Improving Students’ Reading Comprehension by Analyzing the Blues

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help students improve their reading comprehension. I think it’s because I have always loved to read. So many of my memories, especially ones from when I was in school, revolve around books — which, I have realized over the years while teaching developmental composition students, has made it especially difficult for me to understand what it is like for a student who doesn’t like to read to take an English class. The majority of students who I work with have never particularly enjoyed reading and do not read books on a regular basis. As a result, reading college-level material is really challenging for them. To help these students, I am constantly thinking of how to best teach them the process of reading slowly and actively, so that they can learn the basic skills needed to critically analyze a text.

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While thinking about how to do this, I kept returning to the idea of scaffolding. In the past, I have used scaffolding primarily for helping students to navigate complex writing assignments, but why not use this concept when assigning readings, as well? That way, students can practice these basic reading strategies with more accessible texts and gain a sense of confidence before having to analyze more difficult works. The lesson plan below outlines how to teach students close reading strategies by analyzing the blues. I chose “Backwater Blues,” as sung by Bessie Smith, and “Young Gal’s Blues,” written by Langston Hughes, because they both have clear stories, ones that students can easily grasp while learning how to think about the ways in which the use of word choice and a distinct speaker can help to convey a text’s theme.

Defining The Blues

I begin this lesson by asking my students to freewrite on what the word “blues” means. While their responses vary, our discussion ultimately narrows in on how their ideas relate to Merriam Webster’s definition, which contains three distinct meanings: “low spirits,” “a song often of lamentation characterized by usually 12-bar phrases, 3-line stanzas in which the words of the second line usually repeat those of the first, and continual occurrence of blue notes in melody and harmony,” and “jazz or popular music using harmonic and phrase structures of blues.” We then discuss the ways in which the three definitions relate to each other. Next, I have my students read and annotate three articles: “What is the Blues?,” “Why is the Blues Called the ‘Blues’,” and “Where the Blues Was Born.”  These pieces could be substituted with more scholarly works; however, for my students, it makes more sense to have them practice reading popular texts since they will encounter them more often in their daily lives. The purpose of reading these articles is for my students to develop a general understanding of the blues as a genre. It is important for them to understand its origins in the American South, where this form was created as a call-and-response sung by enslaved Africans while being forced to work in the plantation fields, so that my students have enough background knowledge to help them articulate why the blues often center on themes of loss, death, love, or sadness. After summarizing and discussing the articles’ main points, students will feel more prepared to analyze Bessie Smith’s song.

Bessie Smith and “Backwater Blues”

bessiesmith3One of the best ways to understand the traditional form of the 12-bar blues is to hear it; therefore, I have students follow along with a copy of the lyrics while we listen to this recording of Bessie Smith singing “Backwater Blues.” Then, we discuss the song as a group, first plotting out the literal story that it tells on the board. Students are quick to notice that the song is about a storm. When asked how they know this, students cite the lines “when it rained five days” (lines 1 and 2), and “when it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow” (10 and 11). It seems obvious to my students that there’s storm, but what they do not realize is that by picking out these lines and explaining how each line proves this point, they are practicing active reading. The challenge, then, is to move into a more critical analysis of the song using this same process. To encourage this, I focus the discussion on a single phrase, “poor girl,” which is repeated twice in the song. This phrase can be thought of in multiple ways — of course, as my students have been quick to point out, the narrator doesn’t want to leave her home and she probably feels sorry for herself.  But, I then ask, how else can we think about the use of the word “poor”? This question prompts a discussion about how some people, almost always thanks to their higher socioeconomic status, are able to withstand a natural disaster more easily than others. Students often connect this idea to real life examples, such as Hurricane Katrina and what is still happening  in Puerto Rico, even a year after Hurricane Maria occurred. Through this class discussion, students will develop an understanding of how to close read a text, a process they will continue to practice while reading “Young Gal’s Blues.”

