparison/contrast they are much more adept at evaluating the choices an author makes.  Asking them to analyze which arrangement is more effective will allow them to better understand the rhetorical strategies and how they impact the audience.  Consider asking students if it is better to open with rhetorical questions or close with rhetorical questions and what it reveals about the speaker’s relationship to the audience.
  3. I think it is helpful for the students, especially my academic-level, became acquainted with the text.  While I normally don’t give worksheets, I find that these students often struggle with close reading because they don’t know what they need to identify.  writingI’ve drafted these questions to help student engage with the passage itself.
  4. After closely investigating many portions of the text, it is important to pull the students back into the argument as a whole.  For this particular passage, I would, at this point, consider asking students who the speaker thinks is responsible for our current state.  They would need to defend their answer using knowledge from the text.  I would also ask students what Louv ultimately wants: to coexist with or separate from nature.
  5. This passage also pairs well with a variety of texts.  An excellent companion would be most writing things from the Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  I would most likely pair it Chapter One from Emerson’s Nature or “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” from Thoreau’s Walden.  I also think that EB White’s “Once More to the Lake” provides an interesting perspective on Louv’s passage because of the suggestion of a generational gap in views of nature. After studying Louv’s passage, I would offer one (or more) of these as an alternate text.  We discuss the ways in which the argument and style are similar or different from Louv’s.

Regardless of whether or not you teach AP English Language, I think that this passage is one that really works for differentiated instruction.


Analyzing Graduation Speeches

It never fails; I always cry at graduations.  I’m not sure if it is the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the feel of polyester gowns and mortarboard hats, or the foolhardy grins on the faces of seniors when they cross the stage, but I always cry.18160844_s

While I love graduations, I’m usually lukewarm at graduation speeches.  They are typically trite and overwrought with clichés while trying to impart wisdom that is rarely understood by the burgeoning youth who are only thinking about how many checks they will receive in their graduation cards.

However, there is some benefit to studying the speeches from a variety of standpoints.

They would be a great way to introduce the rhetorical situation and a rhetorical analysis can be done of some the most well-known graduation speeches. Students could be asked to do a variety of things to have a close reading of the speech.  While there are many great graduation speeches available, I have paired specific activities with specific speeches.

Consider asking students to…

  • Identify the top five lessons the speaker seeks to impart and evaluate the effectiveness of communicating those lessons.  The purpose of the graduation speech is to share words of wisdom to the listener.  This might be an activity to first use with a speech to aid comprehension and ensure students understand the message or argument.
  • Analyze the way in which the speech is unified and evaluate the use of a framing device that keeps the speech focused.  It might be content or it might be style, but effective speeches are focused and organized cohesively.  This is clearly seen in Steve Jobs’ speech to Stanford University graduates.
  • Determine which 2-3 devices or strategies are used most effectively and therefore become representative of the speech itself.  A good speech has a clear voice.  Ask students to determine what devices and strategies the speaker uses to maintain a cogent voice.  An excellent graduation speech to analyze for voice is David Foster Wallace’s speech to Kenyon College graduates.
  • Consider how the speech is tailored to a particular audience.  For this, the students might think about the immediate audience by analyzing the college enrollment itself.  Before providing the speech, ask students to provide first impressions of the university itself.  Then, ask students to read the speech, considering how the speech addresses that audience.  Consider using Joe Biden’s speech to the graduates of West Point or Stephen Colbert’s speech at the University of Virginia’s Valediction Exercises, which honors top performing students and professors the day before the official graduation.
  • Then, ask students to think about the broader audience of the speech.  Have students evaluate how the speaker addresses what is occurring socially, historically, or politically during the time of its delivery.   Bono’s graduation speech at the University of Pennsylvania does an excellent job of addressing the cultural climate of the time.

Compare and contrast speeches.  This option steps up the rigor by requiring students to have close knowledge of two speeches.

  • For example, students can analyze two speeches both delivered to Harvard.  I think JK Rowling’s speech pairs nicely with Bill Gates’ address to Harvard graduates.  Both address the nature of failure in interesting ways.  Students can draw inferences about both the speaker and the audience when comparing and contrasting these speeches.
  • Many leaders have addressed graduates multiple times.  Oprah Winfrey has made her rounds as a speaker.  Provide students a copy of her speech to Harvard University (2013) and Howard University (2007).  Students can do an in-depth look at how audience and occasion impact the construction of the speech.  They can also evaluate the consistency of style from one speech to the next.  Are there some trademarks to the speaker’s style that transcends setting?
  • Students also struggle to identify satire, so another option is to have them evaluate the humorous graduation speech.  Both Will Ferrell and Conan O’Brien  have addressed graduates at Harvard University.  Ask students to compare and contrast the techniques used by both and how those strategies enhance the purpose of the speech.
  • Lastly, if working on synthesis, provide students three graduation speeches from the same year and ask them to identify common themes that emerge and begin to consider what these speeches reveal about the time period.

