A Day in the Life of a Close Reader

We are almost at the end of our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading! We invite YOU to join in! Find more on how-to here. Several selected posts have already been linked to on the Contributors page and we are looking forward to your addition. Let’s closely read the practice of close reading together! close reading button

In our book, (which is coming out next week - October 17th!), Chris Lehman and I offer lessons and ideas for helping students to become more powerful and independent close readers of texts -  both fiction and nonfiction texts, both print text and media. But we also argue that close reading is not just something that we do when reading, it is a basic human skill -  a skill we link to the ability to love. We encourage you at the end of each chapter to consider not only how the work in this book challenges us to think about texts, but how we can use these same moves to reflect upon and "read" our lives more closely. As we write in Chapter One:

We know, in our bones, that loving something or someone involves knowing that thing or person very well. Returning to it repeatedly, gazing at it for hours, considering each angle, each word, and thinking about its meaning.

Hence the title: Falling in Love with Close Reading. In order to love something or someone - whether it be your partner, a poem or your remodeled pantry - you must know the object of your love very well. You must read it closely, paying attention to every detail, letting those details be your teacher. We argue that it goes the other direction as well, that in the process of choosing to look at something or someone closely - by choosing to see the details and by choosing to reflect on them - you can create a love that may not have been there before. Chris and I believe that the skill of reading our world closely allows us to live richer, more beautiful lives.

So I decided to do an experiment: I would spend an entire day as a close reader of life, and share what insights I find. Here are five moments from my day as a close reader:

1. Time - see what's become of me?

I kicked off my close reading day with coffee, looking at my schedule, feeling the now common tug of stress and excitement when looking ahead to a full, action-packed day. Because it was 5am and because I had not had much coffee yet I almost forgot my purpose - to read everything closely - but I remembered in the nick of time. I thought, 'Wait. Why would I read my schedule closely? What could I get out of that other than a huge headache?"

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Then I remembered a blog post Chris wrote awhile back about how what we spend time doing reveals what we value, and that we should spend more time doing what matters most to us. And so I read my schedule a little more closely, looking for the details of how I spent my time. I noticed that my time was mostly spent doing one of three things:

1. Working.               2. Writing.             3. Seeing friends.

Now, each of these things matter to me. I care about my job, the schools I work in, the teachers and kids. Writing has become a huge part of my life, and my friends fill up my life and give me the energy to do the rest of it. But as I looked more closely, I saw that there were some things not on the list - some things that matter too, or in some cases, matter more that what I was spending all of my time doing:

1. Marriage/Romance.           2. Exercise.             3. Tending to my spiritual life.

Of course, my intention is always to fit these things in - to find an hour here and there to go work out, to wake up early and meditate, to remember to bring home flowers, or be sweet, or have an impromptu dinner date. But isn't it true that these are the first things to go when we are faced with a busy week?

As I sat in my living room at 5am, now fully caffeinated (thank you, Lord Coffee), I realized that when you look closely at the way I structure my time, it doesn't seem like I care as much about the things that actually mean the most to me - my partner, my health and my spirit. That has to change, I thought, and I went to work balancing my schedule - erasing a writing night and putting "date night" in its place, writing a quick email to cancel dinner with a friend so I could have one quiet night at home, writing in the times I would exercise so I would be sure to do it.

In our book, Chris and I focus a chapter on reading closely for the structure of a text. In this moment, I read my life closely for how I structured my time, and found that some important changes could be made to live more of the life I want to live.

2. Look for the signs.

One of the joys (and hardships) of my job is that I go to a different school every day. Today I was walking to a school 30 minutes from my house. I have walked this path at least a hundred times over the years. But today I was reading closely. All of a sudden my walk was a journey of inside jokes, absurd truths and beautiful details. I could not possibly write everything I noticed, but here is one example: I walk through a neighborhood that is in between two fancier neighborhoods. Over the years people have tried to make this neighborhood fancy too, but it just hasn't stuck. As I walked through the streets reading my surroundings closely, I saw signs like these:

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The word choice struck me all of a sudden as both inviting a certain demographic while also gently mocking them. The Yuppy Puppy is more obvious - yuppy is not really a compliment, but signals to people that perhaps here you will find the organic dog biscuits you are looking for (says the girl who buys her cat organic cat food). But it was the choice of the word "haven" that fascinated me. "Haven" means a place of safety and refuge. I started to laugh. Is the store a haven for juice in a land of pizza parlors and bodegas? Is it a haven for the aforementioned yuppies? What exactly is the danger surrounding this "haven for juice and yuppies?" High calorie count? Non-organic juices and dog biscuits? (Says the girl who buys organic peppers.) I began to see this neighborhood as advertising the tension of store owners who want the business that comes with gentrifying but who also resent, even slightly, what comes along with that influx of "yuppies."

