So Much Depends on the Bean Salad: Writing About the Details of a Text

We are at post #6 in our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading. We invite YOU to join in! Find more on how-to here. Several selected posts have already been linked to on the Contributors page and we are looking forward to your addition. Let’s closely read the practice of close reading together!

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On a hot day in New Mexico during the summer of 2001, I saw my Dad for the last time. I knew that it might be the final visit. I lived in NYC. He was sick. We were both broke.

I remember all of the details of those last ten minutes. Sitting at the kitchen table with him in his one bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the city. Eating the steak and bean salad he had made me for lunch, the same bean salad he would be buying in the supermarket where he would have his heart attack. The overflowing ashtray, the beat up furniture, the unpacked boxes. The way he asked if I liked the bean salad, like he wanted me to, and the way I said yes. How our voices sounded like the fear of what comes next. His eyes. How I didn’t want to leave. I remember the look on his face when my friends pulled in the driveway to pick me up, and how quickly he pulled those feelings down like a blind. His hug in the driveway and how when my chest moved with the sob that would have started too many, he said with love deep in his voice, “No, kiddo, we can do this. No baby. It’s okay.”

I have doubts telling this story here in this blog post on writing about close reading because who really cares about close reading when placed against the stories that capture the enormity of our lives? But as I held this topic in my mind all week, as I thought about the reason to care about teaching students how to articulate and elaborate and analyze on paper what they have read closely in a text, I kept coming back to this. Because of course I remember every detail, I lived and read that moment closely. But the details, and the fact of the goodbye are not the only reasons why this memory matters so much. It’s the work I did afterwords with friends and family members and perhaps a therapist or two to find meaning in each of those details that has helped me see why this memory is unique and what it shows about me, my Dad, and our relationship.

I wrote a lot in the months after his death. I wrote to try to understand what had happened, what I was feeling. I wrote about the details mostly, and in doing so, I saw so much meaning in the specifics of our goodbye.  I saw how the details of his apartment broke my heart because I wanted to stay and help him, because I wished so deeply that he was doing better. I saw that his pride over the bean salad symbolized how small his life had gotten in the end and also how much he wanted to please me. His words to me as we said goodbye now felt to me like the perfect example of his particular kind of love – he always tried to shield me from his own pain, he always wanted to seem strong, he always wanted to make it better, and of course he never knew how. 

We find real, subtle, poignant, universal meaning when we analyze the details of the moments we live and the texts we read. As Roy Peter Clark urges us to think in his book “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,” details are where the true meaning lies. He exhorts non-fiction writers to pay attention to the littlest things, like the bean salad, or the name of the dog. While Clark is talking to writers, when we teach students to read closely, we are asking them to do the same thing in the texts they are reading. To focus on the details in order to see the larger truths of the text. Just noticing the details is not enough for a reader – of life or of texts.

To make true meaning of the little things, we must spend time thinking. This is hard. Writing is a great way to help people linger on a thought, to let it grow. And just like the people who helped me heal had different ways to push me to say what was in my heart and head, we can offer students some prompts or sentence frames to help push their thinking about the details they have closely read in texts. These sentence frames help students to do work that is otherwise overwhelming, they give them stepping stones to get to the bigger ideas that are lurking in their hearts and minds, but don’t have the oompf to rise to the surface. Some of these frames might include:

1. “I noticed that the author…and this makes me think…”

2. “The author is using words like . . . and . . . I think s/he is doing this to show . . .”

3. “When I saw the phrase . . . I realized that the author . . . “

4. “I think that . . . is really a symbol for . . . because . . .”

5. “I think the author is trying to . . . with the . . . s/he is choosing.”

6. “I am seeing a pattern in how  . . . I think this connects to the theme of . . . “

There are so many others, of course, and you will write your own sentence frames that reflect both the teaching in your classroom and the kids at the desks.

Close reading is important, as we see so many of the details of a text race by our young readers’ eyes unnoticed. But simply pulling out the details won’t suffice. When you see that your students need a little help connecting the detail of the text to what it might mean, try using some sentence frames or prompts to help them. Like Soren, a 6th grader, who took to analyzing word choice in his book for homework one night:

photo (59)

The pages of a text are not as important as the final goodbye between a parent and child. And close reading is not “just like when I said goodbye to my Dad.” But the reasons for why we might teach students to write about their close reading go way beyond state assessments and literary essays and college and career readiness. When we learn to analyze the detail of a text, we also learn ways of thinking about our lives, and vice versa – a beautiful cycle. This work makes our minds sharper and our hearts bigger – sometimes we just need a little help to say what we mean, big or small.

Big idea: Writing About Reading                                                Tiny Detail: Using prompts to help analyze the details of a text

Kate and Maggie

22 thoughts on “So Much Depends on the Bean Salad: Writing About the Details of a Text

  1. Kate, this is so beautiful. Thank you for your honesty. That moment with your dad illustrates the importance of those details. The sentence frames are a great way to linger over a word, a line, an image reminding us to pay attention, slow down and figure out–love it! Cannot wait to get a copy of your book!

  2. Kate, this is so beautiful. Thank you for your honesty. That moment with your dad perfectly illustrates the importance of details. The sentence frames are a great way to study a word, a line, an image really lingering and figuring out the real meaning and truth. I cannot wait to get your book!

