Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

ac·a·dem·icadjective \a-kə-ˈde-mik\ having no practical importance; not involving or relating to anything real or practical.

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Currently, I have three seniors on track to certify as secondary English teachers doing extended field experiences in local schools—one is placed in an eighth-grade ELA class and another is teaching college-bound students in a high school.

While observing at the middle school, I arrived early one day while the full-time teacher was finishing a discussion of Walter Dean Myers’s Monster. The teacher had to cut the read aloud short, and one student begged for him to continue reading. The teacher asked for the books to be passed forward, prompting that same student to ask to hold on to his copy so he could keep reading (the teacher arranged for the student to retrieve a copy later, by the way).

In the high school class, the teacher-to-be has been teaching poetry by Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath—I observed a wonderful discussion of Plath’s “Metaphors”—but the full-time teacher has stressed that students not be offered biographical background information so students could focus on reading the texts cold—in part, as preparation for Advanced Placement Literature testing.

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An essential element in the ELA Common Core standards is “close reading,” endorsed by David Coleman (now president of the College Board, home of AP and SAT testing):

Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the text.

Although “close reading” is a relatively new term, I have noted that its foundational elements are essentially perpetuating the dominant literary analysis focus of public education throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, New Criticism.

As Ferguson explains, “close reading” is only part of the literacy approach needed by students:

Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”…

Critical literacy argues that students’ sense of their own realities should never be treated as outside the meaning of a text. To do so is to infringe on their rights to literacy. In other words, literacy is a civil and human right; having your own experiences, knowledge, and opinions valued is a right as well. Despite praise for King’s rhetoric, Coleman promotes a system that creates outsiders of students in their own classrooms.

“Close reading,” then, is reading out of context—and ultimately, it isn’t reading at all because the reader and the world are rendered irrelevant.

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Prompted by an analysis of people of color in children’s books (what Christopher Myers calls “[t]his apartheid of literature”), Walter Dean Myers examines his own journey as a reader and then a writer in Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?

Myers recalls finding books and reading in his mother’s lap, which led to comic books and eventually what many would consider classic literature:

But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read. I was a person who felt the drama of great pain and greater joys, whose emotions could soar within the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play, or find quiet comfort in the poems of Gabriela Mistral. Every book was a landscape upon which I was free to wander.

The first part of Myers’s story appears nearly idyllic, and could have served as an argument for requiring all students to read the canon, the Great Books argument. But when Myers’s family experienced “dark times,” he concludes:

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

And although Myers struggled against his own personal “dark times”—”My post-Army days became dreadful, a drunken stumble through life, with me holding on just enough to survive”—he did discover James Baldwin:

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

Ultimately, Myers’s journey is a story itself, a story about the context of reading, the humanity of reading, the inescapable web of reader, writer, text, and world:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

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Late to the party, I finally read 1Q84 a few years ago, setting off a passionate love affair with the writing of Haruki Murakami.

I have read all of his books and am now awaiting the English translation of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. As I typically do, Murakami has a bit of a shrine on my office book shelf:

Murakami books

Until I began reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, however, I was missing a very important element in my love of Murakami’s work. Unlike Myers’s recognition of himself in his discovery of James Baldwin, I did not think about my Self in Murakami, who is Japanese and a generation removed from me about halfway between my father and me.

Since Running is part memoir, I began to see comments by Murakami about his essential nature—claims of his true Self that speak very much to me as well as about me. Murakami, despite the details of our races and our histories, share many traits that I am convinced are at the root of my love for his fiction.

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I was also late to the Breaking Bad party, and coincidentally, I was reading Murakami’s Running while I was just getting to Season 3 of Breaking Bad. So I was taken aback when the character Gale Boetticher shared with the main character, Walter White, how he came to cook meth—a journey of rejecting the merely academic world of science for the magic of the lab.

To fully explain his reasons, and despite his embarrassment about his being a self-proclaimed nerd, Boetticher quotes Walt Whitman:

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

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I am reading Murakami’s Running and pausing again and again as his confessions of his true Self are ones I too could make—confessions about solitude, about assuming others will not like him.

