Close Reading in a High School English Classroom

Out of all of the pieces this week, I most enjoyed Hayles’s “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine”. Hayles states that hyper reading has become necessary in a digital environment, which does not surprise me, nor does it worry me. Hayles offeres James Sosnoski’s definition of hyperreading as, “reader-directed, screen-based, computer-assisted reading” and includes “search queries, filtering by keywords, skimming, hyperlinking, ‘pecking’, and fragmenting” (p. 66). I realize that in order to make it in this digital world, I rely heavily on hyperreading to sift through an inordinate amount of information and text to arrive at what I’m actually looking for. But then when I find what I’m looking for, I switch to close reading.

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This is an example of a SIFT a student created at the beginning of a school year.

I am intrigued by Hayles’s description of the close reading technique of “symptomatic reading”. Hayles states that literary scholars do not find “symptomatic reading” productive because it typically results in formulaic reading and interpretation. I can see how this could be, but it is something I teach my own students. I use the College Board’s AP Vertical Alignment text as a guide for teaching my students “close reading.” I haven’t really thought of this as a strategy yielding formulaic results. I think it’s important what we do with the artifacts of our “symptomatic reading” that matters most. For instance, I use the strategy SIFT (symbolism, imagery, figurative language, tone, and theme) to help students “sift through the parts in order to understand the whole” (AP College Board). However, I don’t just stop there. We hold Socratic seminars over the piece of literature and the SIFTs to delve deeper into the literature. I also use other strategies such as SOAPSTone for rhetorical analysis and LEAD for analysis of diction.
I use these strategies that Hayles would call “symptomatic reading” as a developmentally appropriate introduction to literary and rhetorical analysis to make close reading more accessible for high school freshmen and sophomores to understand and master. I wonder if this is enough for students to form a foundation for reading literature from a critical and interpretive perspective or if if this is producing students who come up formulaic responses to literature well into college? I am curious what others think about this.

I also appreciated Hayles’ critique of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Mark Buerelin’s The Dumbest Generation. It is helpful for someone like me, who does not know much about the studies which these authors cite; I am specifically thinking about the fMRI study Carr mentions in his book. I wonder if there has been a study on hyperlinks where researchers have studied people who regularly read texts with hyperlinks and interact with them (and not just on novice users)? I wonder if the results (levels of comprehension) would be different? Have there been studies on “Choose Your Own Adventure” books in this same way?

On a larger note, I am really fascinated by the articles about analyzing writing with a quantitative methodology. I understand that it can be troubling when data is reduced to conclusions that may be superficial or insufficient explanations, but I still find it an interesting piece of a puzzle when it comes to understanding writing. I found it comforting when Ramsey states that we can look at literature in quantifiable ways without giving away the humanistic qualities. I haven’t really looked at quantitative analyses of writing much, or at least I haven’t been drawn to them (or required to read about them), therefore, I am not sure I can offer much discussion in this area, but I can at least say it’s interesting.

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7 thoughts on “Close Reading in a High School English Classroom

  1. I agree with a lot of what you have said here. I agree that quantitative analyses of texts are interesting; in fact, that’s most of the type of work I have done with digital humanities thus far. I also agree that it can be difficult to deal with data in such a way. Finally, I do understand the skimming/close-reading switch very well (I wrote a little about it too), especially in terms of trying to “make it in this digital world.”

    To put in my two cents about the question you asked about literature and the vertical alignment text method you’ve described. I can’t remember if I was taught to do something similar in my AP classes in high school, but I do believe it does endorse a more formulaic learning. I always think back to my AP English 11 class and our time studying the Great Gatsby. If I were to ask my brother, who had the same teacher and read the same text three years later, what he learned most about the Great Gatsby (and this could be true nationwide), he would probably say something about the color symbolism that was constantly stressed on every pop quiz, in-class discussion, etc. The fact that my brother and I have most likely “read” the same book in the same way is a bit frustrating. I understand that having the same teacher who most likely recycles her lesson plans over the years doesn’t help, but I’m sure even the in-class discussions were very similar.

    • This is what I was thinking, too. I have struggled to make literary analysis accessible to high school freshman who seem to need something concrete for which to grab hold and am wondering how I can take this to the next level?

      • I think that’s definitely a difficult task. It’s hard to just say “What do you think?” in terms of literature because there are so many set interpretations that you have a sort of “agenda’ to teach, especially of the classic pieces you are more likely to teach in a high school literature class. Though I encourage the whole idea of being open to different interpretations and giving students the change to perhaps come up with something new, it’s hard to be completely open when you have years of standard interpretation ingrained in your mind.

      • True! I try to stay out of seminars in my class as much as possible to push my students to drive the conversation about the text, so I can make sure I am open to new ideas and interpretations: but, like you said, there are some things that are hard to let go.

  2. I really enjoyed this post and how it furthers the conversation on what *value* we ascribe to different reading practices. What’s at stake in the argument that “formulaic” reading practices are inferior to nuanced, individual interpretations? And who gets to make that decision?

    I always get excited when the topic of AP English arises. I was “schooled” in the AP tradition, my mom has taught AP English for 30+ years, and this summer I’m grading the AP Language exam for the first time. (Full disclosure: I’m doing it for the money!!) I find myself in the unique position of having benefited from the AP model while also feeling disenfranchised by it when I moved to teaching college composition. And I’ve noticed interesting trends among my college writers who have an AP English background.

    All this to say: I think it’s important to think critically about all writing programs, including the AP track, and you’ve given me some food for thought as I prepare for my trip this summer!

    • Thank you for your comments! You’ve definitely given me something to think about as well. I wonder, because of the AP model, did you at least feel prepared for college composition and literature classes? I wonder if at least this type of teaching practice (SIFT, LEAD, etc.) can at least help students be prepared or able to adapt to college curriculum, expectations, and methods.

  3. I really like the way you describe your practice for teaching close reading as a “a developmentally appropriate introduction to literary and rhetorical analysis.” I think this is so key, to think about how students existing knowledge should shape the types of instruction practices you engage in. Of course, for me, once I work to assess student’s current knowledge level, the question always becomes “What I am hoping students get now?” I think that is the question that you have to ask when thinking about SIFT and LEAD and these other very structured practices. One of the things that I think can come out of such tools is that students develop a metalanguage for talking about texts, and this is very valuable.

    Connected to this, I get into fights with people all the time about the 5 paragraph essay. I hate when people say “I would NEVER teach the five paragraph essay!!!” because that suggests that there is only one way to teach it. While I don’t think it is a particularly useful form for my students to use for the essays I assign in my class, it is incredibly useful for talking about the rhetorical functions of essay components. I use it all the time with my students to talk about what specific sections of essay DO, what FUNCTIONS they serve. So yeah, it is once again about the tool, about what we want out of the tool, and about how we use it. To again echo our mantra of the class, it is always about the simultaneous presence of affordances and constraints.

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