The Close Read of Your Life – By Regina Kim

In the late 80s, between teasing my spiral perm and watching actual videos on MTV, I spent most of my time reading and reading things that I loved.  There are many texts I  returned to repeatedly throughout my life—some simply because I was  required to (thoughts of a poem my fourth grade class was forced to recite pop into my mind) and others because I loved them and maybe still do love those texts. For me, after finishing my homework and spending time in those “required reading”  texts, I immediately opened a book or turned on the TV to return to texts I was passionate about. Like, Dirty Dancing.

Ok, so maybe I am a little defensive, but believe it or not, I don’t see my 50+ viewings of Dirty Dancing as a waste of time. In fact, I think re-watching, re-listening to, re-reading, and, most of all, re-thinking about, nearly any self-chosen text is one of the most valuable things a reader can do.  The return to a text that you don’t care about often means a return to the recitation of the words or a literal retelling of what the text means (think about how many students can recite the Pledge of Allegiance but have no clue what it’s about), but a return to a text you love means being curious–asking questions like, “why did she say that?” or “what did he mean by that?”.

We all liked Dirty Dancing from the start because it was scandalous for our conservative-private-school-attending selves (Uh–that isn’t 6 inches between those dancers! Leave room for the Holy Spirit!), but as I continued on my own to watch and think and talk to others about it, I began to see more in it.

Recently, after seeing it was being released for the 25th anniversary of the film (!), I took a look at and was insulted to see this reductive summary—“ Spending the summer in a holiday camp with her family, Frances “Baby” Houseman falls in love with the camp’s dance instructor Johnny Castle.” My young adult heart screamed. That’s not what this movie is about! What about the class struggles? The coming of age story? Father/daughter relationships? Misunderstandings and good intentions? Don’t you remember Robbie the waiter and his copy of The Fountainhead? It’s a story about people’s fundamental differences in worldviews!


“The Lift.” So symbolic.

You see, the first time I saw Dirty Dancing, it was about two people falling in love. But only after parsing through the film and thinking about each part and its meaning did I begin thinking about what the film was really saying, and perhaps more importantly what I thought about what the film was saying, and perhaps most importantly of all, how differently I thought about things each time I left the text. My ideas were a work in progress.

So, what does my obsession with this movie have to do with reading and writing workshop?  Here are some takeaways.

1)    A few thoughts about choice: Close reading happens more naturally when students are enamored with a text. In my case, the movie didn’t have to be Citizen Kane, and in your students’ case, the text doesn’t have to be  Hemingway.  A student will more likely see the value in close reading if the text resonates with them from the start, even if he or she doesn’t know why. So even if you begin a unit on close reading with some joint texts or previous read alouds, ask students to return to a text that they think merits a return to.

2)    A case for picture books: You probably don’t have enough time to reread a chapter book a dozen times the way I watched a 100 minute movie dozens of times. There are so many picture books that are wonderful to read, re-read, and pick through with a fine toothed comb. What about Duck by Randy Cecil? Sure it’s about a duck who mentors a “real” duck at first glance, but I’d bet you’d return to it again to figure out the symbolism of the scarf or how this reminds you of Eastern philosophies on raising families. Check out short stories too! Tried and true: stories by Sandra Cisneros (A Rice Sandwich), Cynthia Rylant (Slower than the Rest), or Gary Soto.

3)    Give them lenses to look through: Close reading strategies begin with retelling clearly, but move quickly to interpretation by using lenses such as word choice, structure, setting, and more. Consult Christopher Lehman’s and Kate Roberts’ Falling in Love with Close Reading for more ideas.

4)    A case for digital texts, images, non-print texts, and non-narrative texts: Even quicker than a re-read is a re-look or a re-watch. Watch a video. A simple commercial. You can use different lenses to analyze these texts—how is the artist/director etc using color to convey meaning? Body language? Objects? Music? Video, images or other image-heavy texts  are quick and more accessible for some students, but can be used to really help students see how looking closer at texts can yield so much rich thinking. Or how many of us really show our students the value of a re-read in science, math, social studies or other content area? Primary sources are terrific fodder for close readings.

5) The Life Work of Close Reading: I believe that we are most moved when we feel we know something well and have lived with it for a while.  When we embrace a text so deeply, we will explore different thoughts, challenge old thoughts and confirm others; we will notice that messages are not always conveyed in broad strokes and large banners but in the subtle, nuanced decisions authors and artists make. And so we hope that students will begin to notice that they convey meaning in every decision they make.

Oh yeah.

And watch Dirty Dancing again. And again. And again.