I avoided reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for years because of the book’s content. With so many amazing works of literature to spend time with, why read a novel that explores the mind of a disturbed pedophile? I finally decided to pick up Nabokov’s classic after reading Roy Peter Clark’s book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing. Clark’s study of Lolita’s opening sentences convinced me that content aside, anyone who crafts sentences with such skill and beauty, is an author that I had to read.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
My skin crawled. Knowing the story I was about to read, these sentences engendered revulsion and admiration. The syntactical pacing, alliteration, and the simplicity of the diction choices combined with the vile nature of the narrator’s voice are brilliant. Nabokov hooked me. He hooked me with his genius in crafting sentences.
Building on Clark’s The Art of X-Ray Reading, I started a warm-up activity I call Spotlight Reading. I put a “spotlight” on sentences that I thought would interest my students, but more importantly, sentences that pack a punch. To help my students learn close reading skills, I wanted to shine a critical light on the micro to help illuminate the macro. As Francine Prose suggests in her book Reading Like a Writer: “The well-made sentence transcends time and genre.”
- I have students buy a simple composition notebook at the start of the year. One section of the notebook is dedicated to Spotlight Reading. I average 35-40 entries per year. Last year students filled out an end-of-the-year survey, and a typical comment read “Spotlight Reading was my favorite. Now I notice so much more when I read – especially the tough stuff!”
- When students arrive, I have the Spotlight sentence(s) or short poem on the screen.
- For every Spotlight activity I read the selection to the class and then allow time for careful, silent rereading.
- The one enduring question that students start with is “what do I notice?” Their job is to notice what they notice. I don’t have a predetermined “magic noticing” that they are trying to guess. I just want them to read each work carefully and see what they notice.
- After about one minute, I put up a question that is specific to the piece. This question usually asks students to connect their noticing to a larger idea the selection is suggesting. I give students about 4-5 minutes to write.
- Spotlight writing’s aim is to help students read closely and consider what they read. I want them to think critically about the selection and write down their ideas. Writing can always be polished later, but polished writing without insightful ideas is boring.
- I allow 1-2 minutes for table discussions so students can discuss their ideas with each other.
- Finally, we spend about 3 minutes discussing their ideas as a whole class. These quick conversations are always interesting, insightful, and valuable.
- Students put away their composition books and transition into the day’s activities. The entire process runs about 10-11 minutes.
- I collect Spotlight Readings once per marking period. I score them on effort, thoughtfulness, and critical thinking. I don’t care about right and wrong. I don’t care about grammar (at least in this case). I do care about growth in critical thinking and insight.
Read Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings” and answer the following questions:
- What do you notice first about this poem? A word? A line? Structure? Be specific.
- What do you consider the poet’s main message to be in this poem?
“Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.”
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
Read this sentence from In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and respond to the following questions:
- What do you notice about his sentence?
- How does the sentence’s syntax help to create meaning?
Read the poem “Mediocrity in Love Rejected” and answer the following in a minimum of 100 words:
- What do you notice first in this poem?
- How does the title frame your reading?
- Does the poem support or frustrate your expectations based on the title?
Spotlight Reading allows all students to engage with sentences, poems, or short passages without risk of failure. All students can notice and write about something. As the year progresses, students gain confidence and their observations grow more insightful. I want my kids to understand that they can find entry points into almost any work, even longer works. If they can read sentences and short poems, and find entry points, and create insightful analysis, then they can find entry points that create insightful analysis into longer works of literature as well.
Roy F. Smith is the English Department Chair at Round Rock High School and teaches AP English Literature and Dual-Credit English. Roy is also an adjunct professor at Austin Community College. Roy is an AP English Reader for College Board, an AP Advocate, and a consultant for the National Math and Science Institute (NMSI). In 2015, he was named Round Rock High School and the Round Rock ISD Secondary Teacher of the Year.