September 2015 | Resource Feature
The Chemistry Close Read
By Jenelle Ball with Kate Ginno and Gale Morgan
Looking across a sea of heads nodding up and down in the audience as I made my speech accepting the 2015 James Bryant Conant Award, I knew I had hit a nerve when I said my students “just don’t read.” It is time for us to come together as a community of chemistry teachers to address this disturbing issue. For me, the first step involved collaboration with teachers from other disciplines.
My frustration with the lack of student reading was shared by both Gale Morgan (a teacher librarian) and Kate Ginno (a ninth-grade English teacher). In this article, we share how our collaboration evolved and how to bring active real-world reading into the high school chemistry class. We also share the implementation of the close-read strategy as a way of enhancing student understanding and engagement by slowing down the reading process without detracting from the current curriculum.
Collaboration through Readicide
Gale played the key role of bringing the three of us together by recommending the book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. Kate had already implemented some of Gallagher’s strategies in her classroom. When Gale shared that Kate was having success with these strategies, I was motivated to read the book. Gallagher defines readicide as “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools” (1). My initial thought was that this is an English/language arts problem. However, this book not only inspired our effort to bring reading back to the chemistry classroom, it also inspired the initial effort of collaboration that involved a chemistry teacher, a librarian, and an English teacher.
In Readicide, Gallagher addresses factors in schools that contribute to the destruction of teenage readers, including “the value placed on developing test takers instead of readers” and “the lack of authentic reading experiences” (1). With the loss of rich reading experiences, our students are not becoming critical readers, and they are not making connections to the relevance of chemistry to society and to their own lives. In essence, their learning is short-changed if they are not expected to read relevant text in a manner that allows them to engage with the text in an active way.
As a chemistry teacher, I had witnessed the emphasis on test-taking with the implementation of high-stakes statewide testing. The state chemistry exam was entirely multiple choice. While I thought that I had not let the test influence my curriculum, reading Gallagher’s text made me realize that wasn’t quite true. I had changed many exams from written explanation questions to multiple choice to give students practice with that style of testing and to increase the pace of instruction (and grading). This came at the price of cultivating deep knowledge and the deep understanding needed to analyze, explain, and predict as well as being able to write one’s thoughts. In a way, I had minimized the students’ need to read critically for learning and understanding.
I have also seen authentic reading experiences disappear. In the 1980s and early ’90s, school budgets were robust, and the California chemistry curriculum focused on process and conceptual understanding. My high school chemistry students would read, discuss, and write about articles in the magazine ChemMatters. But budgets dwindled, and the curriculum became focused on factual knowledge over a plethora of topics. Along with the loss of those magazines, I noticed my students were doing less and less reading. The textbook was briefly skimmed for answers. Students no longer read for information or interest; they weren’t reading to learn.
Gallagher places an emphasis on authentic reading, which he defines as “the kinds of reading we, as adults, do in newspapers, magazines, blogs, and websites. These doses need to come from a mix of reading experiences, from longer, challenging novels and works of nonfiction to light recreational reading” (1). This is the reading that I knew I could and should be providing my students. I allowed budgets and high-stakes testing to change what I was doing with students to an adverse effect. Ten years later, I found myself wondering how I could bring back the essence of the past but make it better with what we know today to end readicide.
Kate answered this by showing me how she has implemented Gallagher’s “article of the week” assignment. Gallagher believes the articles have one purpose, “to broaden my students’ knowledge of the world” (1). As an English and reading teacher, Kate was influenced by Readicide because she too has witnessed the decline in reading habits and level of engagement in students over the past several years. As a teacher, parent, and private tutor, she has also witnessed how schools are limiting and ruining students’ opportunities to develop a love for reading for reading’s sake. In addition to witnessing the decline in authentic reading, she has observed that many secondary students think they know a heck of a lot more than they actually do. Although many students think they read more than ever because the Internet is accessible at their fingertips, they aren’t reading deeply. She introduced article of the week in her ninth-grade classes to supplement novel reading with real-world reading. Kate and Gale showed how this assignment could be supported and expanded in science classrooms. Together, we implemented the chemistry close read.
The chemistry close read
The chemistry close read is an active read of an article for depth of understanding. The strategy helps students navigate and access the sometimes challenging chemistry readings. The close reading strategy slows down the reading process, which is helpful for students with little interest or enthusiasm to read challenging expository text. Each student is given a copy of an article to read and annotate. They should highlight or underline important or interesting ideas and then write in the margins next to the word or passage their thoughts, reactions, connections, and/or questions about the text. When the reader comes across a word that is new, they should circle it, look up the definition, and near the word write the definition. After reading the article, the student writes two statements: a summary and a reflection.
