One night, after reading a picture book to my son, I asked him what he thought of the story. He told me he liked it because he could learn a lot from the main character. I thought this was an interesting perspective because children don't often mention things they can learn from fiction books, especially once they really get into non-fiction at school.
Later in the week, I was attending a book study. The book we are reading, Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts - and Life by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts, discusses the idea that by teaching students to read closely (basically to really look at characters and analyze their lives, problems, and dialogue within the structure of a text), we can teach them to live their lives with what the authors call "caring understanding."
These two events served to demonstrate to me that while I teach my students to look at plot structures, conflict, resolution, character traits, setting etcetera, I don't always do a good job of teaching my students to look at literature as a record of human experience. I don't spend enough time teaching them how to learn life lessons from characters in books. When I think back to my schooling, some of my favorite classes were taught by teachers who showed me how to examine novels in order to grow as a person, not simply to write a paper or pass a test. Yet, this is something I feel I have missed teaching my students.
This revelation combined with the book Falling in Love with Close Reading has me looking at teaching literature in a new way. In the past, I thought close reading was simply a strategy for reading non-fiction text. I have recently begun to reevaluate my old ideas. Thanks to a partnership with a great classroom teacher in my school and the close reading book mentioned above, I have ventured into teaching close reading using the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
The fifth grade students in the class I am working with have read several chapters of the book Wonder. In groups of two, students then analyzed their notes to find patterns in the character's words, thoughts, and actions. Finally the students discussed their thoughts about the character with one another before writing independently. Students were then expected to use a model, sentence frames, and their notes to create a character analysis paragraph. The work that the students produced was both academic and insightful. This is not the type of thinking I typically got in the past when teaching kids about character traits. Now that we are trying close reading and working to help students examine literature as a reflection of life, we are getting better thinking, and thus, better readers!
I am thankful to these books for igniting a spark in to me to change some of my previous thoughts about reading instruction. I am thankful to the wonderful teacher with whom I am working to try out this new (or more likely, new to me) approach. But mostly, I am thankful for the students who have so willingly joined me in this close reading journey! Ultimately, I hope this approach will teach them a little about reading and a lot about life!
Image by Kelly Sikkema via Creative Commons.