Saturday, November 9, 2013

Close Reading to Gather Evidence and Understand Literary Characters

Taking the Character
Out of the Story

The faster one goes, the more strain there is on the 
senses, the more they fail to take in, the more confusion 
they must tolerate or gloss over--and the longer it takes 
to bring the mind to a stop in the presence of anything.
 Wendell Berry, "An Entrance to the Woods" caption
                It's been such a strange mix-of-extremes-week. Saying goodbye to friends, saying hello to friends I've not seen in over a decade, and meeting new friends. I have temporarily placed student inquiry thinking on the shelf to begin Falling in Love with Close Reading by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts. I am moderating an online book discussion with colleagues1500 miles away. We have just started and I am excited to wade in the deep discussion of the how all of this translates into our classrooms.  I am slow reading this text afraid of missing an important insight while doing lots of thinking along the way.

               Before you begin to read, I beg you to watch this wonderful video on Text Complexity. As I think more and more about close reading I can't imagine selecting books to teach my students the how-to of close reading without a basic understanding of text complexity. Selection of text needs to be spot on to insure a successful lesson.  I think you will find this video fun and informative.

              As I began to read Falling in Love with Close Reading I stopped at page 12 with a strong urge to create my own chart. The one they provide is very clear.  I just needed to grab a pencil and apply my thinking. The authors have clarified what close reading is and have formulated a manageable three step "ritual".
Step 1:      Figure out your focus, or what you are specifically going to look for as you read.
Step 2:    Once you have collected details for the text find patterns. Look for similarities
                          or echoes.  

Step 3:    Study patterns in order to unlock big idea(s) or understanding of text.

So far, this is very doable, wouldn't you agree. For determining purpose for close reading there is a wide assortment to choose adapted from Lehman's and Roberts' book.

What’s your Purpose for Close Reading?
Select a Category & Select Focus
What Types of Details Will You Be Collecting?
Who Are We Talking About?

What is the character saying?
What is the character doing?
What are the character's inner thoughts?
What does the character look like?
How does the character interact with other characters in the story
What is the setting like?
Is the story placed in the present? past? future?
Are there any objects that keep showing up in the story?
      Answers to the questions: WHO? WHAT? WHERE? WHEN? WHY? HOW?
  All Words are NOT Created Equally 

Are their strong emotion words?
What kinds of verbs are being used?
What kinds of adjectives are being used?

A Close Examination

What is the genre?
Does the plot follow the typical pattern?
How does the story begin?
How does the story end?
Does the author use any literary devices?
 Who's Really Telling the Story?
Who is telling the story?
Are there different points of view in the story?

One Size Doesn't Fit All 
       Once these elements have been taught you can easily differentiate by assigning students to focus on more than one element.

               With my newly created menu I can easily see that I want to focus on character traits specifically looking at their thinking, conversations, and actions . Deciding on a just-right text is crucial.  It needed to be fairly complex (hopefully you watched the video), contain strong characterization, and provide some obvious stopping  points. Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman came to mind since there are many short vignettes on 13 different characters allowing me to easily manage a close read. I started out with a two column note-taking device. These are open-ended and easy for the students to use. What has been crossed out on the wonder side are the wonders that have been answered as I read. 

What I Know
What I Wonder
Lives in apartment in Cleveland
9 yrs old
Father has died
Lives with mother and older sister
She seems  brave to go outside
Father died when she was 8 mos old
How old is she?
Is she lonely?
Why are her tears different than everyone elses'?
Why is she planting seeds?
Why is she afraid?

               When I started my close reading of the text, I realized that I needed another column for evidence. I decided it needed to be first since close reading is about working your way through text and charting your thinking as you're reading. In the past, we have come up with ideas first and then gone back into the text to support those ideas. In other words, we would think "WOW!
Kim is really brave." Once we made that determination we might return to the text and find supportive evidence if necessary. Lehman and Roberts are very clear. Gather your evidence or details FIRST. Next, read over your evidence and search out patterns. Once you have discovered a pattern(s) you will be able to find the big idea(s).

