By Jessica Tomer
We often talk about "habits of mind" at Commonwealth—and perhaps no habit more so than close reading. With telling aliases such as "mindful" and "critical" reading, close reading allows you to luxuriate in text in a way quite at odds with the pace of the modern world. You learn to pause, to question, to analyze tone and syntax, to consider context, to examine a single word from many angles. And you are rewarded with insights that often transcend the text.
These habits can be just as helpful in Physics and U.S. History as they are in English classes. But apply them outside the classroom, and suddenly the world's near-constant onslaught of information—much of it engineered to capture our attention in the most superficial ways—loses some of its usually unchecked influence.
"Close reading applies to everything, as far as I'm concerned. It makes you more alive as a human being. And it's not confined to words," says Mara Dale, veteran English teacher and Commonwealth's Dean of Faculty Hiring and Support. Since coming to Commonwealth in 2005, she has trained her students to closely read everything from Maxine Hong Kingston's novel The Woman Warrior to Thomas Cole's painting The Oxbow to ads on the T.
"I stand by this," Mara says. "Careful noticing is a habit, and I think it's a habit of value." And the more closely you look, the more you see.
A Century of Looking Closely
Closely reading religious texts, from the Hindu Vedas to the Jewish Torah, has been around for practically as long as those words have been committed to parchment, but the literary practice as we know it in Western classrooms is typically traced to I. A. Richards and other "New Critics" coming out of the University of Cambridge in the early twentieth century. The method made its way to Harvard, where one of its most influential scholars, Reuben Brower, taught one of its most influential classes, molding a generation of English teachers, including Charlie Chatfield, who brought the practice to Commonwealth in the late 1960s (long before he became Headmaster).
Teacher and alumna Melissa Glenn Haber ’87 lovingly tackled this period of Commonwealth's history in the fall 2011 issue of CM, invoking a cadre of legendary English teachers: "Together, Charlie, Eric Davis, Kate Bluestein, and Judith Siporin...joined with John Hughes and incorporated Brower's ideas into a program that would make sense to untrained (though intellectually promising) teenagers, opening their minds to Brower's 'complete and agile response to words,' encompassing tone, diction, voice, and, crucially, emotional impact." It remains a cornerstone of Commonwealth's curriculum, because, as Melissa noted, "it works."
By the time Mara came to Commonwealth, the aforementioned "elders" she admired had served as bannermen and -women for the school's close-reading curriculum for decades. "I came in, and it was instant love," Mara says. "I was struck by the warmth of the place...and impressed by the people who were teaching in the English department. They were all super sharp but playful—especially Eric [Davis], but all of them in their own way. Irreverent, but very wedded to the work."
Mara now sits at the desk that once belonged to the woman who recruited her: Rebecca Folkman, longtime (pre-Commonwealth) friend, French and film analysis teacher, and "sort of an ersatz mom" to her. Like Rebecca, Mara took up teaching film analysis, and she went on to develop an art history course (much like the ones taught by Polly Chatfield and Judith Siporin, who, like Mara, bridged English and art history with alacrity). Both, Mara says, are natural offshoots of reading closely. "We're doing with visuals what we've been doing in the literature classes," Mara says. "I find that those [art and film] classes are sometimes a way in with kids who maybe aren't quite as comfortable articulating patterns and variations in language, but they're sharp-eyed, and they notice analogous things in visuals. Success at reading visual details can lead to sharper reading of words in English class." Mara's approach earned her the affectionate moniker of "sneaky teacher" from at least one student, who didn't realize how much they learned from her until they looked back at their early writing.
Through no fault of their own, really, today's students have grown accustomed to the Internet's instant answers, which can breed both impressive natural content filters ("They're much more sophisticated consumers than I was at their age," Mara notes) and a more facile way of thinking about and looking at the world (something adults are hardly immune to). Still, despite the noticeable whittling away of attention, teaching isn't "any less energizing-slash-exhausting" now than it was twenty-odd years ago, Mara says, and her classroom is largely as it was in the early aughts: just students and a teacher and a text. No cell phones allowed. "That feels important," she says, "a way of reinforcing and reinforcing that sustained attention." And you can see that attention take root. Students' "body language is different when they're engaged," she says. "Are they all engaged always? No—but they really often are. And there's something very special about seeing a kid, head cocked, intently looking at words."
Tuning the Antennae
A student may walk through Commonwealth's doors a voracious reader already deeply curious about the world; close reading hones those habits into something more powerful and empowering. "The job, especially in ninth grade, is to have them slow down and truly pay attention, word by word," Mara says. She starts with simple exercises, such as writing a series of synonyms on the board: abdomen, tummy, stomach, belly. Though the differences imbued in each word quickly become clear—a toddler talks about a tummy ache; a surgeon prepares an abdomen for incision—the act of stopping to think about those differences is often quite novel to students. "It's awakening another set of antennae," Mara says, "to detect and notice and hear as they read."