But I am also struck by Murakami’s comments about formal education:

I never disliked long-distance running. When I was at school I never much cared for gym class, and always hated Sports Day. This was because these were forced on me from above. I never could stand being forced to do something I didn’t want to do at a time I didn’t want to do it. Whenever I was able to do something I liked to do, though, when I wanted to do it, and the way I wanted to do it, I’d give it everything I had….

If you’ll allow me to take a slight detour from running, I think I can say the same thing about me and studying. From elementary school up to college I was never interested in things I was forced to study….I only began to enjoy studying after I got through the educational system and became a so-called member of society….

I always want to advise teachers not to force all junior and senior high school students to run the same course, but I doubt anybody’s going to listen to me. That’s what schools are like. The most important thing we ever learn at school is the fact that the most important things can’t be learned at school. (pp. 34-35, 45)

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It is 1943, and English educator Lou LaBrant is deeply concerned about the teaching of language in a world combating Hitler:

Today in a world of hyperbole, it is easy to make sweeping statements and to have them accepted. We must therefore be cautious when thinking of our work. Teachers are, by the nature of their work, largely outside immediate war activities. They spend their days with children, whose greatest contribution will be made after the war….

Far too often as a people we are led astray by orators or writers whose words sound fine and smooth, but whose meanings are false, shallow, or misleading. We make their path easy when we approve essays, stories, or poems which are imitations or are full of words used for the sake of sound. (pp. 93, 95)

It is 2014, and I am deeply concerned that LaBrant’s warnings are as significant today as teachers of English face the “sweeping statements” of “orators or writers whose words sound fine and smooth” in regards to Common Core and “close reading.”

And I am certain her criticism of how books are assigned rings true today:

Too frequently we give children books which have enough value that we call them “good,” forgetting that there are other, perhaps more important values which we are thereby missing. It is actually possible that reading will narrow rather than broaden understanding. Some children’s books, moreover, are directed toward encouraging a naive, simple acceptance of externals which we seem at times to hold as desirable for children. (p. 95)

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Close reading of books assigned to children, books in which children cannot find themselves, is reading out of context, it is merely academic, and without the magic—”I was lifted by it,” Walter Dean Myers says about Baldwin—our students will likely “bec[o]me tired and sick,/Till rising and gliding out [they will wander] off by [themselves],” concluding that teachers, schools, and books have no meaning for them.

Close reading and de-contextualizing books will, I fear, contribute to more of Christopher Myers’s denounced “apartheid of literature”; instead, he asserts:

The children I know, the ones I meet in school visits, in juvenile detention facilities like the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Maryland, in ritzy private schools in Connecticut, in cobbled-together learning centers like the Red Rose School in Kibera, Nairobi — these children are much more outward looking. They see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed….

So now to do my part — because I can draw a map as well as anybody. I’m talking with a girl. She’s at that age where the edges of the woman she will become are just starting to press against her baby-round face, and I will make a fantastic world, a cartography of all the places a girl like her can go, and put it in a book. The rest of the work lies in the imagination of everyone else along the way, the publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all of us, to put that book in her hands.

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42 thoughts on “Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

  1. Pingback: Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. Pingback: Reading Out of Context: "But there was something missing," Walter Dean Myers | Educational Policy Information
  3. To be honest, the image with the Murakami books pulled me into this post. I have read maybe 3 or 4 of his books, and each one produced such strong visuals in my mind that I almost can confuse them for my own memories sometimes. Anyway, what you quoted him saying about formal education is very interesting. I agree with it. I enjoyed your post!

  4. This is a fantastic critique of New Criticism. This is the first time I’ve heard the term “close reading” which sounds both scary and absurd in it’s use with high schoolers. Perhaps New Criticism is rearing it’s ugly head again with new branding. Anyway, thank you for such great writing and insightful thoughts about reading.

  5. I’ve been away from the classroom for a while but have recently found myself– through some sort of misguided and self-destructive altruism — in a long-term substitute position, with one of my classes “below standard,” which I am co-teaching with a first-year teacher. This week I watched helplessly as two of the most frequently suspended students actually responded to one of her questions (yay!) with a slightly off-the-mark response (well, they tried). Given their backgrounds, it was a response that could and should have been dignified and perhaps steered toward something more “correct.” She told them they were wrong and stopped just short of accusing them of derailing the lesson intentionally, a prophecy they were more than happy to fulfill.

