Observation of Texts: the Missing Skill

Magnifying glass with infinite focus

My students like to complain that literature is full of hidden meanings that they just can’t seem to get. Many of them think that I’m holding out on them, and that class would be over so much more quickly if  would just go ahead and tell them all they need to know about the text.

But I’m not going to do that.

After a few years (I know, I know. It takes me a while sometimes) of teaching through Costa’s Levels of Questions, I realized something.

Students were making mistakes on Level 1: The Literal Level

Allow me to demonstrate:

Several years ago my students were having a whole-class discussion over John Donne’s poem, “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God.”  I was listening and transcribing the discussion, but their conversation wasn’t progressing.  In fact, it was moving in some quite strange directions.  I knew that this was one of the rare times when I would need to step in and try to figure out where their understanding was breaking down.  I also know that 17th century poetry is difficult in terms of its diction and syntax, but its meaning is pretty straightforward.  Here’s a rough, memory-enhanced transcript of that experience:

Me:  Okay, I think we need to back up to the beginning of the poem and try to work through this a little more slowly. Maybe let’s start with the first line.  “Batter my heart, three-personed God.”  Okay, what does that mean?  

Students: Silence. Sheepish looks.

Me:  Well, how about the word “batter”? What does that mean?

Students:  More silence. More sheepish looks.

One brave student, finally breaking the silence: Umm, like a cake?

This was not a matter of failure to grasp hidden meanings.

Students assume that they need help understanding what is deep about literature, but I would contend that the majority of their interpretive mistakes happen on the surface.  Often they don’t understand all the words or they cannot deconstruct the grammar.

Then I realized something more.  My students seemed to resist going back into the text, where they could easily solve their interpretive issues.   They weren’t looking up unfamiliar words or taking note of interesting textual details.  They simply were not reading carefully, and, not surprisingly, their interpretations suffered. Their struggles were not demonstrating an inability to discover what was not said by the text, but what was said.

I knew that I needed to both encourage (okay, insist) students to go back to the text, and then I had to teach them to what to look for.  They needed to know how to make careful observations of what was actually in the text rather than reading it once and assuming that the meanings were hidden and mysterious and therefore unattainable.

I needed to teach my students to be careful observers of the text.

In the book Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquirers, Short, Harste, and Burke cite the work of Vera John-Steiner (1981) who “interviewed and investigated persons who were thought to be near geniuses in their fields of study. One of the things that characterized these people was their intense powers of observation and concentration” (1996).  If I want my students to become expert readers, my time could be well spent working to enhance their powers of observation.

Have you also noticed that your students resist going back to the text to observe?  What are some strategies you use to help them be more careful readers?

Short, Kathy Gnagey., Jerome C. Harste, Carolyn L. Burke, and Jerome C. Harste. Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquirers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996. Print.


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