Teaching with Reading Lenses: What a Difference a Change in Approach Makes

I’m going to say something truly controversy and unique: teaching literature at the general education level comes with challenges. One of those is teaching students how to read closely, to read beyond and through the surface level. Add in here then the complications of beginning study in medieval literature: unfamiliar language and culture, lack of background in historical allusions, etc. After struggling with these issues and trying different methods to overcome them, I have found one that seems to be working quite well and one that students seem to understand and gravitate towards. This method I call: reading lenses.

At the beginning of the semester, I lead an activity in class called “How to Read and Take Notes” (which can be found here). In this activity, we have discussions about how to read effectively, thinking about what to do before, during, and after engaging with the text. As a part of this discussion, I include a list of approaches to take when reading a text. I refer to them as reading lenses that we can use to read into texts.

Consider different approaches to reading literature. These approaches are not mutually exclusive (in other words, we should look at a text from multiple angles, not just one). A partial list:

  • Plot – what happened, when, and who did it
  • Character motivation – why a character did what he/she did
  • Character relationships – how the characters relate to and interact with each other
  • Societal influence – the values or mores (religious, political, etc.) that influenced the text and/or what the text can tell us about the society in which it was written
  • Societal connections – comparing and contrasting the society of the text with other societies (contemporary or otherwise)
  • Historical significance – the environment (religious, political, artistic, quotidian, etc.) in which the text was written and its effects and/or what the text can tell us about this environment
  • Author intent – what the writer intended
  • Reader response – what the reader can take from the text (whether or not this is the same as author intent)
  • Allegorical possibilities – the symbolic or metaphoric meanings
  • Etymology – the language (words, phrases, translation, etc.)
  • Style – how the text is written
  • Moral – the message of the text
  • Textual connections – how the text connects to other readings

The other part of this activity is an introduction to a note-taking style, Cornell system. As a side note, I include two main examples of note-taking styles: Cornell, a very normal system, and Sketchnoting, a less formal, visual style. During the introduction to the Cornell system, we start to use the reading lenses with the readings for the day and practicing them. I then return to the reading lenses periodically throughout the semester, engaging with them in different ways.

Ways of applying the reading lenses…

1) Select one reading lens to apply: in the first activity, students select one reading lens (besides the plot lens) to apply to our first reading. This first reading in my British Literature I is Alfred’s preface to the Pastoral Care. Students select one of the reading lenses, write in their practice Cornell notes their observations related to that lens, share with a partner who selected a different lens, and then participate in group discussion.

2) Select two lenses to apply: in a later class, students again select a lens to apply in a similar exercise. Additionally, however, we go through the process a second time with students selecting a second lens. This exercise starts to build on the idea that there are different ways to look at texts, and by specifically examining a text through two lenses back-to-back students begin to see the nuances of these various analytical angles. It also begins the process of demonstrating how these reading lenses

3) Think about reading lenses frequently: in various activities, I include the idea of readings lenses, so that they are always in the background. For instance, they appear in the TED-Ed lessons I have students complete before certain classes. I mention them in class when a student’s comment demonstrates a particular lens or when a particular lens would be useful for reading our text at hand.

4) Apply a lens not on the list: in order to prevent students from thinking the list they are provided are the only methods for looking at literature, we add lenses every so often. As an example, when we read Sir Orfeo, I introduce them to disability studies. They practice reading through one of the previous lenses, and then we all focus on the new lens, demonstrating that there are multiple ways to examine a text.

5) Assess the application of reading lenses: the final project for the semester in my British Literature I course (and similar ones in other 2000-level, general education courses) is what I call Course Research. For that assignment, students are expected to select a reading lens for a specific text, define a thesis based upon their analysis with that reading lens, and provide research to defend their thesis.

From Course Research assignment:

  • Select one reading lens from the list in the How to Read activity(may not be Plot lens – you have already summarized!)
  • Identify and define one significant point concerning chosen text based upon your reading through this lens

Since I have integrated reading lenses in this more systematic way, I have seen 1) improvement in students’ textual analysis, specifically in identifying a thesis; 2) improvement in students’ abilities to articulate what it is they are actually doing during textual analysis; 3) increased use of different approaches to literary study; 4) decrease in confusion about how to approach Course Research; and 5) increased articulation by students concerning how they will be able to apply literary analysis to various types of future reading.

 

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