Regardless, keep a box of tissues nearby to curb any tears the speeches bring to mind!

Resolutions: Opposing P.O.V. Journals

It’s hard to escape the onslaught of reminders that a new year, #2013, should mean adopting new “habits.”  Better habits for our health, personal lives, professional lives.  Ads arrive at my door reminding me that I can get organized via the Container Store, healthy via the NordicTrack and better sleep via the Healthy Back Store.  Retail outlets are desperate to help me.  However…

Winter break feels too short.  Adopting new “habits” too hard and looking ahead January and February seem endless.  Teachers need help without sacrificing mental health and student instruction post winter break.  Instead of enticing you to spend your holiday gift cards, I’m going to spend the month of January posting small things, little things that make a huge difference.  The hope being that you can adopt them easily in order to simplify your teaching life without having to completely revamp.  Make a New Year’s resolution to yourself.  Find more time in your classroom for meaningful instruction that requires less direct instruction from you.

My first resolution for you?  Create an ongoing journal assignment.  This type of journal will practice Common Core and AP English skills.  It will also give you 10 minutes at the beginning of each class to catch your breath while they find their voice.

Start with having them write a 10-minute journal 2-3 times a week.  The best way to get students in the habit of working in a journal is to keep in the room.  Think composition notebook or a cheap spiral.  However, if you are working on the cheap or you want to implement this immediately, simply create lined paper in a Word document (hit the underscore button for eternity) and copy.  Each sheet of paper represents one journal.  If you feel so inclined you can label each sheet.

Journal Type#1: The Art of Argument

Let’s start with my favorite journal.  Students read a short article.  Then, they write an entry that either qualifies the article’s argument or directly opposes it.  This will be a challenge for them since often they agree with the op-ed’s point of view.   Remind them that it helps extend their “range” as writers if they can identify other perspectives and construct response that include those points of view.  Yes, it is difficult.  But it also challenges them too. This type of journal demands they consider other views.    Below are some great articles to help you begin.  If you are pressed for time consider having students read the article outside of class and come prepared to write their challenge or qualification.

Argument Journals-Articles

Close Reading Satire

Okay, I have a guilty confession.  I am a very naïve, gullible person.  I will fall for anything.  So when I was an 18-year-old and was assigned to read “A Modest Proposal,” of course I believed that Jonathon Swift was advocating the eating of children.  I mean, he is a writer.  He wouldn’t lie.  The next day in class I was admonished by my peers and teacher for my stupidity.  People couldn’t believe I was naïve enough to take the text at face value.  Read more

Close Reading Through Isolation

It is no coincidence that the hardest texts for students to understand are also the ones rich with style.  Typically, it is the style that, to the students, prevents comprehension.  They get so caught up in the metaphor in the opening paragraph that they aren’t truly paying attention to the details and content of the remaining of the passage.  Or maybe the students see a word being repeated and get so fixated on that one word and why it is repeated that they are unable to stand back and take in the passage as a whole.

This is somewhat of a blessing.  Students confused by style also indicates that they recognize style and are curious about it.  But, as teachers, we need to find ways to tap into these observations and translate them into reading strategies.

As a result, when it comes to teaching students how to read closely, sometimes the best strategy is isolation.  Instead of an anticipation guide to introduce a work, isolate some of those stylistic elements for students to study.  Literally, pull out the notable elements of style and ask the students to react to them.

One example I have had success with in the past is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  There are several notable (albeit “challenging”) components to this text:  the imagery, the word choice, and the repetition.  To prepare for class, I begin by identifying major images in the text and locating actual pictures of those images.  I have embedded several key images from the text on this webpage to highlight what my students will examine.  Then, I type up specific words that have strong connotations with them, words that Jonathan Edwards used to evoke fear in his congregation.  I also extract words that are repeated for a dramatic effect.  In this piece, “nothing” is repeated three times, so, for the activity, I make sure I type “nothing” three times.  Then, I cut out each word and image and sort them.

