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Conversations on Close Reading and the Common Core State Standards

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In today’s tech world most of my conversations about the Common Core and literacy are virtual. How are you conversing with others about the Common Core and literacy?

Over the last several weeks, I have had the most interesting conversations with knowledgeable minds about close reading: the history of close reading; the nature of texts demanding close reading; the intersection of literary theory; and the selection of complex texts in relation to the Common Core State Standards. Throughout, I have been mulling over one of my favorite teaching texts, Sir Francis Bacon’s “Of Studies.” Bacon, as canonical to the British essay as Shakespeare to the Elizabethan drama, has been the introductory author for each of my high school English and social studies classes over the course of nearly twenty years.

Following a cursory reading of Bacon’s 1625 essay, students readily quote this midway line as an expression of the main idea: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested….So every defect of the mind may have a special receipt” (Of Studies). Students typically conclude that Bacon’s point is simple: there are different types of books to meet various readers’ needs.

However, after rereading with an inducement to dig more deeply into Bacon’s message and to document thoughts with reflective annotations, students begin to see the essay not only as an analysis of text purpose but also of the reading audience: “Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation.” Given time, students observe structural parallelism of threes within in the text and note an alternating pattern between books/studies and readers (in this case, men) as sentence subjects and objects.

Given time, students consider the meaningful implications of diction: “Crafty men” condemn reading because it informs or educates a group of people who left uninformed are the pawns of craft or deceptions; “simple men” understand the powers of text and literacy but without the skills to harness that power are left to merely “admire” without full knowledge or ability to apply text meaning; however “wise men” understand the many uses of text both in their professional applications and in the power of information to be “weigh[ed] and consider[ed]. “Wise men understand that texts work to “perfect nature” yet “are perfected by experience…” study/writings/the words of text need be “bounded in by experience.” Those individuals do not allow to have their heads turned by fanciful language, unsupported arguments, or undocumented results.

To value the writing and ideas of Bacon, the reader need not have vast knowledge of the period or times in which Bacon lived; the reader can take a stance that rejects “old historicism’s attention to biographical and sociological matters” (Michael Delahoyde, Introduction to Literature). However, the reader must have time to enter intellectually into the text; the reader need be experienced in the nature of humankind; the reader need bring a level of background knowledge and tenacity in analyzing words, phrases, and clauses across time and place. The reader cannot come to the text as a tabulu rasa with an expectation to leave with full insight.

This perspective of what “close reading” means, especially in our schools as put to teachers in the Common Core Standards, returns my focus to recent conversations during which the name of William Empson has been recurrent. A student of I.A. Richards, the father of New Criticism, Empson wrote a series of essays blessed by Richards and influential in the American movement of New Criticism. P. David Pearson notes these essays are, “definitely worth reading, if for no other reason than to understand that Empson, in no way, meant to divorce close reading from the deployment of exisiting knowledge and insight in the interpretive process. Knowledge has to be tamed, sometimes even held at bay, but it is intimately involved at every step” (“Re: Close Reading” LRA ListServ, 7 July 2012.) In Pearson’s comment I again hear echoes’ of Bacon’s “Of Studies”: “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”

As educators of varied disciplinary content, the CCSS has challenged us all to become teachers of close reading. Therein lies an implicit challenge to teachers, intellectual repositories of knowledge, histories, and stories: we must become readers ourselves who have evolved into close readers. In so doing, we must take the advice of Pearson and not become divorced of knowledge. However, we need replace our preoccupations with historical background, sociological demographics, and archaic vocabularies that further remove young readers from studying the vitality of the words, the art of text construction, and resultant text messages. The purpose of close reading should not be a function in itself but in developing appreciation for the universal and timeless value innate to complex texts and worthy of the classroom investment.

The most effective means teachers have to model close reading is to dive directly into touchstone texts as baseline models from which literary geneaogies and comparisons among texts can be made. Although the CCSS avoids (oohhh, that sounds so intentional) the word “connections,” the ELA standards explicitly uses the word “compare” more than thirty times in the main sixty-seven page document. However, a comparison cannot be made without first making a connection. Inviting textual immersion that forgoes precious time spent on extensive pre-reading activities underscores to readers the significance of historic or seminal texts in today’s currency. As I have said in a previous post, Conflicts? Context and Close Reading  where I offer a close reading model of the Gettysburg Address, if a text can only be valued as an outcomes of circumstances now long passed, what value does it have for me today?

In 1625, Bacon wrote:

To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience.

Read his words not once but twice. Consider what Bacon says about reading, about study. Reflect on the relationship between reading and being, between acting as the receptor of his message and acting on the point he makes. Extend the implications of this message to the readers of journals, magazines, books, blogs, technical instructions and the like–the audience of scientists and doctors, mechanics and engineers, historians and politicians, money managers and economists.

In a 2012 article entitled “Text Complexity,” noted literacy researchers Fisher and Frey discuss the challenges of the CCSS Anchor #10: “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010, p. 10). In my ear, their conclusion echoes the sentiment if not the words of Bacon’s “Of Studies.”

Every reader enjoys reading a wide range of texts. If you take a look at what you have read over the past month, some of it was very easy, entertaining even. Some of it was required, and some of it was choice….Students should have a varied reading diet that includes…reading for pleasure, both fiction and nonfiction. It should include reading literature to answer life’s big questions and to learn about other people. And it should include texts that are hard, but worthy. Importantly, when students struggle with a specific reading and then reach a new level of understanding, their pride soars. We all like a good challenge, and we all need support to get there (Principal Leadership, January 2012).

To begin reading the work of Bacon by asking what relevance his words may have today may not meet the Common Core standards for a text dependent question. However, in light of Common Core Anchor Standard #9: “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010, p. 10) to avoid such question in comparison with other historical texts as well as contemporary texts would be to avoid the vortex at the center of this approaching storm: what texts should be given the gift of instructional close reading time in the modern classroom?

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