Close Reading: James Baldwin Talks to Teachers

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SWBAT understand the rhetorical strategies used by James Baldwin when addressing a group of teachers through close reading of particular paragraphs of text.

Big Idea

Close reading sometimes means analyzing a text one paragraph at a time.


Warm-up: Hearing James Baldwin

20 minutes

Students are coming in having read James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers.”  This is a transition in content from questions about why certain content is taught in school to more classic philosophical views of education.  Because the content of this piece is a bit more complex and of a context students are not as familiar with, I want to provide some context for them by showing a short video of James Baldwin when he spoke at UC Berkeley about education in 1974.



In the four minutes, he makes some strong points about the relationship between government, money, race, and education that I think will help students think about the text once we get into the analysis.

I will show the piece twice (Baldwin talks rapidly, so it will take one viewing to get tuned in) and ask students to jot down interesting points they hear.  Then I will ask them to share those thoughts before transitioning to a study of the text.  One thing I want to make sure we discuss from this is when he says that education is a billion dollar industry and the least important part of that is the child.  This is a powerful indictment of government, stronger perhaps than in the speech they read.  Since this idea, as well as others Baldwin brings up, are also topics being discussed in today's political environment about education, I want to show them how some of the arguments we’ve read by modern writers such as Fareed Zakaria are not really new.

One Question, One Passage at a Time

50 minutes

As with other lessons where students come in having read a text and responded in writing, I will have them talk to each other for about ten minutes to reacquaint themselves with James Baldwin's "Talk to Teachers", and also to verbalize their responses in a less-evaluative space before they share with the group.  This will help to clarify some of their thoughts, ask each other questions, and also ask me questions.  It also provides time for formative assessment--for me to get a sense of how they did with the text and the questions (and if many of them did not complete the assignment, since it is hard to hide that in this format).

After re-visiting the piece, we will work through question by question as a class.  The questions all refer to specific paragraphs and address a variety of rhetoric and language concepts such as ethos, paradox, use of pronouns, and the effect of organizational strategies.  To really hone in on these close-reading skills, I will ask students to read the question and particular passage associated with the question out loud first so everyone can hear and engage in the language.  Because we’re working with a slightly more complex text, and the context is not something they are as familiar with, reading it out loud also allows students who may not have followed the reading well a chance to hear it, too.  After reading out loud, I will ask for volunteers to answer the question, or call on students if necessary (if only a couple students continue to answer).  Some of these questions may carry over to the next day, but hopefully we'll have an in-depth discussion.

Next Steps:  Next class we will continue to go backwards in time, reading an excerpt from Education by Ralph Waldo Emerson.