Friday, December 16, 2011

"The Art of Slow Reading" by Thomas Newkirk

"I am a slow reader. There, it's out." Thus begins Thomas Newkirk's excellent book The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement. 

I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I read Newkirk's confession for I, too, am a slow reader, a reality that seems to surprise my students and others. After all, aren't English teachers suppose to be fast readers? Aren't we suppose to devour books at the speed with which others scarf fast food? Isn't our value as a teacher somehow measured by the sheer number of books we read each year?

I've long lamented the snails pace of my reading life, and it just seems to get slower as I get older. I like to savor books; I like going slowly and even going back when I sense I've missed something.

Among the gems in Slow Reading, here are some of my favorites:

Chapter 1: "About Slowness"
  • "To read slowly is to maintain an intimate relationship with a writer" (2).
  • "Reading is the making of a deeper self" (3).
  • "In all good writing, even informational texts, I am in the presence of a teller, a narrator, a guide" (5).
Chapter 2: "The Speed Curriculum"
  • "The standards movement has...failed in its primary mission--to focus, to direct attention to essentials, to concentrate effort" (30).
  • Teachers are not powerless against "technological determinism" and its "alterations of cognition" that "challenge traditional practices in reading" (36). 
  • "We an reclaim resourceful modes of reading, born in times of scarcity. We can learn to pay attention, concentrate, devote ourselves to author. We can slow down so we can hear the voice of texts, feel the movement of sentences, experience the pleasure of words--and own passages that speak to us" (41).
Chapter 3: "Reading goes Silent: Performing"
In this chapter Newkirk challenges readers to heed "sound cues." Readers should heed the role punctuation plays in cuing readers. An interesting analysis of silent reading suggests that readers can recapture in silent reading the skills used by ancient, oral readers of "sacred texts."

Newkirk invites teachers to use methods honed in British secondary schools during the 1970's:
  • Teachers, learn to read orally in ways that convey textual meaning to students. "Provide a model of the way good writing can sound, the rhythms and emphasis" that interprets meaning. This teachers students an "internal performance" techniques (61-62)
  • Teach excerpts of great literature for oral reading. Students may not be able to handle all of Crime and Punishment, Newkirk's example, but exposure to snippets from classic texts at a young age prepares students for the reading they'll encounter later. 
Chapter 4: "Learning by Heart: Memorizing"
  • Memorizing creates a storehouse of prior knowledge, and "reading is highly dependent upon prior knowledge" (75). 
  • "We need information to be internalized, to be part of our long-term memory, if it is [to] be useful" (75). Availability on the internet and via reference books isn't good enough to give students ownership of information. "My ability to write is totally dependent on the ability to make these memory scans," writes Newkirk (76). 
  • "Memorization is also a pledge of allegiance, an act of loyalty and deep respect, of affiliation" (76). 
  • By memorizing, we are "claiming a heritage" (77).
I am increasingly convinced that the marginalizing of memorization has had a detrimental affect on student writers. Students simply lack the prior knowledge they need to generate ideas for writing.
To promote memorization, Newkirk suggests students: Memorize proverbs. Memorize canonical sentences. Copy out passages. Learn and tell jokes.
                                                                                                                                                              Chapter 5: Making a Mark: Centering  

Take notice. That's the theme of chapter five and Newkirk's challenge to readers. "Much of what we read, virtually all of it, drifts into the background. We are left with 'what we notice,' with what strikes us as significant, central, memorable..." (94). So how do readers take notice? Newkirk offers some of my favorite ways to focus students, to encourage them to notice what's in a text:
  • text code
  • annotate
  • find key words (diction)
I have already used the following teaching idea from Slow Reading, and attest to their effectiveness at generating discussion:
  • Pulled Quotes: Think about the ways magazine articles draw readers into a text by hilighting a quote from the article. It's a hook. I used this with the opening letters in Frankenstein
Chapter 5 may be the book's most important one. In it, Newkirk reminds us to read the opening passages of a text carefully, for in these pages we learn the kind of reader we will be and the roles writers invent for us as readers: "In effect, openings teach us what kind of viewer we will be" (100).

As readers, our challenge is to adopt "an attitude of suspended conclusion" (John Dewey qtd. by Newkirk 105). This makes me wonder whether having students predict endings serves them well. Does predicting ever de-center students' reading?  

Chapter 6: "The Pleasures of Difficulty: Problem Finding"
  • "I am convinced that a crucial measure of intelligence--and by extension, reading skill--is this ability to work through this inital discomfort of situations that don't make sense, when our habitual patterns of understanding don't do the job" (120).
In recent years I've met many students who have "learned helplessness," students who see themselves as unable to work through difficult reading material. I am challenged to find ways of guiding students through the hard stuff in books.  

Chapter 7: "A Writer's Choices: Reading Like a Writer"

Newkirk offers some fabulous teaching ideas I'm looking forward to trying: "The Great Type-Out" in which students actually type a few pages of text, mark it up, and discuss the writer's craft in a written response (143). "Wrecking a Text" will hook students by its name alone; it's a modification of fractured classics (150).

Chapter 8: "Opening a Text: Elaborating"

My students had an epiphany when I showed them Montaigne's annotations and asked them to follow Montaigne's lead and annotate a writing circle response in such a way that they, like Montaigne, included more detailed information in their annotations than in their original responses. "Often Montaigne used is additions to add greater emphasis and imagery to the points he is making" (Newkirk 178-179).

Each day teachers ask students to open a book. The Art of Slow Reading challenges us to take time as we lead students in "opening a text." Enjoy the read, and don't forget to take your time.