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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Teaching José Orduña: Ekphrasis and the North American Essay

 

Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, Screenshot 2018-04-09 08.26.52and author of The Weight of Shadows visited us at the University of Missouri last September.

The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.

He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.” As I understand it, the wall provides the impetus for Orduña’s research, and likely also guides his aesthetics.

“The occasion to write” is a useful concept for writers and students of writing. It is also useful for readers. The concept thus helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one major goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another major goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.

Ekphrasis: Ancient to Contemporary

  1. What’s ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis, from the Greek, combines ek and phrásis (literally “out” and “speak”) into a verb for “proclaiming” or “calling an inanimate object by name.” At its simplest, any work of art that is “about” or enmeshed in another work of art (usually of another medium) can be understood as participating in the ekphrastic tradition.

I insist—in this post, as in life—that we be as expansive as possible in our thinking about what constitutes art. Example: ekphrastic writing may dialogue with a rock opera, a painting, a violin concerto, a capoeira performance, a piece of jewelry, a digital mashup… The real key is that ekphrastic writing is crucially more than description. It is also distinct from art history or criticism. Ekphrasis engages another artwork to enter into creative communion with it; ekphrastic writing is writing that thinks alongside art.

  1. Why teach ekphrasis in Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay?

Ekphrastic approaches are flourishing in the contemporary essay. Off the top of my head, here is an incomplete list of 21st century books of ekphrastic nonfiction:

Visual artworks are central to the project:

  • Terry Tempest Williams, Leap (2000)
  • Michael White, Travels in Vermeer (2015)
  • Jericho Parms, Lost Wax (2016)
  • Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001)

Dialogues with visual artworks less centrally, but significantly and recurrently:

  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
  • José Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016)

Dialogues with nonvisual artworks (namely music):

  • Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire (2015)
  • Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (2016)
  • Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat (2012)
  • Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (1991—okay, not the 21st century, but a favorite)

On to the practical application portion of this post.

The Lesson Sequence, Part One: Reading Orduña

In celebration of Orduña’s contribution to my thinking vocabulary, I assigned “A Civilized Man,” the fifth essay in his 2016 book, The Weight of Shadows.

“A Civilized Man” takes place in a waiting room in the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa. Orduña observes a young couple whose attorney might be coaching them for the inhumanity of a Stokes interview, the interview that scrutinizes a couple’s request for immigration relief based on their marriage (thus coldly judging the legitimacy, moral standing, and substance of legal partnership itself). Because they “look like posed figures in a Renaissance painting,” Orduña studies the scene as he would a canvas. Ultimately, Orduña draws from the Venetian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” linking contemporary power dynamics to historic consciousness of 1500s Europe. We learn not only about U.S. immigration policy, but also about strange resonances with the Medici Bank, its financing of the Catholic Church, the resulting erosion of absolute monarchy, the rise of trade- and transaction-based power—discovering uneasy echoes with the Department of Homeland Security at every step.

In class, our analysis focused on disentangling one core question: what is the role of the artwork in this essay’s whole assemblage of meanings and effects?

To piece together an answer to this question, I had students track exactly what percent of the text describes “Adoration of the Magi,” what percent of the text teaches context about “Adoration of the Magi,” and what percent of the text explicitly connects “Adoration of the Magi” to the waiting room or to the “present-dayness” of the essay.

Students created a retrospective structure of the essay, and discovered that the bulk of the essay is not about artwork at all. Yet of course the closer they looked, the more tacit connections they discovered. Is it an essay that “just touches” on a Renaissance painting here and there, or is that painting actually woven in between the lines on every page? The latter, of course.

The Lesson Sequence, Part Two: Research and Writing

Second, we took a field trip to the Museum of Art and Archaeology, where students did a good deal of freewriting. They had a few days to expand this initial work and complete a five-hundred word ekphrastic essay responding to any artwork they encountered at the museum. Examples: I read two essays dialoguing with Rembrandt paintings, an essay about an ancient Indian carving of Ganesha, another one taking a work of American Impressionism as muse, and several essays rooted in sculptures and photographs from the museum’s curated exhibit of works by emerging young artists with disabilities.

In the next stage of research exploration, students turned to print and online sources to gather historic research. They found sources on their artists, on the medium (one student learned about the development of acrylic paints, for example; another researched the history of photography), and on the countries/social contexts in which their artworks were created (the student writing about Ganesha, for example, made a valiant effort to scrape the surface of Hindu literary/mythological tradition). Most students came away from this research less satisfied with their initial take on their chosen artwork (which is to say, more curious). Regardless, in a 500-word mini essay, students had to marshal new information and creatively convey the most intriguing things they learned.

Finally, part three of this research exercise required students to have a conversation. They identified a theme/topic in their ekphrastic writing assignment. And they had to think of a person with whom they’d be able to have a lively, 5-10-minute conversation about this theme/topic. Another 500-word mini-essay came out of this exercise.

Ultimately, students assembled their work into longform essays that—via ekphrasis, historic research, and the human voice—explored a range of convictions, questions, memories, and experiences. Students discovered that from the headwaters of their initial required research (mimicking Orduña’s methods of connecting art to life by freewriting in front of an artwork), their thinking had traveled unexpected distances.

Takehome Points

Takehome points from this exercise and discussions emphasized craft strategies and “how-tos” (how to write about art, how to connect art to something else you’re writing about, etc.).

But the literary studies component of this sequence is probably more significant. Students came away with new recognition of a notable trend in the contemporary essay: nonfiction writing about art is flourishing right now. Popular conceptions of nonfiction rarely see past the memoiristic “story of my life” intent on understanding one thing, the “I”—but with ekphrasis, my students experienced an occasion to write that exceeded their individuality. Ultimately, my hope is that they leave the semester seeing the essayist as part of a wider thinking community, someone in conversation with the world in which they’re embedded—and responsible to and for it.

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“Le Badaud” (meaning “the idler” or “the onlooker”). The sculpture is in Sarlat, France, birthplace of Montaigne’s dear friend, Étienne de la Boétie. I am persuaded this idling, onlooking badaud has centuries of essays on the mind as he gazes upon the passing people. The sculpture is by Gérard Auliac.