Archive for September, 2014

Few people seem happy these days with the Common Core Standards. Part of the reason may be that there are so many of them. Another part is that they read like a robot composed them.

One of the Common Core 12th grade ELA Standards expects students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. “

Ok, but how do you teach students to become close readers? My senior AP Lit students read Huxley’s Brave New World this summer. Certainly, they can discuss the larger thematic implications of the text: the conflict between the individual and society, the ultimately dehumanizing pursuit of happiness through drugs and sex, the loss of spirituality and identity in a community programmed merely to consume.

They get the larger picture but sometimes struggle to see the minor strokes and shades of color that help us understand those themes more deeply.

We began with three provocative statements that I posted on butcher-block sheets in my classroom:

  1. Some people are expendable.
  2. Suffering is good for the soul.
  3. The history of the world moves in a positive, linear direction.

In the spirit of inquiry first, I asked them only to respond to those three statements with questions.

“Some people are expendable” led them to wonder:

  • Who gets to decide who is expendable?
  • What does it mean to be expendable?
  • Am I expendable? Are you?
  • Can being expendable ever be a good thing? Is expendability necessary sometimes?
  • If animals are expendable to us, why shouldn’t we be expendable to someone too?

“Suffering is good for the soul” led them to wonder:

  • What does suffering teach us?
  • If I don’t believe in a soul, what’s the point of suffering?
  • When is too much suffering not good for the soul?
  • Do you know this when you’re suffering or only when the suffering is over?

“The history of the world moves in a positive, linear direction” led them to wonder:

  • From whose perspective?
  • What makes history positive? The absence of war and suffering?
  • How can you break free from history to make this judgment?
  • Doesn’t it really just move in spirals or waves?

As I mentioned, the students had already read the novel. Nevertheless, we opened to page one, and I asked them, although not in these words to, “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. “ Basically, I asked them to tell me what they saw by highlighting the words that created a picture for them and then to share what judgments they could make from those pictures.

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 8.58.55 AM

They highlighted these words: grey, north, cold, harsh, pallid, goose-flesh, wintriness, white, pale corpse-colored, frozen, cold, ghost, yellow. They felt these words to be cold, sickly, deadly, and uninviting.

I then asked them to find any contrasts in the text. They highlighted: hatchery/conditioning to community/identity, north/cold to summer/tropical, pale/corpse/frozen to yellow/rich/butter/luscious. They felt these contrasts helped them to recognize an irony set up in the text right from the start. They noted that the last words on the page are the director announcing, “this is the Fertilizing Room.” Reacting to the dissonance of a fertility center described almost exclusively with words of sterility, they read that last line again and said, “Wait, what?” Exactly!

But then my students candidly commented that though they hadn’t read that page like that before, they weren’t sure that without me drawing attention to a passage and asking them to examine it closely, that they’d see that naturally. It was a fair point. How do you make this “Common Core standard” a standard way of reading text?

To begin with, I told them I’m not sure it is possible to read every page of a novel in this fashion. Students, carrying the typical class load, struggle to get their homework completed by midnight. It’s not realistic to ask them to read a 200-300 page novel with a magnifying glass. But I do think it’s important to engage in this type of close look with certain key passages of a novel as a means of understanding its larger import.

The previous week, I had read an excellent essay in the WSJ Saturday Review analyzing Caravaggio’s painting “The Taking of Christ” titled “Confrontation Amid the Shadows.” I used the painting below to assist students in “close reading.”

I teach in a parochial school but it is far from evangelical. Most of my students know the Bible stories with passing familiarity, but they can generally spot an allusion here and there.

After projecting a photo of the painting, I asked them what they saw – literally.


Q: How many figures do you see?

As: Six. What, no seven. Where? There’s another helmet behind the guy on the right.

Q: How many hands?

As: Five. (Long pause) Six – look at the soldier reaching toward Jesus. His hand is gloved. (Long pause) Eight actually – there’s another soldier’s hands grabbing at the green clad guy’s shawl.

Q: Tell me about their faces.

As: The three guys on the left aren’t looking at us. Jesus is looking down. Judas is looking at something outside the scene, which is weird because he’s kissing Jesus and should be looking at him. The frightened guy (who I explain is St. John) is looking up at something – maybe God who is letting this happen. They all have really different expressions but their brows are all really furrowed.

Q: What about what they’re wearing?

As: The colors are really strong. Judas is wearing orange, which is also kind of the color the guards are wearing. Jesus is in red with a blue shawl. John is in green with a red shawl. But it’s hard to tell the difference between what Jesus and John are wearing. Yeah, the way that soldier is grabbing at John’s shawl makes it hard to tell whose it is. I wonder if John was trying to escape this scene, and the soldier was pulling him back. That could explain that expression.

Q: What about the hands and how they are held?

As: (All of the students tried to replicate Jesus’s posture) That just feels weird and unnatural. Is he trying to restrain himself? Is he repulsed by the kiss? His face doesn’t look like he’s grossed out. Yeah, but he’s definitely trying to pull away since Judas seems to have to clench him to hold him in. John’s body, if you were facing him, looks completely open, but from our view he looks like he is standing back to back with Jesus. Judas is kinda bald. No, he’s not – that’s a yarmulke. Oh, yeah, you’re right. I wonder if the other two are wearing them.

Q: What about the soldiers? What do you see?

As: You can’t see their faces at all. But their metal armor is very shiny. But where’s that light that’s reflected on them coming from? Some of it is coming from that lamp that the guy on the right is holding (I explain that Caravaggio has painted himself into this painting). So where’s the other light coming from? Doesn’t this take place at night? Maybe it’s the moon. It’s kind of like it was very, very dark, and someone came along and held a flashlight on the scene. I find it interesting that you can’t see their eyes at all. Yeah, they’re just shiny darkness.

Q: What about the figure of the painter? Why is he there?

A: Well, he wasn’t there historically. He just put himself there.

Q: Tell me about how he looks?

As: You can see his eyes. And his face isn’t furrowed at all. His mouth is kinda open, which makes him look interested but not emotional. His hand isn’t clenched or awkward. It’s just gently holding up a lamp. He’s just watching what’s happening. Yeah, but he’s not wearing any of the bright colors. He blends in with the guards.

Ok, so you get the point. The students completely engaged with this painting, examining, describing, inferring, judging, and supporting conclusions. I asked them how they might transfer this exercise to a reading of text. They reflected that they would need to do a lot of visual imagining as they were reading; they’d have to “see” the text differently, and understand how the words (adjectives, adverbs, and verbs) were painting pictures for them.

This week, we’ll be trying out their new skills with a different passage from Brave New World. Hopefully, I can continue to make this standard attainable for my students. Then, only twenty more to go…


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