My eighth-grade students read to master literacy standards. Though this goal is always on my mind, I prefer for my students to forget they are reading as a means of doing school. I want them to read for the sake of story, not school; to understand the world, not a lesson.
It is these goals I keep in mind as I select texts for close reading. I seek out texts that will engage my students first as humans, trying to navigate life as eighth graders on the cusp of young adulthood.
Next, I look for texts that have layers. A text with depth will allow for natural differentiation. I don’t need a tic-tac-toe board of activities at different levels if we are working with a text that can be entered on multiple levels, depending on student need.
My intentional hunt for layered text is one reason I gravitate toward picture books as a middle school language arts teacher. Reading plain text is a different experience from reading text accompanied by images. Whereas a less experienced reader might read images to support his comprehension of the text, a more experienced reader analyzes images to seek connections between images and text to extend his understanding of a text beyond the meaning of the words alone. The simple act of rereading a text, adding the layer of images on top of words, can have a profound effect on a reader’s interpretation of its meaning.
One text with many layers is Shaun Tan’s “The Red Tree,” which can be found in his picture book anthology Lost and Found. The language is poetic. “The Red Tree” is about a day that begins without anything to look forward to and that grows more and more hopeless as it unfolds. Yet it ends with something bright and vivid. The titular red tree is found only in images, not the text. To guide students through a close reading of this story, I start by typing out just the text of the story. I mimic the line breaks of Tan’s original text, and begin new paragraphs to indicate the page breaks. Each student is given a copy of the plain text on which to make annotations.
Before reading the text aloud for the first time, I point out that it is written by Shaun Tan and remind students that we have already read another one of his texts, “The Lost Thing.” This prompt helps activate any background knowledge students may have about Tan’s style. It also helps students approach the text with more confidence: they know the experience of reading this text will be similar to that of a text they have already tackled. I provide an authentic purpose for reading, one that does not use the school language of a learning target. Instead of asking students to identify the theme and use textual evidence to support their response, which is one of my goals for their work, I explain purpose in terms that I hope will appeal to them as humans. I ask them to consider whether the overall message of this text is positive or negative.
I read the text aloud the first time, to model fluency and give all readers an opportunity to interact with the text. After reading, I invite students to respond by asking if anyone has any thoughts. Again, my words are intentionally free of “the language of school.” I want responses not from students, but from readers. One reader describes that he pictured a boat all alone in the middle of the water. I ask what words prompted him to think of that image, and he explains it was the part that says, “You wait and wait and wait and wait . . .” Another mentions that she pictured a red tree at the end where it describes something “bright and vivid,” clearly carrying the meaning of the title into the text itself. It is common to begin our discussions by unpacking what readers visualize. If readers are quiet or the text is especially complex, I may invite response by simply asking what the text is about. Mental movies and retelling are comfortable entry points into text and open the door for deeper thinking.
After we hear from a few readers, I ask everyone to go back into the text and reread through the lens of word choice. Specifically, I request that readers underline any words that feel negative and circle any words that feel positive. This time I am asking them to be very intentional about their purpose, looking at what they marked and writing their initial thoughts about whether the overall message of this text is more positive or more negative, and why. Again, I invite a few readers to share their thoughts, focusing this time on the evidence to support their ideas. Because the bulk of the text focuses heavily on negative ideas, but the ending is ultimately positive, responses are mixed. The indecision as a group makes taking yet another look at the text seem like a natural next step, as opposed to an assignment.
Once we have read the text for meaning and reread for word choice, I project Tan’s original illustrated copy of “The Red Tree” using either a document camera or photos of the pages in a slide show. This time, readers are looking for additional evidence to support their positions or new evidence that might change their opinions. This time the attention to detail leads to a rich discussion and multiple viewings of the illustrations. One reader points out that the image of a red leaf is visible on every page, so we return to each page to hunt for it. Another reader expresses her belief that this is evidence of the overall positive message: the leaf is a symbol of joy or hope that is present even though it is unnoticed. There is still some disagreement about whether the constant image of the leaf is enough to balance out the negative words and images.
So, naturally, we read the text one more time. We view a version I discovered on YouTube where the text and images are accompanied by music, which offers another layer of meaning to interpret. I have included the link below. Readers search again for evidence to support their current position or the opposing stance on whether the overall message of the text is more positive or negative.
At this point, most of the readers in the room have begun to form possible statements of theme, recognizing that to determine whether the message is positive or negative they have to identify what the message is. I am almost ready to ask readers to state their final position (likely including a statement of theme) using textual evidence to support their thoughts. However, there is one more layer of meaning to reveal: the author’s position. Many readers believe that there is a right answer to the challenge I have posed. hat is why it was like uncovering treasure when I realized that at the end of Lost and Found, Tan has included his thoughts about each of the stories in the book. About “The Red Tree” Tan says, “I intended my paintings to be honest reflections, without any didactic or moral message, and open to multiple interpretations by different readers.” In other words, Tan created a story with multiple layers to provoke many interpretations, the perfect text for close reading multiple times.
You can view a YouTube version of Shaun Tan’s “The Red Tree” at this link.
Additional Texts with Multiple Layers for Close Reading
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein is the Caldecott-winning true story of Philippe Petit, who walked on a high wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Starting with the plain text, I ask readers to describe Petit’s actions in a single word. Disagreement over whether Petit’s tightrope stunt was courageous or crazy is often the focus of this discussion. As we continue digging through layers, readers adjust their descriptions based on new evidence or deeper understanding. The images in the picture book provide perspective views that demonstrate the true height of the wire. Then we watch a video that includes actual photographs of the events in the story, bringing another layer of reality to the story. Finally, his TED talk allows readers to understand Petit’s perspective before deciding for themselves how to describe his actions.
B by Sarah Kay was first performed as spoken-word poetry, but can also be read in this picture book format. It begins, “If I should have a daughter,” and continues to list the things Kay would teach her daughter. When reading the text, I ask readers for whom they think Kay wrote B. Responses might include her future daughter, young people in general, or herself. After reading the picture book, which includes soft pencil sketches to accompany each lesson, readers revisit their initial thoughts. Before concluding for whom Kay might have written B, readers view her spoken-word performance of the text at the start of her TED talk, which ends with Kay’s journey into the art of spoken word.
“The Lost Thing” from Lost and Found by Shaun Tan is a story about finding a home for something that is lost. When we read the text, I ask students, “What is the lost thing, and how do you know?” Although this sounds like a pretty simple question, it is one that will elicit different responses each time we close-read another layer of the text. Based on the text alone, readers tend to draw conclusions based on their own experiences: a dog, a cat, a turtle. A creative thinker might venture into guessing an alien. With the support of Tan’s images of the lost thing as a sort of robot/creature, readers are forced to find ways to describe it. By the time we view the short film, some readers have usually made the leap to symbolic meanings for the lost thing.
“Eric” from Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan is an illustrated short story about a foreign exchange student. This text works much the same way as “The Lost Thing” and makes a great follow-up to a close reading of it. While reading the text, I ask readers to visualize what is going on: where the foreign exchange student is from, what he is doing on his visit. After the practice of reading “The Lost Thing,” readers make the leap more easily to symbolic representations of the foreign exchange student’s experience when viewing the images that accompany the text.