    I didn’t read “Sonny’s Blues” until college, and I probably couldn’t have appreciated the exposure to a life experience so far removed from my own until then. Likewise Their Eyes Were Watching God, yet in both I found some commonality with some aspect of my own humanity and experience. On the other hand, it was close reading that got me through upper level Shakespeare and helped me to appreciate the beauty of the language.

    No answers here. I just wanted to say that I appreciated the food for thought.

  6. Very very insightful!
    Once I saw the title of this post,Murakami instantly came to my mind.Bizarrely last week I was adding some of his books to my wish list: Kafka on the Shore,Birthday Stories and Norwegian Wood.
    Oddly enough,again,I too was late to join the Breaking Bad party…and I’m currently on Season 3! I only have the two last episodes remaining …

  7. I’m sorry, I couldn’t read most of the article because I was just too ready to fume. “Close reading” is insanely close-minded. It counteracts everything historians try to promote: contextualization, awareness of interconnectedness, relation of knowledge to present realities, etc. etc. If I hear of any teachers in my school promoting “close reading,” I’m going to ask the history department to declare war.

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  9. This is fantastic. I was always taught to at least understand the context in which the story was written, if not to then apply the actual text to the context of today to see how it still applies, or how the meaning changes. I cannot believe schools would choose not to teach that way. Just another bad mark for Common Core – and finally, one in a subject other than math.

  10. Congratulations on freshly pressed.

    I enjoyed it, even if I got lost running around the track with a Japanese author who did not like school.

    Wayne
    Luvsiesous.com

  11. I have several things to say about this. I think there are positives and negatives to the “close-reading”/New Criticism approach. On one hand, students should be taught to find context and legitimacy for their arguments within the text itself. There is something to be said for allowing the author to create the world of the story and not attempting to superimpose facts about the author’s life or other external things onto the text. Then again, that’s ridiculous and impossible, unless you’re a robot with blinders on, and students should also be taught to view a text within multiple larger contexts and from different angles. They should, really, be taught several types of lit crit.

    And they should always be encouraged to make connections between their own lives and the lives of the characters they read, even when those connections are antithetical. A life-long love of reading is not built upon knowledge of lit crit or the ability to dissect passages, identify devices and make inferences (although making inferences is a way of engaging). Critical thinking skills, however, can be built upon those things. There should be an equal balance of reading for the joy/connectivity/love of it and also being able to analyze a text.

    • Of course, but the historical problem with NC and the more recent “close reading” is that they become the ONLY way to view text—and students aren’t even made aware that other ways of knowing text exist.

  12. Well, I have a love-hate relationship with Haruki Murakami. Whenever I finish a book, I feel lacking. Like the ending has cheated me. Maybe I just don’t like the way he ends his stories. It’s always hanging. But I still read his books because I can relate with him so much. Nice post!

  13. From my years of schooling, the only thing I had learned was that school isn’t about learning. I can’t count the number of classes I had that reinforced the need to memorize. However I could easily tell you the classes I took that encouraged making the connections to learn the material instead of memorizing the answers. Our education system (in America) is broken, and at most a formality that “needs” to be completed in order to achieve “success”. If it weren’t for reading, I would’ve given up on school.

  14. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. I continuously strive to build context for my students as just about everything I’ve ever read about being a good teacher focuses on building connections between the content, the student’s current world, and the student’s future world (i.e. why is it important or relevant to study this?). I’ve never thought of close reading as separate from critical reading. Thanks for highlighting the issue and making me aware.

  15. Pingback: National Poetry Month: “What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” | the becoming radical
  16. As a senior in college who is also studying Secondary English Education, I. LOVED. THIS. Thank you for sharing. My favorite college professor was the first person to stress the importance of background knowledge and context. Now, I find it much more challenging to truly grasp a concept or understand a viewpoint without first having context such as the author’s biographical information. My senior project is a series of creative writing pieces expressing my frustration with the VERY flawed education system. Common Core was a good idea in theory, but sometimes its implementations don’t exactly coincide with the way we work best. With all the psychological research that has been done on how we learn best, I am majorly confused at how an entire education system can still be so off-balance to fitting our needs.

  17. Pingback: Free Reading Redux | the becoming radical

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