Catherine Gewertz at Curriculum Matters penned a post describing a meeting of chief academic officers from 14 urban school districts who came together to discuss how to help teachers implement the Common Core. According to Gewertz, the CAOs spent “hours exploring one facet of the common standards: its requirement that students—and teachers—engage in ‘close reading’ of text.”
It is exactly this “close reading” that Common Core supporters hope will usher in a new era of reading instruction—one where teachers select grade-appropriate texts for all students; where they have students read and reread those texts—perhaps more times than even makes sense or feels comfortable—to support deep comprehension and analysis; and where they push students to engage in the text itself—in the author’s words, not in how those words make us feel.
Common Core challenges us to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them.
The reality is that the Common Core challenges us to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them. Of course, what students read will often touch them, sometimes even change them. But that will happen only if, while they’re reading, they deeply understand and absorb the words and images in front of them first.
This is a lesson that David Coleman, one of the architects of the CCSS ELA standards, has traveled around the nation trying to help illustrate. His ideas are, of course, not without their critics. There are plenty of people who believe that Coleman, who has no classroom-level instructional experience, has no right to tell people how to run their classrooms.
Such criticism is not unsurprising. Coleman does, after all, outspokenly call out what are common—and beloved—practices in literature classrooms across the country. In one speech, for example, he challenges our overemphasis on personal narrative and personal opinion in writing classrooms by saying:
“…forgive me for saying this bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world, you realize that people don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”
His point, of course, is more nuanced than that: it’s that people are unlikely to listen to your opinions unless they’re grounded in something outside of yourself—evidence from reading, from research, etc.
And he’s right, by the way. That is, in fact, precisely why some of his staunchest critics dismiss his words out of hand—they don’t feel like those words are grounded in the kind of evidence they want to see (classroom experience).
But how does Coleman propose making this shift in the classroom? When it comes to reading, Coleman has several very specific suggestions:
1. Eliminate pre-reading activities.
Coleman is refreshingly unapologetic in his assertion that pre-reading activities are a waste of instructional time. He believes, for instance, that giving students background information about the text does little more than encourage students to parrot back the teacher’s words when answering questions, rather than actually absorbing and critically analyzing what the author said. And he thinks spending time predicting what the text is going to be about or comparing it to other works is a needless distraction. Instead, he encourages teachers to allow students to dive immediately in to the text itself.
2. Guide lessons with text-dependent questions that require students to use the author’s words to support their responses.
This is perhaps the most significant difference between what the Common Core demands and the practice that is in place in classrooms across the country. Too many teachers shift students’ attention away from the text too quickly by asking them what they think of what they’re reading, or how it makes them feel. Or by asking them to make personal connections to the story. The Common Core asks that teachers develop questions—and demand answers—that use evidence from the text to support responses, to defend opinions, etc. Of course, by engaging in the text in this way, students will inevitably develop opinions and have reactions to the text. They should. But those feelings and reactions should not be the primary focus of instruction. In fact, it doesn’t need to be. A student who deeply understands King’s words in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, for instance, will not be able to help having an emotional response to it. We don’t need to focus instruction on spoon feeding those feelings to them.
3. Stop focusing instruction on reading strategies.
There are few people who argue that teaching students how to identify the main idea or to understand the difference between cause and effect has no place in an ELA classroom. That said, the importance of teaching such reading skills and strategies has somehow outstripped the importance of actually reading. As David Coleman says, “we lavish so much attention on these strategies in place of reading. I urge us instead to just read.”
4. Devote more time to each text by reading and re-reading for understanding.
Small children instinctively understand the importance of repetition. That’s why they play the same games ad infinitum. It’s why small children want to read their favorite books over and over. And yet, in school, we have a tendency to turn our noses up at it. Teachers loathe teaching lessons multiple times, or fear students will be bored if they’re exposed to the same content or reading again and again. We feel pressure to make things new and exciting, when what students might actually need to push their thinking and to do critical literary analysis is repetition. To that end, Coleman suggests spending three days on the Gettysburg Address—a three paragraph speech. And he thinks Letter from a Birmingham Jail should take six days.
Of course, there’s only value in lingering on texts for so long if they’re worthy of the time—and that is why the Common Core asks students to read texts that are sufficiently complex and grade-appropriate. Yes, such texts may often push students—perhaps even to their frustration level. That is why it’s essential for teachers to craft the kinds of text-dependent questions that will help them break down the text, that will draw their attention to some of the most critical elements, and that will push them to understand (and later analyze) the author’s words.
In the end, “close reading” means making lessons simplified, though not simplistic. Streamlined, though not rushed or short. Focused, but not narrow. And, more than anything, the Common Core challenge to spend class time engaging in “close reading” of texts asks teachers to focus reading on actually reading.