Close reading leads to close writing: “Falling in Love With Close Reading” in writing workshop
I have truly fallen in love with Falling in Love With Close Reading, the just-released book by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts.
As with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s Notice and Note, this is a book that pushes my thinking about reading – my own, as well as that of my plot-crazy students who are better at galloping through the books they read, than slowing down to think about what it all means. We began the year exploring the sign posts, and I am happy to say that I am beginning to see our reading journeys slowing down and becoming much more meaningful. When I turned my attention to FILWCR, however, I began to think of ways in which I could bring some of the ever-so-smart close reading exercises from this book into my writing workshop, as well. Close readers make better writers, right? Right!
I kept returning to the ideas and close reading explorations in Chapter 3: A Way With Words, believing that this would be a wonderful place to begin, especially to these lines which I had marked up several different times, and in several different ways:
“Looking closely at word choice allows us to get to the heart of what people are saying and thinking; it helps us to see their motivations more clearly and decide how we wish to understand them.” (p.33)
Isn’t this what we are trying to do in writing workshop?
So, on Tuesday, I waded in. We are drafting memoirs now, and one of the issues I noticed in conference after conference, was that my students had difficulty building an emotional arc in their writing. They were writing about the way they felt in a very cursory way – naming it, but not describing it. Both teacher and student struggled for ways in which to shape this writing, to give it more depth. We were searching for ways to “get to the heart of what people are saying and thinking.”
Chris and Kate begin their book with something brilliant: “a central structure”, a “Close Reading Ritual” that goes something like this:
1. Read through lenses
2. Use lenses to find patterns
3. Use the patterns you’ve discovered to develop a new understanding of the text
I began to think that what my kids’ writing lacked was that pattern – the details that enriched and provided substance to the descriptions of their feelings. Perhaps some close reading of texts that were excellent examples of this type of pattern-making would help us make the leap from bland writing to powerful writing? It was worth try.
I tried to explain this thinking in our mini lesson, using this chart to walk us through the process:
Then we went to work on a passage from Lois Lowry’s marvelous memoir, Looking Back. I love this passage; in it, Lowry remembers a childhood spent on the move – pets that had to be given away, books that had to be boxed and sold. She speaks of a yearning for a home which welcomed the stray dog that followed her home, where books were stacked everywhere ready to be read and re-read. And then she describes the home she was able to create for her own children – yes, there was lack of adequate bathrooms, and the roof leaked rather too often – but piles of books and varieties of pets were what really counted…that was home.
We discovered that Lowry’s word choices led us to see a pattern: they showed us what she considered to be the heart of a home, the type of home she’d yearned for as a child. Looking at those patterns, we decided that we had a deeper understanding of Lowry herself: she wanted to create a home for her children that she’d wanted as a child. We felt that we’d arrived at the heart of what Lois Lowry was feeling and thinking because we had slowed down, read closely, and paid attention to her careful word choices. Here’s what that thinking looked like:
When my kids returned to their own writing, they chose places where they felt they needed to create a better sense of their own feelings, of what was in their hearts and souls during this memoir worthy experience. They focused on specific words that would evoke strong emotions and images, and use those words and images to create a pattern that would, in turn, lead their reader to understand them better. As we had done with Lois Lowry.
It was a first effort, but a worthy one. We are learning how to fall in love with close reading in room 202, and hoping that it makes us better writers.