Tag Archives: close reading

Sometimes There’s This One Book

Before the first day of school this year, I learned that a student who was to attend our campus took her own life. She was 15. This would have been her 16th year. It should have been a shining time for her:  a junior in high school, a driver’s license, maybe her first job, and if her family was like mine, her first date (I had to be 16).

Her family, of course, is devastated. I didn’t even know this child, and I am devastated, as I am every single time I hear of the awful reality of suicide.

We have to do something.

I don’t know what, really. I do know that the world should be a hopeful place. I also know that so often adults refuse to act like it is. I am as guilty as the next guy of going through the motions, mirroring the depressive nature of my Bad Day. But I vow to stop.

I want to be an example of hope. I want to smile more. Love more. Laugh more. I want my students to see that I love my job. I cannot wait to get there. (That’s what being at a new school has done for me this year. I’ve let the negativity that I let nag at my soul so long go, and I feel new, reborn, liberated. Strange to use those words, I know, but they describe the “freeing” best.)

Recently, I read Matthew Quick’s book Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, and it rocked my world. Seriously. You know when you read a book, and then it haunts you — like forever? This is one of those books for me. I am, and will be, a better teacher, friend, wife, mother, daughter, colleague, leader, consultant because I read this book.

Here is a bit that I will use in class. Maybe we’ll use this passage for close reading. It’s a good one for tone or sentence structure. Maybe we’ll use it to launch a class discussion about hopes and dreams and how to hold on to them. I don’t know yet. But there’s something important here — for us and our students. Read it. You’ll see what I mean.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, p46-47

The whole time I pretend I have mental telepathy. And with my mind only, I’ll say– or think?–to the target, “Don’t do it. Don’t go to that job you hate. Do something you love today. Ride a roller coaster. Swim in the ocean naked. Go to the airport and get on the next flight to anywhere just for the fun of it. Maybe stop a spinning globe with your finger and then plan a trip to that very spot; even if it’s in the middle of the ocean you can go by boat. Eat some type of ethnic food you’ve never even heard of. Stop a stranger and ask her to explain her greatest fears and her secret hopes and aspirations in detail and then tell her you care because she is a human being. Sit down on the sidewalk and make pictures with colorful chalk. Close your eyes and try to see the world with you nose–allow smells to be your vision. Catch up on your sleep. Call an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Roll up your pant legs and walk into the sea. See a foreign film. Feed squirrels. Do anything! Something! Because you start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take. Just don’t go back to that miserable place you go every day. Show me it’s possible to be an adult and also be happy. Please. This is a free country. You don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to. You can do anything you want. Be anyone you want. That’s what they tell us at school, but if you keep getting on that train and going to the place you hate I’m going to start thinking the people at school are liars like the Nazis who told the Jews they were just being relocated to work factories. Don’t do that to us. Tell us the truth. If adulthood is working some death-camp job you hate for the rest of your life, divorcing your secretly criminal husband, being disappointed in your son, being stressed and miserable, and dating a poser and pretending he’s a hero when he’s really a lousy person and anyone can tell that just by shaking his slimy hand–if it doesn’t get any better, I need to know right now. Just tell me. Spare me from some awful f******fate. Please.”


Note:  There are two footnotes in this passage. I left them off quite simply because I do not know how to format them in WordPress. Sorry, Mr. Quick.

A Text Study with Paired Passages that will haunt your heart

This wasn’t my typical spring break. This year I spent most every waking hour either snuggling a tiny new grand baby or chasing her 17 month old sister. Grandmother heaven. Especially since my daughter and my only grandchildren live 1300 miles away from my home in Texas.

I spent my late evenings reading a handful of books from my towering TBR pile. Two have left scars on my heart. And as I look at my beautiful and innocent granddaughters, I pray: “Please protect these babies.”

The girls in these books were not so blessed. Both suffered abuse and heartache. I know it’s fiction. I get that it’s not real. But the haunting images so artfully crafted by these authors have shaped my thinking in ways that I’d never considered. My compassion swells for those trapped in darkness and fear.

