We are often amazed by the ways excellent books can teach us lessons about close reading. Of late, we’ve been thinking about the ways the “volume” of our assumptions about a text can drown out what the text actually says.
In a recent professional development session with a group of intermediate teachers, we read aloud the book 50 Cents and a Dream by Jabari Asim. This picture book, beautifully illustrated by Bryan Collier, tells the story of young Booker T. Washington’s aspirations to learn to read and become educated in spite of the obstacle of being black in the mid-late 1800s. In this particular session, we only read the first few pages and asked the teachers to share their ideas about Booker’s personality and Booker’s life. The teachers keyed in to many important aspects of Booker’s personality, saying things such as, “He was determined” and “He persevered.” They spoke about his life, saying things such as, “He worked hard” and “His childhood was depressing.”
Then we gave teachers a copy of the text and asked them to work with partners and record evidence from the text that supported their ideas. They worked eagerly and happily, jotting lines from text on post-its and lining them up next to the idea that it supported. When the teachers were done working, we stepped back and looked at the chart they had created. Many ideas began to emerge, including how well Jabari Asim had woven proof of Booker’s perseverance into the text. There was one thing, however, that we couldn’t ignore: There were no post-its next to “His childhood was depressing.”
The teachers were stunned to see this and immediately wanted to look back to see if there was something they had missed. They looked and looked again and discovered that the idea they had about Booker’s childhood being depressing originated with their own feelings and ideas about growing up as a slave and being prohibited from learning to read. They assumed that when Jabari Asim mentioned slavery, a depressing existence would be implied in the text, but when they looked, they just couldn’t find evidence to substantiate this claim.
Why? Because when Jabari Asim wrote about Booker T. Washington’s childhood, he painted a portrait of hope.
Authors write stories and compose text because they hope to shape and change the thinking of their readers. When readers’ assumptions are out of balance with authors’ intentions, text doesn’t serve the purpose for which it was intended. This reminds us that when we read, and when we teach children to read, we need to pay attention to the “volume” of our assumptions. When they are too “loud”, it’s hard to reconcile our ideas and biases with those of the author, making it difficult to harness the power of reading.