Close reading – observing the stylistic details of a text in order to analyze an author’s use of language – is a skill taught in almost all college literature classes. Often, I describe this to students as collecting the data that we will eventually use as the evidence to support an interpretation of the text. This is slow and messy work that involves reading a poem or passage many, many times. It involves continually checking in with ourselves to ask what feelings these phrases are producing. It involves frequent pauses to look up the etymology of a word, ponder a punctuation mark, or get lost in the depths of a metaphor. And precisely because literary language is so complex and unwieldy, I have found that the more eyes and ears that tune into a passage, the more far-ranging, nuanced, and unpredictable are the observations we collectively generate.
In this blog, I describe one of my favorite in-class activities for teaching literature: collaborative close reading. Collaborative close reading involves breaking the class into small groups and passing short excerpts from a text around the room. Each group annotates the passage, making their marks and weaving a colorful web of observations atop the author’s words. While social annotation platforms like hypothes.is are all the rage, this activity kicks it old school, requiring no more technological savoir faire than managing a photocopy machine (which, admittedly, can be quite temperamental).
In most of the classes I’ve taught, the first step is always teaching students how to annotate: how to notice the peculiarities and perplexities of literary language in its efforts to estrange readers and push us to think differently about the world. I first developed this activity several years ago based off of a suggestion by Queens College Professor Carrie Hintz, and I have come to use it in every literature class I teach. I use it in classes with roughly 25 students, and it takes about an hour and a half, though I’d love to hear how others adapt it for different settings. This activity works best once students have been introduced to the concept of close reading and are ready for some hands-on practice.
To prepare for class, I select three-four of the richest, most complex, and thematically-significant paragraphs in whatever text (usually a novel) we are reading. It works best if the passages are 6-7 lines, no more than a paragraph. I scan or photograph these passages and blow them up so that each passage gets its own piece of paper. It’s important that only the passage and the page number are on the paper, none of the surrounding text, and that the printed passage leaves plenty of white room around the margins for students to write on. I number the passages (passage 1, passage 2, and passage 3) and print several copies of each. I also bring colorful highlighters and pens for annotation.
In class, students are placed into groups of three-five, with four being ideal. Often, I end up with six groups of four-ish students, who I then place into two clusters. Within each cluster, one group starts with passage 1, another starts with passage 2, and a third starts with passage 3. I ask them take out their handouts and course notes on what close reading is and how to do it.
The following instructions are then shared with the class (most recently, we were discussing Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel The Woman Warrior):
I encourage students to write directly on the passage and remind them that no observation is too small. The initial step of close reading is always paying attention and observing what is going on in the passage: how language is being used to do things. It is only later, once we’ve generated as many observations as possible, that we start sorting through to determine which will become useful for analyzing the text (in relation to its genre, historical moment, or literary movements, depending on the focus of the course).
After each group has had 10-15 minutes to annotate their first passage, students pass the excerpt to the next group. The passages circulate around the room, and steps 1-7 begin again.
By the time the passages have made their ways around the room, they look something like this:
We often laugh about how, by the time the last group gets a passage, it seems as if there’s nothing left to annotate. And yet, if you let students sit with the passages long enough, even if the conversation strays to weekend soccer games and chemistry exams, they almost always return to the text and see things they didn’t initially.
After each group has seen all the passages, they should end up with the passage they initially began with.
Part two of this activity challenges students to sort through all the observations the class has collected, identifying connections and patterns among them, and testing out which might lead to an interesting interpretation. At this point, I encourage students to open their books, locate the passage, and start thinking about how it fits into the larger novel as a whole.
Students then spend roughly half an hour crafting and revising their thesis and writing a one-paragraph interpretation of their passage. The “data” or observations they’ve collected become evidence to support their thesis, allowing students to practice sticking closely to the text. As they analyze the evidence, I encourage them to refine their thesis, thus practicing the kind of writing and thinking I ask them to demonstrate in essays. As they develop this new skill and questions inevitably arise, students are often able to answer them for each other, and I’m always on hand to clarify. Without fail, students find that the paragraph they write together is stronger than if they had tried to go about it alone.
Finally, each group reads their paragraph aloud so we can see what became of all those annotations. It’s especially fascinating when two groups write vastly different interpretations of the same exact passage, underscoring the richness of literary language. Afterwards, I provide feedback on students’ paragraphs, modeling the kind of comments they will receive on their essays.
There is nothing I love more than wandering around the classroom listening to students debate the complexities of Kingston’s language. Collaborative annotation helps students move from summarizing a text to analyzing it. It also involves more introverted students who may be hesitant to participate in full-class discussions. And it helps students get to know each other, forging bonds that they later draw on when they have questions about the course. In short, collaborative close reading takes one of the most difficult skills to teach and learn and turns it into an opportunity to create an inclusive classroom community.