The Five Corners of the Text: Close Reading and Personal Experience

close reading button "The four corners of the text" is a hot button phrase in close reading right now. Pulled from The Publishers' Criteria, a troubling behind-the-scenes document shadowing the Common Core that has caused many educators to speak out, (like here, here, and here), the phrase is meant to describe a close reading experience that contains itself within the words on the page - and nothing else. While the Publishers' Criteria, and thereby authors David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, do not claim that every bit of close reading should only concern itself with the four corners of the text, the document does say clearly that this kind of reading is what we should "strive" for in our teaching.

We should "strive" to keep our own experiences out of the way. We should "strive" to unclutter our reading with background knowledge.

Some argue that this is just a corrective measure, that the intention of this "four corners" philosophy is not to fully actualize its meaning but instead to just shift the course of teaching away from what David Pearson wonderfully calls "constructivism run amok," by which he means the tendency of kids and teachers to settle for somewhat sloppy connections that do little to improve understanding of the text. You know, like when you ask what kids are relating to or connecting with, and they say, "I like cats too," or "I have hair." (I can see his point.)

But, even giving the Publishers' Criteria the benefit of the doubt and assuming its intention is simply to nudge us away from bad text-to-self close reading work and towards a more rigorous, text-based curriculum, we still have to disagree that our primary purpose should be, when close reading, to strive to only "focus on what lies within the four corners of the text."

It's just so, well . . . square.

I suppose in most cases the page is a rectangle, but you get the idea.

I was always more of a pentagon kind of girl, myself.

pentagon

If the words on the page are the "four corners of the text," then my experience and knowledge must be a kind of "fifth corner."  To ignore that angle, to not help our students understand, as Louise Rosenblatt argued, that every reading of a text is a transaction between the text and the reader's unique point of view, flattens our reading, removes the depth, and erroneously teaches that there is an objective, authorial meaning that you will always be able to discern from the text.

Flat, "four corners" close reading will not be enough for our students - it will not fuel their engagement to learn and innovate, it will not develop their critical thinking, it will not even at the end of the day help students to achieve higher marks on ever evolving test questions.  Only by holding what we are reading in the text against the "fifth corner" of what we know and have experienced can we create truly close, engaged readers.

I mean, when you think about it, it's not really that our experience is a fifth corner jutting out rudely to the side of the text. It's a little more like this:

pyramid

Here, the four corners of the text becomes the base, the foundation, that which makes it possible to build towards the apex of the pyramid, which is the meaning we make of the text based on our experiences. When it all goes right, this feels more like a kind of close reading I can get behind.

The question is, how do we get it all to go right?  How can we teach our students to use their experience to help them closely read a text so that this outside influence syncs with the four corners of the text rather than repels off of it like a supermarket bouncy ball?

This is a big idea. Here at indent, we strive to take the big ideas of education and break them down into the bits that help make those ideas a reality. With that in mind, here are some moves that might help us become powerful "Five Corner" close readers.

Close Reading within the Five Corners of the Text.

1. Rate how much you relate. How closely this text intersects with your experience  will determine some of the work ahead of you as a reader. As Donna Santman taught me years ago, at times a text is  like a mirror - that amazing experience of reading and feeling like this book knows your life and your heart. Other times it's close, but not exactly the same, like one of those fun-house mirrors that distorts your reflection. Other times, you can't relate at all really, and your reading experience is more like looking out of a window. As a close reader, you could annotate a text and think, discuss, or jot according to how closely you relate:

Mirror (M): You relate to this part. So, what does that tell you about what the character is feeling or thinking? How does your experience help you to understand the inner life of the character? If you are reading nonfiction, and you know a lot of the background, how does that help you understand the information here more deeply?

 Fun House Mirror (FM): You sort of relate to this part. So, pay attention to the differences. What is different about this character's experience from what you experienced? Say, they have more support form others, or less. Or the circumstances are almost the same, but not quite. Note the differences, and then think a bit about how those differences affect the character, story, or article, especially when thinking about the bigger ideas of the text.

Window (W): You do not relate. Like, at all. But you can still empathize. Step back and name the emotions of issues faced in this text. Make sure you name the exact emotion, if you can. Don't call it "fear," call it "panic," or "nervousness." Then, remember a time when you felt exactly that way, as in "I felt panicked when I saw my cat run out into the street when a car was coming," Now, how does that help you to understand what is going on in the text more deeply? Like Abby, who, when reading The Things They Carried, noted, "He must feel like screaming and crying in the battle, like I did when my cat ran out into the street, but he can't, he has to try and be strong to survive."

2. Know what you don't know. Background knowledge goes both ways. There is what I know as I read and then there is what I do not know. Powerful "five corner" close readers are alert to anything that they may want to research or find out about. Like say they are reading a book on the Crimean War during summer vacation for some reason, (true story) and the book keeps mentioning Potemkin, but doesn't really say who he is. That person should probably look him up if she doesn't want to be totally confused. (Which she did, and wow.)

3. Pay attention to the little things. Often, when we are bringing ourselves to the text, we think in broad strokes. "I had a friend lie to me too," or "I've been to that place!" But we have found that a close, detailed read of the text, intersected with a close, detailed read of our experiences and knowledge, brings the deepest results. Read instead looking for the little things that you know well, like how the disapproving look in a parent's eye is one that you have felt on you before, or how you know the smell of fresh cut grass, the way sunlight glitters on broken glass.

Let's not forget, as we reach for ideas like "rigor" and "text-based" and yes even "close reading," that the most important part of reading is the reader.

Big Idea: Close Reading        Tiny Detail: Incorporating personal experience w/ text based reading

Francie's Notebook Page :)

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Your Turn!

What are your definitions or what you consider misuses of “close reading”? What have we gotten right in our’s or what would you revise? Have you experienced misapplications of the term? What have you done or are now thinking you could do about these misuses? What new ah-has or questions are you thinking through?

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