Langston Hughes and “Young Gal’s Blues”

langston-delano4I decided to pair “Backwater Blues” with “Young Gal’s Blues” because this poem uses the same AAB pattern found in the 12-bar blues, making the form immediately familiar to students. This allows us to focus on its content, specifically how the speaker in the poem conveys the themes of aging and identity. The first thing that usually confuses my students about this poem is the speaker. As readers who are new to analyzing poetry, they, understandably, automatically assume that Langston Hughes to be the poem’s speaker, not an imagined young woman. To help them make this distinction, I direct my students to the title of the poem and ask them how its word choice reveals that Hughes is not going to be the speaker. We then trace the voice of this speaker throughout the poem, first making sure that everyone understands what the speaker is literally saying before making connections between these ideas and the poem’s larger themes. I ask my students what adjectives they might use to describe how the speaker feels about herself or her life. Students have said that she seems insecure because she is so scared of getting old and losing her beauty or because she would rather be with some guy, even if it’s not the right guy, than to be alone. When asking them how they came up with these descriptions, they noted the pairing of the words “old and ugly” (line 11), as if the speaker can’t imagine being old and beautiful, as well as “Keep on a-lovin’ me, daddy, / Cause I don’t want to be blue” (23-24). We end this discussion by returning to the three articles about the blues that my students initially and examining how their key ideas about the blues are displayed in this poem’s structure and content.

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Overall, this lesson plan helps students to develop a process for reading texts slowly and actively, whether these “texts” are a word, a song, or a poem. I plan on further developing this unit so that students will use what they have learned from analyzing “Backwater Blues” and “Young Gal’s Blues” to close read more complex poems, such as W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” Kevin Young’s “Bereavement,” and Marilyn Chin’s “Blues on Yellow.” After completing this unit, I hope that students who struggle with reading comprehension will have a clear model for how to work through the slow, and sometimes difficult, process of active reading, one that becomes easier and, (dare I say it?!) even kind of fun the more you do it.

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Fostering Complexity in the Age of Oversimplification: Teaching American Culture in 90 Minutes or Less, Part One

We are pleased to have a guest post this week from Theresa Dietrich. Dietrich is currently a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway and writes about her experience planning lessons for classes she will only meet once. How do you teach students about a topic in one class period? Dietrich shares two examples below and more ideas in Part Two

In thinking about the quality of the classroom conversations I have been having as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway, I am reminded of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s discussion of the idea of conversations. “Conversations,” he says “begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you […] attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other than your own. [Conversation is] a metaphor for engagement with the experiences and ideas of others. These encounters, properly conducted, are valuable in themselves.”

One of my roles as an ETA in Norway is traveling around a secondary school offering lessons designed to engage students in discussions of American culture and politics. These are one-off, 90 minute lessons meant to address staggeringly big topics, many of which have been generated in response to student questions like: Why do Americans love guns? How did Donald Trump win the 2016 election? How unequal is America?

I have thought a lot about how to facilitate productive conversations about these topics within a 90 minute timeframe. The challenge has many dimensions: after all, in an age where it seems that wars can be waged via Twitter, how do we foster classroom conversations which resist oversimplification and foregone conclusions? How can we avoid reducing gun violence, economic inequality, or systemic racism to statistics, sound bites, or recapitulations of what students already think or know?

In the way of some insights, I offer strategies with accompanying examples from lessons that I’ve taught in Norway to audiences of 15 – 18 year olds and adult immigrants.

The One that Stands for the Many: From Particular to Universal

In response to my early worry that class discussions were only scraping the surface—we couldn’t seem to get beyond headlines and notions of America’s present as a kind of cartoonish disaster—a wise colleague offered this piece of advice: You have to find the one that stands for the many. What he meant, I think, is that I needed to find the rooted particular in order to facilitate any kind of meaningful discussion of big questions about America’s troubled present. Students needed a limited initial lens through which they could view larger issues, something they could really dig into—to inhabit, to analyze, to critique—before group discussion.

