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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Pairing Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” with Richard Blanco’s “One Today”

Richard_Blanco.jpgTwo years ago, Middlesex Community College (MxCC) hosted a reading by Richard Blanco. Before attending this event, I did not know much about Blanco or his work, other than vaguely remembering his participation in the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Named by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in American history, Blanco is “the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role.” His reading at MxCC was both incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking, especially during the moments in which he explored his experience with different parts of American culture. During this event, I quickly realized how much I wanted to teach Blanco’s poetry in my upcoming English 102: Literature and Composition course.

After reading “One Today,” the poem that Blanco read at the 2013 Inauguration, I knew it would fit perfectly in my poetry unit for English 102. I designed this unit for students who have not spent a significant amount of time reading poetry in the past; therefore, I assign poems with similar themes for each class period. This way, the theme becomes our class’s starting point to discuss and identify the various poetic devices used in each poem. I decided to pair Blanco’s “One Today” with Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” when designing the following lesson plan, one that builds on this past activity, to help students further practice critically analyzing poetry while introducing them to the basics of New Historicism.

“I Hear America Singing”

I start this activity with “I Hear America Singing” because I have found its content to be very accessible to students, regardless of their previous experiences with poetry. Since reading poetry out loud can help students to hear certain poetic devices at work, I have the class read this poem out loud—as a group. This idea of using chorale reading was first introduced to me through the Teach This Poem series from Poets.org, at which Blanco serves as a contributor.

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After the chorale reading, I ask students to spend a few minutes writing down their reflections on reciting the poem together as a group. I ask them to explain how the activity has changed their understanding of the poem’s content. I also ask them to take note of:

  • Which words are repeated in the poem
  • The people who are named in the poem
  • The activities that are described in the poem
  • Their take on the last three lines of the poem

Students are quick to point out that they noticed the repetition of the word “singing.” This observation leads to a discussion of how the idea of singing makes the workers seem happy or as if they have a sense of pride in completing their work. We also discuss how the phrases “the varied carols I hear” (Whitman line 1) and “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” (11) show the idea of difference, or uniqueness, while the repetition of the word “singing” shows a commonality in these different workers. Students often take note that the professions named are all ones in which people work with their hands. We then discuss the implications of why Whitman may have chosen to highlight these jobs and how the idea of work is celebrated in the poem.

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“One Today”

Since the genesis of  “One Today” is so closely tied to a specific event in American history, I begin this part of the in-class activity by having my students watch Blanco read his poem at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. While watching this clip from PBS via YouTube, I ask students to write down their observations of the actual event, how Blanco presents himself, and how he reads the poem.

Then, I have students annotate their copies of “One Today.” During this process, I ask for students to take note of:

  • Any words that are repeated throughout the poem
  • Images in the poem that stand out to them
  • Any words or phrases that evoke specific senses
  • The use of -ing words
  • Allusions to Blanco’s personal history
  • Allusions to events from American history

My goal during our discussion of “One Today” is for students to understand how Blanco constructs a depiction of America that celebrates the unique qualities of its citizens while still emphasizing the importance of unity. To do this, we spend a lot of time thinking through what language in the poem shows unity and what language shows difference. For example, I often start with the second stanza of “One Today,” which begins with “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, / each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:” (Blanco 7-8). Through the use of “my face” and “your face,” Blanco acknowledges the different people living in America, yet by the second line we are “crescendoing into our day.” This shift in pronouns is a small detail, one that students new to analyzing poetry may not catch. Throughout the discussion, I make sure that students see how important these choices, no matter how seemingly tiny, are and that these choices are what help Blanco to craft his portrayal of America in “One Today.”

Analyzing the Concept of America in Both Poems

After discussing both poems, I provide my students with a brief introduction to New Historicism. Since theory is not a focus of English 102, I do not spend too much time covering the intricacies of New Historicism; instead, I share with students this overview from The Purdue OWL. I focus my mini-lesson on the questions posed at the bottom of the web page, which are designed to guide students through considering the ways in which the cultural events that occurred during a time period in which an author is writing may influence a text’s content.

To further explore this connection, I have students spend a few minutes researching, either on a computer if we are in the lab or on their phones, what was happening during the time periods surrounding 1867 and 2013, the years in which “I Hear America Singing” and “One Today” were published, respectively. Obviously, students are much more familiar with major events that happened during the beginning of this decade. Refreshing themselves on what life was like in the years leading up to 2013 helps students to have a better foundation for analyzing the ways in which Blanco portrays America in “One Today,” and if this portrayal reflects a realistic portrait of America, even with (or in spite of) the positive tone that the genre of an occasional poem requires.

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Conversely, students often possess a wide range of background knowledge on the 1860s, with some history buffs having a clear sense of the time period and other students knowing almost nothing about it. Some students are very surprised to learn that The Civil War occurred during this decade, especially when considering the fact that “I Hear America Singing” does not mention slavery. This observation leads student to question Whitman’s portrayal of America as a united country and to explore why Whitman may have made the decision to emphasize this united front in “I Hear America Singing.”

This lesson plan is designed to not only help students analyze “One Today” and “I Hear America Singing,” but to also prepare them for the next poems that I teach in this unit, Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” and Claude McKay’s “America.” These poems will help students to further develop their critical reading skills while continuing to analyze the concept of America in poetry.