  3. Wow, WOW, WOW!!!

    When I first heard you talk about close reading for life in June, I was fascinated! This is the real and the right work! Our students need to be readers and writers so they need to move past “just” reading and writing. “For life” is our goal – and in the bigger scheme of things, even those annual summative assessments fade away!

    Thanks for taking the risk and telling us your personal story that tells us WHY this is so critical for ALL our students!

    • We are always struggling with engagement, esp with older kids, and it feels like so much of this is about relevance. Why do I care? How does this fit into my life? Without that sense, we can’t hold our kids – the promise of jobs or threat of grades just isnt enough anymore, hasnt been for a long time now. Life needs to be at the heart of our teaching. Thanks for all you do Fran.

  4. Thank you for sharing the beautiful story about your father. I think you made a clear connection between the moments we live and the texts that we read. I know you were doubtful about sharing the story, but I found it to be so relevant. It is in sharing our human experiences that we connect with one another and make meaning of our journeys here on earth. That is exactly why i love reading and writing so much and why I love working with student readers and writers. On a personal note, your story touched me because it reminded me of the loss of my sister to cancer two years ago. You made me feel less alone in my grieving and I really appreciate that!

    • Thanks for the support. Someone told me once that Grief is a river, it winds through your life, and sometimes the waters are wide and deep, and sometimes just a trickle, but it will always be there. There is a weird kind of comfort in that for me…

  5. Stunning! I second the previous comments. You’ve beautifully illustrated the enormity of feeling and depth that can be found in seemingly small details and given practical, carry-with-you-forever frames that students can use to unveil this depth. Thank you!

  6. Your connection between the profound moments of our lives and close reading is so important. MUCH of what we read (the really good stuff) comes when an author has poured their heart or mind onto the pages. I have written several posts about my brother who died far too early in life but never been able to share them, yet. It’s WORTH reading closely if the writer has shared their heart or mind.

  7. As I start the beginning of the school year, I think about laying the foundations that students need to push their thinking. Today I spoke to my students about reading between the lines. I cant wait to try Kate’sentence frames with my fifth graders!

  8. Beautiful. Your memories are so specific, so well preserved, perhaps that’s why it resonated so strongly in my heart. I copy/pasted your sentence frames directly into my student’s blog to help them push their thinking about reading. Love how your thinking is immediately accessible and usable. Thank you.

  9. Such raw, open honesty. I truly connected to this blog both personally and professionally. My work revolves around ELLs. We create sentence stems so often to begin writing-but tying in the stems with close reading really pulls reading and writing full circle. I’m absolutely putting these stems into our curriculum for next week. Your blog opened up a great conversation between some passionate language arts and ESL folks in my district. No less than an hour was spent on discussion and implementation. This scaffolds and ilfts higher thinking for our students.It also helped me to continue to urge everyone around me to keep writing and share that writing. Pre-ordered your book and can’t wait. Thanks for trusting us enough to share your bean salad.

  10. Thank you Kate for the beauty on my train ride home. I spent this week searching for thoughtful, poignant, authentic mentor texts to use in both memoir and high school application essay units; and now I have found one more. You have made a great comparison of how we pluck details while reading and writing, equally, in order to truly exist in a text or piece of writing, and I will share this analogy during our close reading endeavors, but I need to use your words right now as a mentor, for inspiration, and it came at a perfect time to move our students. Thank you. Your moment will be held next to Sotomayor. Your story on death can bring one to life.

  11. I wasn’t sure where you were going when I began reading your post, Kate, but words compelled me to follow, pause, reflect, make meaning, and finally, to understand your purpose:
    “When we learn to analyze the detail of a text, we also learn ways of thinking about our lives, and vice versa – a beautiful cycle. This work makes our minds sharper and our hearts bigger …”
    Thank you.

  12. Pingback: Blog-a-thon Post 7: Most Fun #CloseReading Post Ever Because Students Are Hilarious And Filled With Rage | Christopher Lehman

  13. What a beautiful post – and a true testament to your devotion to teaching from the heart and the depths to which you explore your passions…. interwoven with your life! I am inspired by the connectedness represented in your work.
    Analyzing the small details of the poignant and heart-rending moments of our lives is hard work. It can be dangerous and messy and take us to places we didn’t know existed within ourselves. I know this because in the year after I had my son, I wrote furiously every single day. He came a month early in a life threatening emergency and was sent to the NICU at Stony Brook. I couldn’t hold him or be with him for four days. I took to writing nonstop. I tried to capture all these minutes and moments as they happened. And I wrote about the pumpkin spice lattes, the scrubs the nurses wore, and the beeping sounds coming from the machines. I didn’t realize there would be so much meaning there afterwards.
    ~The work we (and our students) do with close reading can be messy as well. It can be overwhelming to spend so much time on small things and to slow down and think about why they are in the text. But when we do, we come to realize the richness, the value, and the meaning that these places in the text can hold. These written moments awaken the senses of readers- put tastes in their mouths…noises in their ears….goosebumps on their skin.
    Thank you for another dose of inspiration. Your work is continuously reshaping the choices I make as I enter my 10th year as a middle school teacher!

  14. I loved at your spring workshop when you talked about the importance of writing about important topics, topics that mattered. You inspire me to stop writing about catching fish and instead writing about the events that really matter.Your writing matters so much! I always love to read your posts, but this one is in a whole different league. Thank you so much for being my writing leader, reminding me how much living closely and thinking closely matter for literate lives.

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