by Alan Sitomer, 2007 California Teacher of the Year
Students are all too often disconnected from the “real world” applications of what we, in school, are trying to teach them. After all, if I had a bitcoin (that’s right, even our clichés are under assault from technology) for every educator who’s ever heard the phrase, “But when am I ever going to use this outside of school?” I’d have a heck of a lot of digital currency (worth, I grant you, suspect value).
Close reading, so “en vogue” right now, is already running the risk of being lumped in with things like Algebra 2, knowing all the elements of the Periodic Table and explicating the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet. (I know, ouch… that last one hurts.)
But there’s a solution for this! A simple one, too. Our answer is to directly explain how close reading is actually a critical tool for success embraced by the titans of industry, the sports heroes who leap off the screen on ESPN and the fat cat one-percenters who make enough money to purchase awe-inspiring yachts.
In fact, who amongst them is not a close reader? (And hey, Mr. or Ms. Student, if you care to be a BIG success in anything you hope to do one day, you’d be well-advised to learn how to become a close reader as well, so listen up.)
Being that the Seattle Seahawks recently won the 2014 Super Bowl, let’s begin with Coach Pete Carroll. Is Pete a close reader of text?
Well, what do you think he was doing night after night in the film room? He didn’t just watch his Super Bowl opponent’s games one time on CBS while eating nachos and complaining about how there are too many beer commercials on TV. Coach Carroll was in the film room hour after hour pouring over visual texts. He was analyzing, scrutinizing, re-playing single plays – single positioning within plays – over and over again in an effort to find patterns, nuances, and seldom seen insights that could unlock a means for his defense to stop a quarterback who was entering the game having just completed the greatest season ever played by a QB in the history of the NFL.
That’s no small feat. Every detail counted, and Pete Carroll knew it. The result of his diligence and tenacity to leave no stone unturned? Seattle ended up crushing Denver and smothering Peyton Manning, something that never would have happened without Coach Carroll’s dedication to closely reading and then closely re-reading a ton of text.
Okay, you don’t think film study counts as re-reading? Well, I’d disagree with your disagreement – and Common Core certainly places and unprecedented emphasis on reading text “in media forms old and new” – but never fear, I have a host of other examples.
Let’s bounce over to math. Does knowing how to be a close reader in the world of numbers count? What if you heard a story about a bunch of guys that started studying the math of banks (i.e. their quarterly financial statements made freely available to the public) and discovered through a close reading of the ledgers that America’s major banking institutions were actually building a house of cards, a Ponzi scheme of sorts, by merely shuffling around risky, junky real estate assets? So what did these close readers do? They bet against the banks (through the casino that is Wall Street; i.e. they shorted bank stocks) and ended up, as a result of their close reading, making hundreds of millions of dollars in a very short amount of time.
Does this suffice as an example of how learning how to be a close reader is actually a skill that transfers quite nicely over to the real world? How about:
- Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh shedding a light on the My Lai Massacre
- Close reading done to get Reggie Cole, an innocent man, released from prison after being wrongly incarcerated for 16 years
- I wonder, is there a more famous close reader than Sherlock Holmes?
- Jay-Z, it might be argued, is a “close reader of the streets”, the scientists who mapped the human genome were close readers of human anatomy, and when I get a boo-boo and go to the doctor, I am certainly expecting him to be a close reader of my illness so that he can provide an apt and expedient cure.
- Steve Jobs closely read the music industry and realized people don’t always want to buy an entire album from their favorite band; they sometimes just want to purchase a singular individual song. So he created iTunes.
- Netflix closely read the DVD market and saw that people didn’t mind waiting a day or two for their movies to arrive in the mail - and they especially loathed late fees. The result: bye bye, Blockbuster (which used to be on almost every corner in America).
- Jeff Bezos did a close reading of the publishing industry and built Amazon.com, Woodward and Bernstein did a close reading of the activities of the White House and President Nixon resigned from the Oval Office as a result, and I launched a my career as a successful YA author by doing a close reading of reluctant readers which lead me to pen books for kids who people promised “would not read.” And it turns out they actually do.
Close reading is absolutely a life skill. Communicating this to our kids in an overt and transparent manner feels like a key piece of the puzzle if we are going to get them to buy in to the hard work of being successful in a Common Core classroom.
All in all, close reading transfers. Where? A better question is, “Where doesn’t it?”