Text Evidence
What I Know
What I Wonder
still hoped that perhaps his eyes might move. Might notice me."
"rice and meat offered him were gone."
“I stood tall and scouted”
" Worse, he had no memories of me. When his spirit hovered over our altar, did it even know who I was?"
“In this vacant lot he would see my patience and hard work."
"I would show him that I was his daughter."
"And I vowed to myself that these beans would thrive.”
·         9 yrs old
·         Father has died 
·         Lives with mother and older sister
·         Vietnamese
·         She seems  brave to go outside
·         Father died when she was  8  mos old
·         Patient and works hard
·         Determined
      father was a farmer
How old is she?
Are they poor?
Is she lonely?
Why are her tears different than everyone elses’?
Why is she planting seeds?
Why is she afraid?

               As I look at the details I gathered from reading the first vignette I see a young girl thinking about her father.  She is questioning whether her father's spirit will know her? Through her determination, patience, and hard work she plants and nurtures her seeds in the same way her father would have. What is exciting about close reading is that the process of thinking is honored. There isn't necessarily one right answer.

               Last night I was rereading sections of an amazing book, What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making (2012) by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. This is one of the most important books out there right now.  I would like to close today's blog by sharing a few of the points I gleaned from their book.


Seven Ways to Make Close Reading

More Successful

1. Uncertainty or confusion is to be expected in reading. If authors wanted you to know everything at once, the book would be boring and short. Allow students to grapple.

2. The text is the teacher's tool--no different than a hammer and nails are for the carpenter. We want to teach the students the process of thinking their way through a book rather than teaching them the story. Choose the book wisely.

3. We need to look at ourselves as facilitators of students' thinking. We are not trying to teach them the "right" answer. It is all about processing and their learning how to think strategically.

4. Read Aloud time serves as the perfect venue for us to model the foundations for thinking through a text.

5. Narrative beginnings are very confusing. The reader needs to become acclimated and trust that the author will slowly help us find our way. Authors usually throw out breadcrumbs to help us along the path.

6. If the teachers are asking the questions, the students will become dependent upon us. Let them pose their own questions while they are reading.

7. While reading forward, we need to think backward in order to recognize the patterns the author has created for us. The patterns that will help us to discover the big ideas locked away in the text.


               I know you understand how crazy it is when hunting down information on the computer. If you were not already ADD, you grow into it. This week I thought I would use a new strategy for keeping track of my online adventures. I just kept adding links as I went. Perhaps, you can see the patterns. Unfortunately, there were many wonderful pictures embedded within the information that I cannot directly include. I hope you have time for some exploration.

Using Thinking Notes for Shared Reading
Passing Notes to Share Quotes
***Scholastic's Introduction on Character Traits
Using Music to Improve Close Reading
How to take 2 Column Notes From ASCD Express (using nonfiction)
Guiding questions to help you understand you understand your character better
EXTENSIVE list of questions to help you understand your character better
***BEST resource I found online for Character Analysis
Projects for Seedfolks
Novelinks for Seedfolks
We Already Know Your Protagonists Journey. Do You?

               For more information and ideas on character traits and analyzing characters in narrative texts check out my new board on Pinterest that I created especially for today's blog. Meanwhile, we are all shaking our heads trying to ground ourselves in the reality that it's almost Thanksgiving and wondering where in the heck did 2013 go? Thank you for stopping by and I sincerely hope you found something useful today.  Best wishes for a Happy Saturday.


  1. I have so many thoughts racing through my head as a result of reading this. One of them is with text selection. I am always on the lookout for just the right piece of work. I want to get lots of mileage out of the text that I use. I didn't realize how important this was until I started doing the close reading with my students. The passage I chose was a bit dry and possibly a bit challenging for my students. I then wonder if it makes a difference when teaching close reading to start with fiction rather than non fiction. Does it matter? Would one be easier than the other?

    My mind is swirling now with many more thoughts. I think I need to brew some coffee, retread this post and then look at all of your links. Thank goodness this is a three day weekend. I will need the time to process all of this info! :-)

    1. First, thank you for posting a comment. It always makes me feel like it was worth my time to write a blog. THANK YOU. I think your questions are insightful and probably excellent to start a group conversation with ;)
      I hope I didn't simplify this process too much...but my goal was to make it manageable for teachers. In the close reading book by Lehman & Roberts and and in Chapter 2 they begin discussions on using information text on pg 25.

      Personally, I think teaching the beginnings of how to CR on narrative text might be easier because students have had so much experience with stories and they understand how stories work. This might make it easier for them to focus on a particular aspect.

      I think it all boils down to what we plan on teaching. We need to figure out our lesson focus (standard) and then find our "tools" to best get the job done.

      Again, GREAT QUESTIONS. Cathe