Teaching Close Reading? Genius.it!

Teaching close reading is a painstakingly difficult task. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes creativity. There is no doubt that once students understand the nuances of HOW to conduct a close reading, that their comprehension skills and ability to think thoughtfully AND critically will get better. The problem is how to get them to this point.

Some educators argue that we should supplant close reading with connected reading. And as much as I agree with this school of thought, I think close reading still has a place as one of the skills that students need to have. But why can’t we do both? Couldn’t connected reading and close reading coexist?

The question shouldn’t be “why do we teach close reading.” It should be, “how do we make close reading more engaging.” There are a couple ways I went about teaching close reading when I taught high school English. One of which included utilizing GAFE in creative ways to give students a format with which they can both conduct close reading as well as make connections to it. I wanted students collaborating, sharing, and thinking hard about what they were reading and how it connected to their world in some way. I wanted them sharing their work with me so that we could put our heads together so that I would get a better understanding of where they were. I wanted a way for students to make their voices heard, and allow other students the opportunity to build upon what each said.

So here is a pretty cool and simple way to conduct close AND connected reading in class. First, check out Genius.com. Genius.com is a website that originally allowed users to search for any rap music (formally called rapgenius.com) in their database and highlight and annotate over the text. Users could share their interpretation of the lyrics while embedding links to videos and music with the world. Now, Genius.com affords users the opportunity to search for any music AND texts (both literary and historical documents) and do the same thing. Pretty neat right? Just finding that out, my mouth began to salivate at the potential this could have in the classroom. But how could I get the most out of this type of interface, and recreate this using Google Docs? So here is how you can take advantage of this while giving you all the creativity you seek as a teacher.

First, open up a blank Google doc. Next, paste in the text that connects to what you are teaching: music lyrics, a poem, an excerpt from a piece of literature. Consider allowing students the freedom to select something that interests them as well. We should, after all, be teaching skills and NOT the content. Now, format the text in a way that makes it visually appealing, much like a web page does. For this example, I used an excerpt from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”- a song about a journey in search of meaning in a world of total ambiguity. (Sorry, the English teacher in me took over)

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When you are finished formatting the page, click “file“–> “publish to the web“.

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A pop-up window will open asking you to approve and publish this document. A quick caution: The next option asks if you want the option to “require viewers to sign in with their district account.” Do not check this box. It will block what we are trying to do in the next step, and thus, the interactive page that we are going to create will not work.

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Now click “publish”. A new URL will be generated. If you copy and paste this into a new window, you will see this Google Doc in web page view. Here is where this gets interesting and how we can take full advantage of the power of Genius! Type the prefix: genius.it/ in front of this new URL. What will come up is a copycat version of the google document, with an overlay embedded into it. You will now be able to annotate on top of the document by simply clicking and dragging over a word, line, or phrase. Notice the little”annotate” button that appears. Simply click it to activate the annotation tool. What is really neat is it simply streamlines everything to the right-hand side of the screen (similar to Google Doc comments). Students are able to annotate the text, build off each other, comment, or insert videos, presentations, and links, by pasting the URL of these sources into the annotation box.

For teachers: All you have to do is share this URL with your students prior to annotating, and students can then annotate your doc and collaborate together.

For students: All they have to do is share this URL with the teacher and/or other students they are collaborating with, to give them access to it.

** Note: Since we published this document, it is technically available on the web. However, the public would need to have the exact Google Doc URL including the genius prefix attached, to have access to the document. So no need to worry about random people accessing the same document as your students!

This tool takes the guesswork out of the process and allows students a template with which to spend their time annotating and making connections. I can see science and history classes doing this to articles and current events. Music classes with lyrics.

Reading needs to happen across ALL subjects. NOT just English. It’s a skill that takes practice.


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