At the beginning of the school year, I give students a sample close read and model what they should do. I pick something short in length (a paragraph or two) that is about something interesting. When students do the close read, they sometimes fall into the habit of writing shallow comments like “cool,” “very interesting,” or “wow.” Modeling thoughtful and insightful written comments helps set high expectations. Making meaningful and rich comments also emphasizes the importance of slowing down and re-reading at times. It is also good to include words that need defining, so if students skip over them, they learn the significance of understanding words as part of the context.
Both the summary statement and reflective statement are also modeled at this time. These statements are the synthesis piece that addresses the “so what?” or purpose of reading the article. Most of the students in the chemistry class at our school have done close reads in their English classes, so this is a familiar process. This introduction to the close read usually takes 20 to 30 minutes, which leaves class time for daily work.
The experience in the English class has shown that articles should be no longer than two to three pages. At times, the assigned article has connected with a topic being studied, but most of the articles have been selected because they are about a current event or fascinating research project. The articles have come from ChemMatters, Chemical & Engineering News, and local newspapers. ChemMatters comes with a free online Teacher’s Guide, which includes extensive and detailed reading guides for each article. These guides can be helpful to start a reading program and use after a close read as a way of showing students the depth of reading that they are striving to achieve. Typically, two to three nights are given to complete the assignment. On the day the assignment is due, a short class discussion should occur. The assignment sheets for the chemistry class and the English class are included in the classroom resources section.
Grading the close read
The daunting prospect of grading almost prevented me from adopting this assignment. The question of how to grade this assignment was answered by Kate (another example of the value of our collaboration). Kate had great advice—both the grading and implementation of the close read should come in stages. In the beginning, I required six to nine comments per page. I also required one definition. The comments are quickly checked for richness, and a particularly good comment gets a mark of recognition on the paper. The real evidence of deep understanding is shown in the summary statement and reflection or opinion (an additional requirement in the English class). Later, instead of counting the number of comments, focus on the richness of comments. Finally, the teacher can check the close read with a fast look so that only the ending statements need careful reading. Kate made me realize that grading the close read should reflect its purpose.
What students say
In an effort to get the student perspective on the close read, students completed a short survey at the end of the school year. The general trends were extremely obvious and some were very surprising. First, almost all of the students described their reading of the textbook as skimming. Second, almost all of the students were surprised that they liked the close read articles. Third, the students overwhelmingly selected the article “The Science of Sleep” (2) as their favorite. The survey verified my suspicion that chemistry students were skim readers who found the articles selected for the close read to be interesting, engaging, and different from their usual reading.
What surprised me was the suggested improvement to assign more articles. Students wanted more than four close reads (one per quarter) in a year, and they wanted articles that were relevant to their lives (not necessarily related to content). Students also said loud and clear that they did not like having a required number of comments per page and would rather be held accountable for the richness of comments rather than the number of them. The feedback supports the continuation of the close read with modifications. The survey and results are included in the classroom resources section.
The future of the chemistry close read
The future of the chemistry close read in my classroom will reflect the student survey responses and be supported by continuing collaboration with Kate and Gale. This year, the close reads will begin with teacher modeling, and then gradually, responsibility will shift to the students to engage with the text independently. The sources of articles will be expanded, and at times the students will be given the opportunity to choose their own article. I plan to include a close read on a portion of the textbook containing a difficult and significant concept. The goal is for student ownership of deeper, more authentic reading experiences. This practice of reading critically is once again focusing my chemistry classroom on cultivating deep knowledge and the deep understanding needed to analyze data, explain and predict, and be able to write one’s thoughts.
Consider establishing an informal collaborative team between departments that you have good chemistry with to implement close reading in your classroom. Next time you read some cool chemistry stuff, share it with your students, and share your comments and questions with us.
- Gallagher, Kelly. Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It. Stenhouse
Publishers: Portland, Maine; 2009, pp. 2, 5, 29, 47.
- Harper, Kristin. “So Tired in the Morning: The Science of Sleep,” ChemMatters, Dec 2014/Jan 2015, pp. 8–10.
This article was extremely well liked by students this year. Other ChemMatters articles have also been well received
“Electronic Skin,” C&EN, Aug 2011, is just the first example of articles from C&EN. Every issue offers many wonderful articles, and the same is true for ChemMatters, which is an AACT member benefit.