Moving on to poetry, a form well-suited for close reading given its compactness, students soon pick up on things such as the prickly sounds in Ted Hughes's "Thistles," full of words with Germanic Norse roots that "stand out or demand to be listened to," evoking the savagery of a Viking battle. Mara still uses several "beautiful and interesting, and syntactically challenging" Shakespearean sonnets to warm students up before introducing them to pieces such as Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," a sonnet that evokes the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V to paint the U.S. as a battleground for Black men facing the unrelenting onslaught of racism.
These texts are complex, but there's less ambiguity, because ninth grade English is for "nuts-and-bolts sort of noticing," Mara says. In subsequent years, they meet Zora Neale Hurston's Tea Cake, wind through Joyce's Dubliners, and sit with Shakespeare's Hamlet, turning their antennae to longer works and learning to discern which passages deserve further attention, so they can tackle behemoths like Moby Dick in English 12. "You're still building in moments of close reading," she says, "but you're also expanding and stepping back and maybe returning in a richer way to the ideas of themes." Building on their close-reading skills over four years of Commonwealth English gives students "layers of reference," Mara adds. "The toolbox is bigger."
Mara and her fellow English teachers embrace Polly Chatfield's policy of introducing students to a wide variety of texts, which has only broadened over the decades as more contemporary and diverse voices have been brought into the fold. "We've never taught things chronologically," says Mara. Rather, teachers "throw things at [students] from all over the place" to "exercise their imaginations." But close reading isn't just untethered imagining or free-associative brainstorming. Some interpretations are simply wrong. "The other beauty of our classes is that they're discussion based, so you've got a whole cast of characters working together to come up with an interpretation—a cohesive, coherent, complete response that is true to the text, supported by textual evidence," Mara says. Other students often "come to the rescue" in wayward discussions, building on earlier observations in a (usually) generative way. Mara, as their guide, likes to "make things feel as playful and as collaborative as possible," interjecting with course-correcting questions as needed. ("But what about the line that came two lines before this? How do you reconcile those two things? Can you?")
"Inviting kids to be playful but invested feels important, because it takes energy to read in this way," Mara says. "There are different ways of paying attention and enjoying something. And it's not that close reading isn't enjoyable, but it demands sustained attention and active thinking." An advisee recently told her, "'[Reading] is so much fun now, because I can both do the close reading and just pick up my beach book.' Kids who haven't had the training likely couldn't make that distinction," Mara adds. "And they certainly wouldn't have the language to describe those two different ways of experiencing a text."
Close-Reading the World
"Being a close reader isn't confined to the classroom," Mara insists. "That's where students sharpen the skill of noticing, but it's also about just being open to the world." No one is unencumbered by biases, and, wittingly or not, we already create narratives and make judgments, from the seemingly innocuous to the profound, based on what we observe. Close-reading habits help students "catch themselves" in those moments and take a step back.
"I like to think that our cultivation of close reading as 'a habit of mind' teaches kids to sit with ambiguities while remaining impartial, neutral, open to the possibilities, before making up their minds or coming to judgment," Mara says. "Doing so leads to more nuanced textual analysis, but may also—I fervently hope–help to shape human beings who are careful, respectful listeners and can imagine points of view other than their own, even if they don't necessarily agree with them...It doesn't hurt to be able to dismantle a sloppy argument, either, which is something our kids love to do."
More traditional approaches to close reading often leave out real-world contexts, Mara says. In her classes, "students get the critical slice-and-dice surgical analysis, but then there's this human lens—the context, the history—that informs how you hear the words that are being used. And I think that's incredibly moving," she adds. "For some kids, that's the first time close reading feels truly meaningful, because it's about a human being they can imagine in a particular place and time." Even though this approach helps students imagine worlds outside their own, Mara notes that the English Department has discussed ways to guarantee that students needn't imagine all the time—meaning they should be able to recognize experiences comparable to their own reflected in the books they read, authors they study, and characters they encounter. "I've had students tell me that they appreciated reading about families resembling their own in, for example, a short story about immigrants to the United States by Lan Samantha Chang," Mara says.
So what do you do with those observations in the "real world"? "I hope that we build in the kids a particular kind of skepticism that doesn't look or feel like cynicism but is just a healthy way of listening and attending," Mara says. "Acknowledging implicit biases while aspiring to open-mindedness as the frame of mind with which you encounter a text—or, by extension, an argument, or a situation, or maybe even a person—feels key. One of the messages [of close reading] is that you can intentionally pay attention." Take a longer look at real-estate listings, for example, and you might notice language that signals everything from realtor spin to outright discrimination. "Cozy" might just be code for "cramped," but what does it really mean when an ad for a home talks about its "desirable neighborhood"? Desirable for whom and why?
Those powers of perception all flow from the same questions: "Who's the narrator? Who's the assumed audience? Whose language is being used? Who is being excluded?" Mara says. "You can't really get to the answer of those things without at least some close reading." And by doing the asking, students learn to hear the unsaid.
Jessica Tomer is the Director of Communications at Commonwealth. This article was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.