I came to scholars Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst when I read their book Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. While I wholeheartedly agree with and still use their strategies from 2012, I cannot say the same for their 2017 collaboration, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. This slim volume offers the usual introduction and conclusion. The middle section, comprising three uneven parts, can be summed up as follows: If we want new readers ready for the future, we first need to create a new framework for reading. While students change, teachers will need to reconsider core beliefs many of us were exposed to in our education classes. In particular, we need examine what we learned about improving test scores, keeping our students’ attention throughout every unit, promoting silent reading and class-wide readings, and using classroom discussions.
What does a reader ready for the future? Beers and Probst suggest that she/he be responsive, responsible, and compassionate readers. To foster these values, teachers at any level must emphasize and teach students to read aesthetically in an era where students’ efferent readings matter more than they should. Beers and Probst borrow aesthetic and efferent from Louise Rosenblatt’s 1938 classic Literature as Exploration to help encourage students to be life-long readers and be resistant to the idea that “books [are] burdens imposed upon them” (56).
To become readers who see books as “invitations to experience new thoughts” (56), Beers and Probst introduce the “Book, Head, Heart” (BHH) framework. This technique helps students remember “to pay attention to the text, to [their] thoughts about it, and to what [they] feel and how [they] might have changed, no matter how slightly, as a result of reading” (63). The framework works for fiction and nonfiction.
Students begin with the usual analyzing techniques—the “B” in the framework—like Notice and Note Strategies, Some Wanted But So, Genre Reformulation, Sketch to Stretch, and Fix-Up Charts. More specifics of these favorite practices appear on pages 64 and 65. After these important analytical moments, students move to the first “H.” In the “Head” part, students wonder how Night surprised them, figure out what Mary Shelley expected them to already know, and determine in what ways didTo Kill A Mockingbird change, challenge, or confirm what they already knew.
With the “B” and the first “H” accomplished, the second “H” is admittedly the “hardest to define” (69) for Beers and Probst because “If ‘in the head’ pointed to the thoughts awakened during the reading—the questions, surprises, unanticipated new information, challenges to assumptions—‘in the heart’ refers more to the feelings aroused by a text” (68). Phrased differently, what “values, attitudes, beliefs, and commitments” (68-69) become imprinted on students after reading an essay from David Sedaris’s Calypso collection or a New York Times article about glitter or the most recent thoughts of Michael Pollan. At this moment, school readers begin transforming into life-long readers. Another excellent complement to the “heart” query would be reading Mark Edmundson’s Why Read (2004), or his earlier “Teaching the Truths,” in which he refers to teaching students to create what Richard Rorty called a Final Vocabulary, “the ultimate set of terms that we use in order to confer value on experience. It’s where our principles lie” (7). Granted, the students Edmundson works with are in college, but the questions can be translated with minimal effort.
At page 95, Beers and Probst begin a new section titled “The Changes We Must Embrace” part, are at their most radical. They move beyond the idea of a best practice in reading to imagining next practices in reading, ways to teach that “might be better for the future” (104). They reassess in about 50 pages the ideas of success, relevance, silent reading, classroom discussion, and reading the same book.
While I do not intend to give away all ideas in this section, I will share the most surprising course of action they suggest. I first read Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay “How Should One Read a Book” in my first year of teaching composition at SUNY New Paltz. The most radical of many radical moments for me in that reading came in the third sentence of the first paragraph. Woolf writes, “The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions” (234).None of my former or current teachers suggested this idea. We all read the same text; we all worked through the text the same way. And, we moved on to the next text whether we felt certain or sure enough about the text. I, too, had prescribed all of the six essays we read that semester in Composition I. Should I have done otherwise?
