By Casey Christenson
“Yeaahhhhhh, a close reading. So, liiiikkkkkeeeee, what do you mean?”
Inevitably and understandably this is a strategy I must visit and revisit with my students each year. This time it’s while I’m handing out photocopies of Barbara Ascher’s “On Compassion,” and it has only been about twenty-four hours since the last time I was asked to explain my expectation. “It will probably look different for each of you. It’s evidence of your engagement with the text. It’s kind of like having a conversation with a piece of writing.” I’m always okay with the uncomfortable looks on my kids’ faces. What does a close read look like, and more importantly FEEL like, for a seventeen-year-old anyway?
When I consider how intimidating it must be for a young reader to personally engage with a piece of writing, I remember what it felt like to stand on the Folger stage for the first time. Sure, I’d probably read Hamlet’s lines at least two dozen times on my own and with my students, but standing on the stage where actual performers became Hamlet was incredibly overwhelming. How was I, in all my non-actor ways, going to BE Hamlet and deliver my lines to the beautiful Ophelia? Enter prompt book assignment stage left.
Paul Robeson’s prompt book for Othello. (Image: Folger Shakespeare Library)
As my partner Chasidy and I read through our assigned script together, our observations and questions came naturally: How would Hamlet say this? What would he be doing? What would Ophelia’s body language say? The experience was about nothing more than piecing together what we knew to be true about our beloved characters and bringing them to life as we came to know them. Our own past encounters played a role, but our prompt books were the evidence of OUR conversation with Hamlet.
My week at the Folger reminded me of how vulnerable we can be with a text if we so choose. Our experience with a piece of literature is so incredibly personal. I’m grateful I got to be a student again and was reminded of the process that opens us up to the worlds our favorite writers create for us.
Do my students fully understand this amazing process? Not so much, but if they realize it’s less about the grade, and more about implementing a strategy that will enable them to having a potentially meaningful conversation with the works created by some of the greatest writers ever to put pen to paper, I’ll take a smudged, over-highlighted, but closely read, photocopy of “On Compassion” any day.
Casey Christenson teaches AP Literature and American Literature at Northview High School in Johns Creek, GA. She was a participant in Folger’s Summer Academy 2015 during which time she felt a lot of feels. Casey is human to two dogs, two cats, and two frogs, likes the color blue, and thoroughly enjoys writing ridiculous biographies about herself.
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