Academic journal article Reader

Puzzle Solving and Modding: Two Metaphors for Examining the Politics of Close Reading

Academic journal article Reader

Puzzle Solving and Modding: Two Metaphors for Examining the Politics of Close Reading

Article excerpt

Recently, as students gathered their belongings at the end of a graduate-level methods of literature instruction course that one of us teaches, a preservice teacher asked how he might respond to a series of challenges that he faced teaching Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice to a group of high school seniors in a socioeconomically diverse suburban school located in the mid-South. Several of his students were English language learners, and most planned to enter the workforce or military after graduation. Asked why the school's English department had chosen to require seniors to read that particular play, the preservice teacher explained that, like other literary works the school district adopted when it redesigned its literature curriculum in response to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the play was chosen because it appeared on a list of CCSS-approved exemplar texts said to reflect the level of text complexity that students ought to encounter in their senior year of high school.

The preservice teacher went on to explain that students in his mentor teacher's class had responded to an anticipation guide prior to reading the play, but that no attention had been given either the social-milieu in which it was written or the time period in which the story took place. Moreover, when he approached his mentor teacher to inquire about the possibility of his showing the students a film adaptation of the play prior to their reading it to familiarize them with the issues and themes it explores, the mentor teacher politely dismissed the idea, noting that close reading of the sort the CCSS emphasize requires that students best approach the play "cold." Needless to say, the students were disengaged, the preservice teacher was frustrated, and the unit deteriorated into a series of lifeless exercises that required the students to extrapolate the meaning of symbols, metaphors, and themes irrespective of the situated cultural understanding they may have brought to bear on the reading of the text.

It is tempting to write this incident off as an isolated example of inappropriate teaching. Yet in "Reading Without Understanding: Common Core Versus Abraham Lincoln," Alan Singer, a professor of Social Studies education at Hofstra University, argues that it may be constitutive of a larger problem with how close reading is taken up in the context of the CCSS. In his essay, Singer refers to an online video in which David Coleman, a figure regarded by many as the architect of the CCSS, presents a model three-to-five day unit plan designed to promote close reading of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." Describing a series of problems with the instructions that teachers were given to promote student understanding of the text, Singer writes, "Teachers are specifically instructed not to ask erroneous guiding questions' that require knowledge of historical context and research that takes students beyond the words in the text and gives actual meaning to the words" (para. 7). Moreover, they are dissuaded from asking questions that invite students to speculate about how the social historical context in which Lincoln lived might have shaped his, and his audience's, understanding of the issues the speech touches on. "A close reading of text without historical context," Singer concludes, "promotes reading without understanding" (para. 17).

Daniel Ferguson echoes Singer's concerns, but extends his argument by proposing that close reading, at least as it is taken up by the CCSS, deprives students of a voice in the classroom by refusing to acknowledge their ideas and background experiences as worthy of consideration in discussions that are concerned with determining the meaning of texts. Indeed, Ferguson charges the CCSS with encroaching on students' "rights to literacy," arguing that just as literacy is a civil right, so too is the right to have one's "experiences, knowledge, and opinions valued" (para. 19).

In this essay, we argue that considering texts divorced from the contexts within which they are written and read is part of a larger set of issues that surface under the umbrella of "close reading. …

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