And I hope I can serve as rescuer to anyone who needs a person to trust. I know many students come to school hurting, hungry, hopeless. If only we can offer solace and provide peace, comfort, safety. If only we can help them fight their way to light and love, and help them be the actors in their own inspiring stories instead of always being acted upon–

My students will want to read these books, so I will chat about them and share these passages.  They are rich enough for text study and I’m sure will inspire some insightful conversation.

from My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt p122

Skills Focus:  tone, symbolism, hyperbole, metaphor

The worst thing was

Serena ending up being stolen

by someone else’s story–

just a character in his story,

and the ending she wanted to have

got him instead,

just a part of his stupid story . . .

that was the worst thing of all.

I threw up again,

maybe with a chunk of heart,

and Call came in and I said,

do you see any bits of heart in there?

He said, you’re losing it,

said, this could all be over in a minute

if you take your candy,

and I forgot to answer because I was thinking,

he can’t have her anymore,

I’m writing a new end to her story,

I’m taking Serena’s story back.

Question:  Explain how the author uses the word story in this poem?

 from Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman p40

Skills Focus:  tone, details, euphemism, diction


The metal flash of a pair of wire strippers, the unexpected shine on a Phillips head, these things cause the same fear in me, the same gut-tightening, ass-puckering panic as the midnight gleam of a switchblade. Chain locks have the same effect. And lightbulbs. You can find all of these at your local hardware store.

Sometimes Carol goes with Tony to Guido’s Pizza and leaves me at Ace. Tony is her boyfriend and he says having a six-year-old around all the time cramps their style, but I don’t like him anyway, be cue when I’m with them he either hogs the Close Encounters game or he hogs Carola and I never get a chance at either one.

Ace smells like orate hand cleaner and WD-40, and I pretend not to hear the adult talk that passes across the counter between the men of the town about certain women of the town as they pay the Hardware Man for their wood screws and drill bits. I also pretend like I never have to go potty. Because I don’t need help, but the Hardware Man will want to help me anyway. And when he helps me, the lights go out.

Question:  Explain how the author creates a tone of dread.

Paired passages question:  Explain how the passages are similar.

Starting Close Reading with Mexican White Boy

Matt de la Pena is scheduled to speak at TAIR in Denton, TX on September 30. If things work out, he’ll be coming to my school to speak on the 28. I am excited for my students to hear Mr. de la Pena’s story. It is so similar to their own.

Mexican White BoyMexican White Boy is the first de la Pena book I’ve read. Ball Don’t Lie, We Were Here, and I Will Save You are rising on my TBR pile. I imagine my students might get at them first.

A passage from Mexican White Boy made me take note. It’s a great read aloud, but it’s also a great piece for a text study. It’s packed with literary and rhetorical devices and would be ideal for close reading for concrete vs. abstract details. Or, tone. Or, syntax, Or, all of them.

It all hits him as he stares at a half-finished love letter. No matter how many words he defines or love letters he composes or pieces of junk mail he reads aloud to his grandma while she waters spider plants potted in old Folgers coffee cans he’ll still be a hundred miles away from who he’s supposed to be.

He’s Mexican, because his family’s Mexican, but he’s not really Mexican. His skin is dark like his grandma’s sweet coffee, but his insides are as pale as the cream she mixes in.

Danny holds the pencil above the paper, thinking:   I’m a white boy among Mexicans, and a Mexican among white boys.

He digs his fingernails into his arm. Looks up to see if anybody’s watching him. They aren’t.

Sometimes he’ll just watch his family interact in the living room. The half-Spanish jokes and the bottle of tequila being passed around with a shot glass and salt. The laughing and carrying on. Always eating the best food and playing the coolest games and telling the funniest stories. His uncles always sending the smallest kid at the party to get them a cold sixer out of the fridge and then sneaking him the first sip when Grandma isn’t looking. But even when she turns around suddenly, catches them red-handed and shots, “Ray! Mijo, what are you doing?” everybody just falls over laughing. Including Grandma.

And it makes him so happy just watching. Doesn’t even matter that he’s not really involved. Because what he’s doing is getting a sneak peek inside his dad’s life (89-90).

My students will start the year with a study of narrative writing. Thanks, Mr. de la Pena for this accessible piece to get us started.

Do you have any similar short texts that you use for close reading? Please share.

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