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.
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”
One 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”
I 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.
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.