In our book, we focus a chapter on studying the word choice in texts. Of course, words are all around us. Reading the language we use closely can help us to be in on the joke.

3. Reading Between the Lines.

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I mean. . . really? I like having 5 trees, but do you really need a plaque for that? And I kind of think a trash receptacle is actually an expectation, not an add-on. Ahem, anyways, moving on. . .

4. Speak Softly...

So I'm at work, talking to some teachers I like and respect and feel comfortable with. We got talking about testing. All of a sudden, I realized that almost every other word I uttered was the F-bomb. Just a torrent of filth, really. Now, I am sure this has happened before and I haven't noticed it (please don't tell me if this is true). But today I was reading my life closely and I noticed. And stopped. And said to my colleagues, "I am so sorry that I am cursing like a sailor. Please forgive me." (I think they may have been disappointed that I stopped.)

The words we speak matter. Reflecting on the language we use, how we describe things, the tone in our voice helps us to be the best part of ourselves, but it takes a whole lot of close reading to notice and to change.

5. Embrace the Moment.

When I got home from work, our 17 year old cat, Hutch, was in a state. His thyroid issue, his deafness, his general age has made it so that he becomes delirious at times, meowing what we call his "rage meow," running through the apartment like wildfire, and, most charmingly, vomiting. I wasn't in the mood. (A few more F-bombs may have escaped my lips.) But then I looked at him - my faithful friend. My cat who puts those articles about the aloofness of felines to shame. My pet who feels like a part of my heart.

He is thin now. I call him 'my bag of bones.' His muzzle is gray, his teeth starting to decay. He kind of smells funny, and his rage meowing literally wakes me up four times a night.

But I put these details next to the past 17 years of his companionship - the way he ran to greet me at the door every day like a dog. How he liked to jump up into my arms and rub his face against mine. How he used to follow me from room to room before his hearing went. How he sleeps on a pillow above my head and in the night I can feel his paws patting me from time to time. How he is this perfect balance of wanting to be near you but not wanting to be on you like some cats.

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The closely read details of now - rage meow, vomiting, no sleep - can only live truly next to the legacy of my time with him. When I read something closely, I don't want to only focus myopically on what is in front of my face, I want to place that close reading next to something - in this case the other moments I have spent with my sweet Hutch.

Chris and I spend some time in our book thinking about how we can closely read a text in the company of other texts, and how that comparative work helps us to see the bigger picture of each. My time with Hutch is in the last chapter. I owe him not only his present tense. I owe him the perspective of his whole life.  After all, he has been reading me closely for 17 years.

Closely Reading Texts, Closely Reading Lives.

There are many more examples - moments I spent with kids and read their expressions differently because I was paying closer attention, a time noticing the way a teacher spoke dismissively of her kids and challenging her language, an evening with my partner where I listened more deeply to her stories from the day. There were more signs on the way home, more things I saw in myself and in my life that I could change or appreciate.

It was wonderful. It was exhausting. I don't think I will do it again. For just as no one can closely read a whole novel, our entire lives are not meant to be so closely examined. However, the ability to zoom in on special moments, either from the texts we read or the lives we lead, is an important one. Chris and I hope that our book helps you to teach your students to read texts more carefully, more analytically, but we also hope that it will help them - and perhaps you - to see their own lives differently. To find the moments that deserve a closer look, and to focus in on the details, seeing what wisdom they have to offer. Like this graffiti outside of my supermarket suggests, the future is ours to make what we want of it, but we might have to start paying closer attention to the little things in order to help it shine bright:


Big Idea: Life                                       Tiny Detail: Reading Life Closely

Kate and Maggie