Friday, December 18, 2015

Close Reading: Myopia as a Virtue

head in book
Painting by Pawel Kuczynski

You are reading a text.

Yes. Right now.

Your eyes are scanning over symbols called letters. They are joined together into words and sentences and paragraphs to make up the total of this article.

Your brain is in the process of translating these symbols into sounds, meanings, concepts. And you are reacting to those concepts.

You’re having thoughts about what you’re reading. Maybe you’re reminded of a similar article you’ve read sometime in the past. Maybe you’re feeling a thrill of excitement at such an original introduction to an education article. Or perhaps you’re rolling your eyes and wondering why the author is such a doofus.
No matter how you look at it, reading involves complex processes. A whole bunch of stuff is going on to make it happen – all of it essential.

Yet when we evaluate reading comprehension these days, we put the focus squarely on one or two of those multifarious processes. It’s reductive, reactionary, and lame. It’s a dumbing down of the cognitive and metacognitive process. But it makes things easy to grade on a standardized test.

That’s what the fad of close reading is all about. It’s an attempt to make the mysterious and complex mind something that can easily be labeled right or wrong.

For the uninitiated, close reading is the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text in which great emphasis is put on individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold.
It’s not that close reading is unimportant. After all, it’s something good readers do. But an overemphasis on this aspect leaves out so much that is even more vital. It’s like saying the only significant part of the Hershey bar is the wrapper, or the only salient part of eating the Hershey bar is chewing. However, when I unwrap my dessert, there better be chocolate inside, and after I bite into it, I’d better not forget to swallow!

But education specialists with little to no actual classroom experience are making a killing going from school-to-school lecturing teachers about how to teach. And they’re telling us to emphasize close reading to the detriment of all else.

They’re saying we need to give our students short texts of no more than a page or two. We should have our students read these texts without any background into who wrote them or why. We should then have students answer questions that require them to go back to the text, find something and spit it back to us.

For instance:

How does the author use figurative language to develop theme?

Explain how word choice in the passage develops characterization.

Provide examples from the passage that demonstrate the author’s bias.

To the uninitiated, it looks like really important work. It’s not. This is the literary equivalent of taking out the garbage or going on a scavenger hunt. These are good things, but they are not the be-all-end-all. They don’t capture the essential reason we read – to understand.

Imagine if I asked you to go back into the part of this article you’ve already read and find one example of a North American pejorative used by the author. You could do it. You could scan back to the beginning, look through everything I wrote and find that I used the word “Doofus.”

Huzzah! You win the scavenger hunt.

Now explain why I used that word by making reference to textual evidence. You could do that, too. You could look at all the other things I’ve written so far and explain why I probably chose that word.

But notice what you can’t do, what these think tank clones will never ask you to do – form a substantial opinion. Not just why do you think someone else did something but what do you think about what they did?

For example:

Do you think the use of colloquialisms and slang have a place in serious education theory? Why or why not?

When was the most or least effective time you or a colleague used a colloquialism to express a complex thought? Evaluate its effectiveness.

In what ways are forbidden words more or less meaningful than those more easily sanctioned?

At its core, reading is not about discrete facts. No one picks up a piece of text to find out minute fragments of information. Instead, we’re looking for enlightenment. We don’t care so much about how the astronaut puts on the spacesuit. We want to know why she put it on in the first place. We want to know where she’s going. We want to know what it’s like and if we’d want to do something like that ourselves.

But an overemphasis on close reading ignores all this. It pretends readers are robots. It pretends reading is a mechanical process that can be easily divided into its component parts and examined discretely.

Even worse it ignores the needs of individual students. For many children in our modern world, reading of this sort is almost entirely alien to their lives. There are so many things competing for our attention these days that reading often gets neglected. Even if you love to read, it can be difficult to find the time and inclination to sit down, quiet yourself and read.

THIS is where most educators would like to focus – getting students to read at all. We want to show learners why they might want to read. We want to engage them. Demonstrate what an amazing experience a good book can be. We want to foster that look of delight in their eyes, that sense of wonder, the epiphany of literacy.

But instead we’re being told to focus on the nuts and bolts, the everyday boring hunt and seek of mechanical mentation.

Whatever you do, don’t see the forest; see the trees. Don’t look at the big picture; look exclusively to the details and don’t worry your pretty little head about making any larger meaning out of it.

This is tantamount to child abuse. We’re putting blinders on children’s minds and telling them which direction to think. We’re taking away their ownership of the reading experience. It’s no longer about what they want, what they’ve lived through, what they believe or what they see. It’s only about the author’s view – an author they probably don’t care about because they had no part in all the other crucial facets of reading. In fact, I would argue that this isn’t even really reading at all. It’s little more than  decoding. It’s a skill set fit for a corporate drone, not someone in management or any position to make valuable decisions.

It’s no wonder that these prescriptions are only leveled at public schools. Parochial, private and charter schools are specifically left out of these mandates. The same people demanding close reading for your kids want something much different for their own.

This is class warfare as education policy. It’s all about keeping down working families and lifting up the one percent.

That’s essentially what corporate education reform is all about – every tentacle of the beast is wrapped around young minds of the poor, the brown skinned, the undesirable.

But perhaps you don’t agree with me. Perhaps you have your own thoughts on this matter which may differ from mine.

Fine, I say. Good!

Yes, please think about it. Ponder these issues carefully, because while I’m championing free thought, the other side wants nothing less than your children’s complete submission to the status quo.

Feel free to give that a nice close read.


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