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Complementary Reading for Better Writing
In the summer between school years, I had more time to read everything: books, news, magazines, journals, even the back of cereal boxes and also it was because I have not been buying essay that time. Summer reading time was relaxing and filled with variety mysteries, long fiction, and a stack of New Yorker magazines I didn’t get to in May and June. Initially, I treated this reading as, “My Time.” I read actively with a pen in hand, but my margin notes and underlines were just me being me. Truthfully, I rarely went back to them come September.
But then, I started to rethink about the great reading I did and how to model engaged reading for my students when I met them in the fall. My classes were just a short time away. I didn’t WANT to be thinking about my curriculum, but how could I help it? I liked teaching from fresh reading that I recently read and here was a great trove.
I began to focus my reading and pay attention to passages or articles that especially caught my attention. I asked questions such as “Is the description of a setting particularly special, unique, or similar to a novel I know I will be teaching in the coming year?” OK so maybe not in those exact words but that was the effect. Planning and reading a guidebook for a trip to the Delaware beaches, I thought of Lord of the Flies. NSA spying in the news (and The New Yorker), hello Orwell and 1984. An Elmore Leonard book on tape of describing Detroit, Native Son. I began making connections everywhere. Now what?
By first focusing on reading, I use comparisons to teach my students writing. I knew student’s won’t fully appreciate Golding’s paradise until they knew the destruction the boys cause by the end of the book. Sparknotes provided all the students needed if I asked them to analyze the setting as idyllic after they finish Chapter 1. I pulled out the guidebook to Delaware beaches and copied out the pages (now I could use Trip Advisor, I know). I asked my students to compare the writer’s descriptions, their use of adjectives, and the varying tone of practicality that the author’s provided. We then discussed the audience for these two texts, the author’s purpose, and the stylistic differences. I had student’s edit the guidebook to make the beach and surrounding area more idyllic without changing the reality of Delaware to help them understand the setting of Lord of the Flies. Was this assignment designed to improve their reading or their writing?
Focusing on style, description, and tone when we read with students is about close reading. But making the link to writing is where my students applied what they learned. To make that application, they needed to understand the purpose of both texts and be able to manipulate language to reflect the difference. When it did come time to write more substantively, this was an assignment I had students reflect on prior to writing. I found that to teach reading and writing separately was to deprive students of the very tools they need to improve their own writing.