Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Review: The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement

Title: The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement
Authors: Thomas Newkirk
Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0325037318
Pages: 224

Two dear teaching friends recommended this book to me. They have been completing a collaborative study of the book together and found a lot of “meaty” ideas in this book that have translated into their own teaching practice and then their articulation of practice. Using a reading workshop approach in their classes, these teachers have slowed down to read with their students and incorporated the six time-honored practices that Newkirk advocates. As I browsed through the table of contents, I can't say I was surprised by his suggestions of how to slow down and appreciate reading and learn more from reading, but like Burke's Reading Reminders and Writing Reminders, it is always good to be reminded of good habits!

Why slow down? The first part of the book makes the case for slowing down our reading to hear the author's voice, focus on single ideas, be in dialogue with the text/author and do more than just comprehend the text, but internalize and act on text. Newkirks traces the history of our current reading curriculum that values “fluency”, otherwise known as fast reading, over expressive and aesthetic reading. “To read a book . . . is an act of perseverance” (p. 36) in that the reader has to attend to the words, plot and context over time. Too often, we have a dueling consciousness – awareness of the time we are in while thinking about the time we are planning to be in. We have become so accustomed to the time pressures of school – timed tests, unit plans etc. - that we accept is as part of life along with the underlying ideologies that faster is better and the Bell Curve of ability. However, “being slow means that you control the rhythms of your own life” (p. 24 quoted from Carlo Petrini of the International Slow Food Movement) and it allows readers to get aesthetic appreciation and personal pleasure and connections from their reading, rather than a process of retrieval of information. Newkirk than re-animates six time-honored practices of slow reading.

Performance - Oral storytelling has been the foundational method of teaching and learning throughout the world and ages. Even with the advent of writing and the printing press, texts were still often read aloud and reading was a truly social event with essays, poetry, and readings being a highlight of any party. Silent reading is a relatively new phenomenon. O'Brien (1922) identified three types of readers – motor, who physically formed the words; auditory, who mentally imagined the formed words; and visual, who imagined the content of the words. The visual reader was more efficient, which began the movement to silence vocalization of reading. Efficiency was then linked to measurement (timed tests and DIBELS) and a belief the meaning is inherent in the text. However, Newkirk argues that it isn't the technical qualities of texts (like structure, thesis and transitions) that engage readers, it is the voice of the author. To slow down and focus on this voice, performance of reading needs to be re-introduced.

Memorization – Memorizing a passage or poem allows the reader to mediate on it and it becomes part of the reader. Most religious traditions take advantage of this method to help the novices think deeper about religious texts. Newkirk provides several examples of classroom lessons focusing on memorization through repetition by researching family proverbs/sayings or by encouraging students to learn and tell jokes. From my own experience, I would have to agree with Newkirk that there is value in memorizing texts that are personally meaningful. When I was in Army Basic Training, it shocked me how I was able to recall the things I memorized during childhood and this sustained and supported me through 10 mile hikes and 5 am PT runs.

Annotation – By annotating and marking up a text, the reader is taking responsibility for determining the meaning of the text. Writing is an intentional act with cues given in the title, openings, scenes, descriptions and subheadings. As readers, we need to pay attention to the cues. But, texts are not determinate – we will not get the exact intention of the writer, who may have had multiple intentions. Different readers find different patterns of significance (p. 117). Making the text your own by marking it up, allows the reader to have this dialogue with the writer. In educationese this is often called “active reading”.

Problematizing - “I am convinced that a crucial measure of intelligence – and by extension, reading – is the ability to work through this initial discomfort of situations that don't make sense, when our habitual patterns of understanding don't do the job” (pp. 119-120). When a reader gets to a difficult text, there are generally two choices – give up or struggle and find a solution. When a reader has learned to be helpless – ie the problem is a deficit in me, this deficit is unchangeable, and it is global – then, often the reader will give up. However, with a mind-set that intelligence is not something you have, but something you do then difficulties are opportunities to stop, reassess, and employ strategies for making sense of the problem.

Reading like a Writer – “Writing is, after all, an act of slow reading” (p. 10). Writers tend to be slow readers, like Francine Prose and her wonderful book, ReadingLike a Writer. Writers will savor and then deconstruct a great text to find out what makes it work. Again, Newkirk gives a few classroom examples of lessons. For example, giving students a text full of voice and de-voicing it (making it ordinary) or re-writing but just changing the punctuation.

Writing about Text - “We rarely simply comprehend, a word with root meanings of “grasp” or “hold. We act on it in some way – we explain it, teach it, quote it, perform it, evaluate it, analyze it, allow it to call up associated experiences and ideas. We create alongside the writer” (p. 170). Writing in response to reading fills in the white space between the words – that empty space that is filled with what the reader brings to the text. Newkirk evokes Johnston's (Choice Words,2004) prompts that extend thinking:
  • Alternative thinking – What else? What other ways?
  • Empathizing – How do you think she/he felt?
  • Causation – Why?
  • Hypothesizing/speculating – I wonder … What if?
  • Comparing – It's like …

When it comes down to it, we read for pleasure and meaning. Everything else - testing, career or global competitiveness etc. - is tangential. However, when those other things become the focus, the meaning and pleasure of reading is discarded. Which results in a situation where, “If we teach a child to read, yet develop not the taste for reading, all of our teaching is for naught. We shall have produced a nation of ‘illiterate literates’–those who know how to read but do not read” (Huck, 1973, p.305).

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