Beers and Probst promote reading subjectively in a more simplified way than Woolf when they assert “we don’t think it [a class-wide novel] serves any children best if they never have the chance to choose what they want to read” (138). Notice that this claim is pointed at only novels, not shorter fiction works or non-fiction. The co-authors suggest that in grades beyond elementary, the likelihood that a class-wide novel will have positive effects on all students decreases drastically. To support their claim, they continue as follows:
When the intensive study of a single novel over several weeks is compared with reading that novel more quickly, and then moving on to read other independently chosen novels—in other words, extensive reading—the intensive study does not result in higher comprehension of that novel. But intensive study of a novel does result in more negative attitudes toward reading [Coryell, 1927; McConn, 2016]. In other words, intensive study of a single novel does little good and perhaps significant harm. (143)
I have concerns about this long quotation because of their vague language. How many is “several”? Two or three or four weeks? What are the qualities of comprehending a text? Being able to pass a multiple-choice exam or write an analysis paper? We should never spend five to eight weeks on one novel; we should never expect every student to adore Ethan Frome.
In a rather raw moment, Beers and Probst phrase that quotation above like so: “Neither of us can think of one novel we want to read for eight weeks. If we love the book, we want to devour it. If we hate it, we want to quit reading or at least want the torture to end quickly” (142). Reading quickly and eagerly confuses the issue at hand. Where is the time for a second or third read? Where is the savoring and lingering over scenes and sentences? Where is the chance to memorize the opening paragraph and deliver as a dramatic reading? Where is the close reading?
For me, the whole-class novel exposes students to literary hallmarks. So, I have adopted the practice of having students read the first two chapters of whole-class novels. This technique—like a wine tasting—has worked famously in the many British and American literature surveys I have taught. Students have remarked that they actually prefer just “dipping their toes” in the novels of Virginia Woolf or Willa Cather. I find comfort in this decision because I remember Woolf’s question “After all what laws can be laid down about Books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself” (234). And, I know that my college students can take other English electives. Additionally, I imagine that many high school students get a choice of taking a literature elective in their senior year.
If teachers want to stick with the class-wide novel, Beers and Probst suggest four guidelines: “Don’t expect students to read the same book in the same way; Don’t lose an opportunity to check-in with students as they silently read the book; Don’t choose the class-wide book without their participation; Don’t confuse listening with reading” (144-146). The last two suggestions need clarification. I do not think we need to involve students in every reading selection because that undermines the hours we have spent reading and coming up with common readings that help meet grade-level requirements. But, I do see the value in having students choose the first and last class-wide reading. That’s radical enough. With regard to confusing listening with reading, Beers and Probst point out that trying to speed up the pace by reading aloud the class-wide novel does not affect reading skills. That practice emphasizes listening skills and potentially note-taking skills. It seems, to me, that we still need to write and think about the class-wide novel.
All in all, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters has me conflicted. I do not think this collaboration is as carefully completed as Notice and Note. Many of the chapters edge to a solution, and the “Turn and Talk” technique that ends every chapter becomes ineffective quite quickly. But, I do find the “BHH” framework a promising tool for reading.
Coda: Practicing the Framework
About a week ago, I spent three days in a local Hudson Valley high school guest-teaching two sections of English 11 Honors. While my primary goals were to expose them to queer theory before they began reading Dracula by way of reading and discussing a queer poem, I also put Beers and Probst’s framework to work. On the second day of teaching, I asked my students three questions: What surprised you? What does Howe think you already know? What changed, challenged, or confirmed your thinking? (Beers 89). While these questions were new, these passionate students found textual evidence to support their personal claims and helped one another say back what they believe they heard about queerness.
While they walked away with some formal analytical practice with Marie Howe’s 1998 poem “Practicing,” they probably left with more questions, which is ultimately one of my goals in teaching English. It felt radical and necessary to allow those students’ subjective experiences of reading to sit next to objective/plausible questions about poetic elements.
Beers, Kylene and Robert E. Probst. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. New York: Scholastic, 2015.
Edmundson, Mark. “Teaching the Truths.” Raritan23.1: 1-21.
Woolf, Virginia. “How Should One Read a Book?” The Virginia Woolf Reader: An Anthology of Her Best Short Stories, Essays, Fiction, and Nonfiction. Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska. New York: Harcourt, 1984: 233-245.