The students play a type of word association game.  The students are shown an image or a word and have to record their gut reaction to it almost instantaneously.  They might react by thinking of a synonym to the word/image or recording an emotion associated with it.  Sometimes students respond with how they feel when they see the word/image, especially when they have seen “nothing” three times in a row.  Then, I ask them to look at the reactions they recorded thinking about linking factors.  At this point, without even have read the piece, students are able to make fairly accurate predictions about the content, speaker, audience, purpose, and tone.  This activity helps students analyze the text and conduct a close reading of it—without even having the full text in front of them.  Then, when I give them the text, they are able to discuss the extent to which their predictions were true or false.  They are reading each word carefully to better understand how these words/images are used in the text.  This strategy of isolating the challenging stylistic elements encourages the students to think more critically about a piece, while making it easier and more manageable for them to do.  They are able to get through the portions that “block” their understanding because they have already overcome that hurdle.

Next time you have a challenging text, bypass an anticipation guide and extract the words and images that complicate the meaning.  Taking these aspects in isolation will help your students better know the material, while helping them practice their close reading skills.






Close Reading Through Repetition

To students, annotating a text is just underlining a bunch of random words and phrases.  However, underlining does not indicate a close reading.  It might indicate comprehension, it might indicate completion, but it doesn’t provide clear evidence that the student knows the intricacies of the passage. Read more

Starting the Year

Imagine what it is like as a student on the first day of school.  The go to first period and are given a note-card to fill out pertinent information, then they are given a syllabus for the course and rules that the teacher tends to go over ad nauseum.  The same thing happens second period…and third…and fourth.  In fact, much of their first day of school is sitting listening to teachers drone on and on.  While I think these are important things to cover, I think it is best to open the year in a way that is indicative of what they can expect the course to be the remainder of the year.  After many years of practice, I have narrowed down a first day lesson that I think serves a nice introduction to the course and then sets the students up to introduce themselves.

In 1992 the AP English Language and Composition exam had a passage from Nancy Mairs for students to analyze from her piece “On Being a Cripple.”  While the whole excerpt is fantastic to use, I tend to only give the first paragraph with the students on the first day.  I like them to see how an in-depth study can be accomplished with only a few sentences and I think it is rich with material to discuss.  The excerpt opens with:

I am a cripple.  I choose this word to name me.  I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are “handicapped” and “disabled.”  I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so.  Even now, I’m not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering.  People – crippled or not – wince at the word “cripple,” as they do not at “handicapped” or disabled.”  Perhaps I want them to wince.  I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely.  As a cripple, I swagger.

I read the passage to the students twice so they can hear the way the punctuation functions in this paragraph.  Then I ask them what stands out to them.  Knowing today’s teenagers, a lot of them want to talk about why she uses the word “swagger,” which is a fine jumping off point.  We discuss what “swagger” means to them and how it is a sign of confidence.  However, I point out to the students that “swagger” is only used once in the paragraph and not until the end. This gets students thinking about the placement of words and what comes before.  We begin tracing how Mairs feels about herself from the beginning of the paragraph until the end.  This leads to a discussion about her purpose.  We examine her repetition and I ask questions like “why does she keep repeating the word ‘cripple’”?  This also causes us to examine how the word affects the readers.  We examine her use of syntax and why it is so significant for her to use such brief sentences to open and close the paragraph.  We study her use of verbs.  “Choose.”  “Want.”  “Am.”  They all convey an impression of Mairs that helps to explain her purpose in writing the piece.  Often times, we end up debating if Mairs’ does these things to obtain power over her condition or power over others who try to label her.  Regardless, many students come to the conclusion that Mairs is trying to define herself so others can’t have power over her.

It is at this point that I ask students to think about how they would define themselves.  We return to the fact that Mairs made a very deliberate and conscious choice to define herself and her personality, not just her disability.  She took into account how others perceived the word and the various denotations and connotations of it.  This is the basis of their first assignment.  That night they need to determine one word that they choose to define themselves.  We then go around the room and the students introduce themselves to the class by providing their selected word, the definition of it, and then a brief description of how it captures them.

When they’re presenting, I like to write down the words the students select for themselves and use them the following year when writing college recommendation letters. I like how this lesson incorporates an accessible but rich passage for close reading and then provides a natural way for students to introduce themselves.  To me, it helps encapsulate the course and my expectations in a way that a syllabus and reading of the rules never can.