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How Close Is Too Close?

I had another productive day with Jen Sheerer, a 7th and 8th grade ELA teacher in Upstate NY, completing curriculum work with the NYS Expeditionary Learning modules. As we worked through the ‘Frederick Douglas’ module together, she shared how her class responded to the poem, Introduction to Poetry, by Billy Collins. I found it so powerful to my thinking as a reader and a teacher that I created this printable of it to post in my office:

In this poem, Collins, introduces us to poetry and how we should read it. He writes about enjoying the process to discover the meaning within: waterskiing over the poem and waving to the author and holding it up to the light so the colors shine through. I found the metaphors were powerful given my focus on awakening our identities as readers for ourselves and our students. 

Let’s take a closer look at the last few lines:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

As I read these lines, I couldn’t help but think how comical this was. Expeditionary Learning was having students read a poem about reading to just read and find the meaning in text without beating or torture, yet the modules seem to do just that with its reading, rereading and even a third reading of small excerpts of disconnected text. Under pressure to make our instruction ‘rigorous’ and aligned to the Common Core, we require students to document their thinking and provide evidence to support it. We might require students to do this at the end of a chapter, or even at the end of a paragraph or sentence, if you are using the Expeditionary Learning modules. As adults, do we do this kind of thinking and documentation on every text we read? Absolutely not. But, do we require students to do this on almost every text read in the classroom? From my experiences, yes, but we often have reservations about doing so and with good reason. 

By requiring students to stop and write much too often in the books and texts they read, we are tying the text to a chair with rope and torturing a confession out of it. Think about a powerful text you have read lately. The central ideas and themes emerge from the entire text over the course of longer reading. Chopping the book into small pieces and over-analyzing each takes away from the beautiful messages within that we learn as readers and in some cases, makes them disappear entirely. 

I urge you to print and post this printable as a reminder to be mindful of our practices as readers and teachers. Let students read longer chunks of text with less interruption. Choose our stopping points strategically and think carefully about the prompts we provide. Stop beating the text with a hose and interrupt students’ reading less often so they have the time and energy to think about the bigger picture of what they are reading. Sometimes, less is more. Let’s teach our students that it is the quality of the thinking that matters, not the number of times they stop to provide evidence of it.  



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