This summer, issues surrounding the Common Core Standards have been like a spiraling vortex in my mind. Each week as I facilitate a new group of educators through the standards (which by the way, for me do include the appendices), I am confronted with questions that challenge the College and Career Readiness Standard 10.
“How,” teachers ask, “can we expect students to read complex text when they lack the experience or prior knowledge to understand the complexity of the text?” What teachers are really asking me is how they are to teach texts without first foregrounding the reading in historical context, author’s reflection, and critics’ responses. No, I’m not putting words in their mouths. This is what teachers want to know because for years they (excuse me) “we” have been teaching literature from a historical-social lens that seemed to demand we know the times before we read the literature. However, I posit that turning our approach around, though seemingly radical, is useful from a teaching and learning perspective. Can we not look at the literature, conduct a close reading of a text based on what we know about close reading and then use that text to draw conclusions or inferences about the time in which it was written or about the voice behind the text, whether that be the author or not? I would argue to assume that context must precede close reading is to imply that the given text has no autonomy when removed from the contributing factors that brought it into being.
Let me provide an example. Consider Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” cited by the CCSS in Appendix B as suggested reading in ninth-tenth grade band. Though it may difficult for you, I ask that you disregard prior knowledge about this document; strip the name of Lincoln from your mind and willingly suspend your knowledge of the Civil War. Once you have agreed to this temporary condition of naiveté, read these words and consider four questions: 1) What does the speaker explicitly state as the purpose for this occasion? 2) What comparison or analogy is most prominently developed throughout this text? 2) Why is this analogy important to the overall meaning of this text? 4) In light of the analogy developed, what is the actual and yet implicit purpose of this text? (Find my annotated close read at the end of this blog post.)
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
I’m not prescribing this as the only way to read the “Gettysburg Address.” I have read from other enraged bloggers that there are several takes on how to conduct a close reading of this famous text (though I confess I haven’t seen them myself. But, can we agree that in order to conduct a close reading of a text we need little of the compendious historical background most students are inclined to receive prior to reading this document? Don’t mistake my meaning here; students need an understanding of the Civil War and of Lincoln’s true motivations, but they don’t need it in order to read and understand the text, at least in one way. Perhaps, rather than leading with the background, teachers should lead with a cold, close reading AND THEN move into the life and times of the text, consequently using the literary text as a touchstone to history rather than the other way around.