Losing Facebook Friends and Other Tragedies: Close Reading Nonfiction for Point of View

I recently lost a Facebook friend.

There was a controversial issue in the news, and emotions were hot. I posted an article or two, and a discussion was  sparked. Some people disagreed with me, and we managed to be respectful and interested in what the other had to say (which feels like a minor miracle in this day and age). And then, when referring to a peaceful protest in NYC, my now ex-Facebook friend said, “there is no justice like mob justice.” I pushed back on his language, saying that the protest was hardly a mob. It was peaceful (Jay-Z and Beyonce were there for Pete’s sake!)  and when he repeated the word, I said that I did object to people using language that insinuates that I, or like-mined people, are somehow violent rioters, or dumb and misguided.

He de-friended me.

This post is not about my ex-Facebook friend, who I like very much. Nor is it about the specific Facebook exchange. What strikes me about this moment is how easy it is to infuse the reporting of facts – and all informational texts – with a strong bias or point of view, and how closely we have to read sometimes to see the author behind the supposed reality of nonfiction, whether it be on social media or the front page of the New York Times.

The words we use when we report, retell, and argue, matter. The details we choose to include, and the ones we choose to exclude, matter. The comparisons we make, the anecdotes we include, matter. Nonfiction writers always have a point of view on their topic, and I believe that it is virtually impossible to keep that point of view out of the writing entirely. As readers, there is great power in being able to discern what exactly the author is implying and assuming about the government shutdown, or education, or cats. (It always comes back to cats.) There is great power in being able to step back and pay close attention to the point of view being presented in a nonfiction text.

Closely reading to uncover the point of view of the text is about naming the implications of the language and examples the author uses in their writing. It is less about the central ideas of the text – although sometimes these are one and the same, and more about what this author, or this text, wants you to believe about the topic. What the text wants you to feel. It is the work of uncovering the assumptions the author is making, by paying close attention s/he uses.

Not all nonfiction texts will reward this work equally. This excerpt from the Animal Planet’s webpage on Starfish, for example, does not exactly invite a close reading for point of view:

Starfish, or Sea Star, a bottom-dwelling marine animal. Despite its name, the starfish is not a fish; it is an echinoderm, a type of marine animal that is spiny-skinned. There are about 2,000 species, found in all seas, and most often near rocky shores. Starfish typically have five or more tapering arms radiating from a central point. The mouth is in the center on the underside. 

Not exactly rippling with nuance. But while not every text invites a close read for point of view, some seem to almost beg for this work. Like this commercial for Barbie dolls:

When we read this text closely, we pull out phrases like “be who you wanna be” and we pull out the evidence of the text – that being who you wanna be includes having the choice of blue, purple or red hair. We can step back and ask ourselves: what does the author want us to believe? What do they want us to feel? Maybe that the author of this text wants us to believe that fashion is fun, which is true.  But it also seems like there is more than that, that it is also implying that fashion is the way you can be who you are. It seems with a close read that this text’s point of view is that the the pathway to a girl’s self actualization is through her appearance.

It’s easy to pick on Barbie. But all social commentary aside – it is not that I have to disagree with the point of view in the text to recognize that it is there, and even that it is heavy handed. Having a point of view is not a bad thing – we all have them, like thumbs, or underwear. But it is our job as readers – it is our privilege as literate people – to see the point of view in the text when it arises, to nod to it, like you would an allusive neighbor in the morning. Doing this helps our students see the world around them more clearly, and helps to position themselves on firmer ground in their lives as young citizens. For when I read the Barbie commercial closely, when I identify what the point of view of that text is, I get to ask myself: Do I agree with that? And if I don’t identify the points of view in the nonfiction around me, I am in danger of being unwittingly manipulated by subtle messages that float by us all day long. And who wants to be unwittingly manipulated?

To help our kids read nonfiction more closely, and to help them uncover the points of view in those texts, try first having them pull out the words and phrases they see the author using in the text – the language that sticks out (more on how to see this language in our upcoming book). Then, you can lean on some thought prompts and sentence frames to help kids think about what they are seeing:

Sentence Frames for Point of View:

I think the author wants me to think that . . .

If the author was debating this topic, they would say . . .

The author doesn’t say anything about . . . which makes me think . . .

Some feeling words the author uses are __________, _____________, and __________, which tells me that the author probably feels . . . about the topic.

The author seems to believe that . . .

Helping students to notice the point of view in nonfiction texts helps them to not only hear the points of view of others, but to develop their own. While they may need some coaching at first, soon you will be surrounded by powerful critical readers.

(Try this work on this article from the wonderful magazine for kids, Upfront: http://upfront.scholastic.com/News/Is-the-Arab-Spring-Dead, and share what you find in the comments below!)

Big Idea: Close Reading  Tiny Detail: Closely reading nonfiction with sentence frames to uncover point of view

13 thoughts on “Losing Facebook Friends and Other Tragedies: Close Reading Nonfiction for Point of View

  1. Kate,
    After hearing you talk about point of view in informational text this summer, I’m excited to see “more” in this series about close reading. I found this sentence to be powerful “The details we choose to include, and the ones we choose to exclude, matter.” The “behind-the-scenes” decisions that an author makes about what to include or exclude can make a huge difference in any piece of writing.

    The sentence frame “The author doesn’t say anything about . . . which makes me think . . .” will be helpful with both our reading and our writing work.
    Perfect timing!

  2. This post is so timely! We are currently reading texts about the American Revolution and one of the skills in my unit is to discern bias in writing. The sentence frames will help get my fourth graders started with this.

  3. I will use this post for the “uncovering bias” section of my lessons on evaluating information. Thanks so much.

  4. Kate — This post, thinking about the point of view of an author, and your first post about the 5 corners of the text pushed us to think about how we need to also think about our schema and the point of view of authors as professional learners. There is so much being published on the CCSS and close reading that we need to understand it in terms of our knowledge and experience as educators and of course we need to think about the author’s point of view. We think about this in our blog post today http://assessmentinperspective.com/?p=446
    Tammy and Clare

  5. “… how closely we have to read sometimes to see the author behind the supposed reality of nonfiction, whether it be on social media or the front page of the New York Times.” Unfortunately, I think there is little reality in non-fiction as perception drives one’s reality. Unless, of course, you use pictures ~ but even they can be taken out of context or changed to meet the objectives of the author. Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking:)

  6. Loving this! It’s got me thinking about how we can start to use some of these frames in primary- especially in talk. Thinking about things people don’t say- the negative space in the picture- sometimes it’s what missing that makes the biggest impact….WHEELS A-SPINNING

  7. One of the most challenging elements of teaching for me was when students made statements which clearly were mimics of what they had heard their parents say. The students had not formed an opinion; they hadn’t traversed Bloom’s taxonomy of critical thinking or come close to it. Yet they believed that they did have an opinion. Using literary works, fiction and non fiction, was so helpful during those times, since they removed the subjectivity and brought light to the real question. Fact? Supported? I applaud your continued application of foundational learning to help students, and their teachers, wade through the language, connotations, hyperbole, and just plain speaking or writing without thinking. Do keep up the fight. Thank you.

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  11. I love the idea of using commercials to show author’s viewpoint. I used this with my fourth grade class after we analyzed a nonfiction text and they were really engaged. It is also a good transition into media literacy or visual literacy. What happened to the Nerf gun commercial you used in the TCRWP workshop this summer? I loved watching the 20 year olds pretend to have fun playing with Nerf guns.

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