Below are strategies for finding meaningful openings for discussion: a photograph, a political cartoon, a protest sign, a first-hand account, a poem. I’ll give examples of these openings, as well as the ways in which they can be used as a springboard for larger discussions.

A Picture is worth 1,000 words: Visual Analysis of Primary Source Documents

Because we rarely have time to read and analyze literature or nonfiction articles in class, provocative photos and political cartoons are a great opening for discussion. Visuals are also accessible to English language learners at many different levels. Some students may doubt their ability to analyze a poem they are encountering for the first time, but many can make an observation about an image.

In a lesson which attempts to capture the Civil Rights movement, we focus on the Little Rock Nine to illustrate the intense resistance that accompanied de-segregation. This exercise is taken and adapted from the excellent resources at Facing History and Ourselves.

Students are given various photos of segregationist protesters and the Arkansas National Guard physically blocking the entry of the Little Rock Nine on their first day of school with the accompanying questions:

  • Where are people standing? How are they relating to one another?
  • If you were there, what sounds might you hear?
  • Why do you think the guards are there? How are they relating to the students?

Students usually guess that the guards are protecting the students from the protesters. One student predicted that the guard was pointing a lost Elizabeth Eckford in the direction of her class. They are shocked to learn that something quite different is happening in these photos: the guards are keeping the students out instead of ushering them in.

When students have their imagined narrative contested, when they learn that the enrollment of nine African American teens to a high school in 1957 (almost 100 years after slavery was abolished) was accompanied by a National Guard blockade, vitriolic protest, and an armed escort by federal troops—they begin to understand that the business of abolishing racism in the U.S. has been tragically slow-going.

Cultural Memory: Linking the Past to the Present

I have found the Little Rock Nine exercise a good “opening” for talking about the continuous oppression born of slavery in the Civil Rights era and the present. Contextualizing the problems of the American present with the injustices of the past is essential for promoting thoughtful discussion. To borrow the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates commenting on police brutality, it is vital that students understand that “this conversation is old […] It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new.”

By 10th grade in Norway, students have learned quite a bit about American history: they know about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. They also follow American news and know of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. But what they have a hard time grasping is the concept of systemic racism and the ways in which race continues to matter in America. Everyone agrees that racism is wrong, but some student don’t view it as a pressing challenge in Norway, and they wonder: Why is it still such a big deal in the U.S.?

The topic is also accompanied by diffidence and uncertainty: students are sometimes unsure about the language they should use: much of the vocabulary we have to talk about race in America (thanks to scholars of color) hasn’t made its way to Norway and doesn’t have a cultural equivalent. Some students seem to have thoughts that they aren’t sure how to give voice to, and others genuinely don’t think race is very relevant in the happiest country on earth. Shouldn’t we focus on the ways in which we are the same—our common humanity—rather than how we are different? seems to be a common refrain.

However, students are comfortable discussing race in the context of American history, as something that has existed in the past, but the transition to the present (or to its relevance in Norway) is more challenging. I have found contextualizing the present through first person accounts of the past to be productive. In the Little Rock Nine lesson, students hear from the woman in the photo with this audio resource (also from Facing History and Ourselves): “In Her Own Words: Elizabeth Eckford.” As a white person, (who is often having this discussion with white audiences), it is vital to ground our conversations in the words, artistic expressions, and terminology developed and articulated by people of color.

In the latter half of this lesson, we examine the continued relevance of the topic by looking at school resegregation and its dire consequences. There are excellent resources from Nikole Hannah-Jones on this topic. With their historical knowledge of the Little Rock Nine in mind, students are able to draw conclusions about what has changed in America, what hasn’t, and why that matters.

 

 

BIO

Theresa Dietrich is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway where she facilitates an academic writer’s workshop at the University of Bergen and offers weekly lessons designed to engage Norwegian teens in discussions of American history and culture.

Dietrich completed an M.A. in English and teacher licensure program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She looks forward to teaching English Language Arts in a Boston-area public school next year. You can read more about her teaching and learning in Norway here.