Lectio Verum: A New Twist on An Ancient Technique for Reading in the Classroom

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Interested in a great new reading strategy for your classroom? I’m excited to share this new twist on an ancient reading strategy with you, and I can’t wait to hear how it goes in your classroom!

First, the backstory.

Books & Podcasts

I love books, and I love podcasts. When I find podcasts about books, well, let’s just say I do a little happy dance. While I’m holding a book.

I listen to three podcasts of bookish goodness in particular:

  • What Should I Read Next?

    Anne Bogel performs bibliophilic matchmaking magic as she interviews guests about their reading lives. She asks for three books they’ve loved, one they definitely did not love, and what they would like to be different in their reading life. She then suggests three books for them to try. If you have a child in your life who you think might like something like this, she interviews a boy about audiobooks. What I don’t love: lots of ads. I mean, lots. More than any other podcast I’ve ever listened to.

  • The Librarian is In

    The official podcast of the New York Public Library will make you want to become a librarian, if you didn’t already. I love listening to this podcast with the terrific hosts Gwen and Frank. They don’t know me, but I’m sure they’d like me if they did because…books! They talk about books (of course) and they interview a wide range of people. It was on this podcast that I learned about the next one! What I don’t love: They’ve never had me as a guest.

  • Harry Potter and the Sacred Text

    I heard one of the hosts of this podcast on The Librarian is In, and I was intrigued. In this podcast, they examine Harry Potter as if the series were a sacred text. I love, love, love the format. You’ll see more below about what I love about this podcast. What I don’t love: I feel a little bashed on the head by Vanessa’s personal views, and irritated by her inflected speech. So many of her sentences sound like question when they’re supposed to be a statement. It’s become a common speech pattern among young women, but I could live without it. Easily and happily. If I ever met her, I would say, “Vanessa, you’re a strong and powerful woman. Say it like you mean it, rather than like you’re hedging a bet and ducking.”

Note: I use Stitcher to listen to podcasts. If you’re looking for a (free) app, this is the one I use. I like it because I can listen on multiple devices (rather than just using the built in app on my phone). When I go from phone to computer, my podcasts follow me.

Harry Potter & The Sacred Text

So, back to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.

I have binged on this podcast like they were going to stop talking tomorrow. The format is great.

It begins with a brief reading of the opening lines of the chapter that some awesome editing makes fade magically out.

They have a 30-second lightning round where both hosts compete to see who can give the best summary of the chapter. Listeners vote on the winner.

They discuss each chapter through a lens of theme, and then apply a technique normally used for examining sacred texts.

They also offer a “blessing” to the characters and people like them. I love that part.

After listening to soooo many episodes, the English teacher in me could not help but think about what an effective strategy this would be for literary analysis in a secondary classroom (or highly able upper elementary).

Lectio Divina becomes Lectio Verum

One of the techniques they use to examine the text as if it were sacred is called Lectio Divina (divine reading). You can read more about that if you’re interested. They’ve tweaked it for secular study, and it works beautifully.

Here, I’m going to adapt it for classroom use.

First, instead of calling it Lectio Divina, I’m calling it Lectio Verum (True Reading). It’s different enough that I think it needs its own name. The idea is that students read the text with an eye to revealing truths found within it that apply to their lives.

So, with thanks to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, here’s my take on it for classroom use. (Be sure to listen in to hear it in action!)

Lectio Verum, Step-by-Step

First, before class the teacher should read the text (or section of the text) and choose a theme through which to look at it. The teacher could have students do this, of course, if there is time/inclination. You can grab a huge list of common themes if you need ideas.

In class, students (or the teacher) skim the text and identify a very short passage or single sentence. Ideally, this is done randomly, simply skimming with a finger and then stopping.

Once the sentence is identified, it is read. The class then engages with this sentence using four steps.

1. Identification.

Identify the context. What’s happening? Where does this passage fall in the grand scheme of what’s going on in the story?

2. Connection.

Make connections with your prior knowledge and understanding. What allusions occur to you? Do any allegorical meanings reveal themselves? What symbols strike you? Can you think of anything you’ve learned before that it makes you think of?

3. Reflection.

How does the passage speak to you? How can you read it toward the theme that was identified?

4. Invitation.

What action could you take in your own life as a result of the truths you’ve learned in this passage of literature? Can you commit yourself to that action?

Examples

I’m going to share three examples. To make it as real as possible, I’ve gathered paper copies of these books from my son’s bookshelves, and I’m going to skim the chapter with my finger and randomly stop on a sentence.

I’m going to respond either as I think my students would, or with actual thoughts I’ve heard them share about these texts. I will not give responses as lengthy as what I think our discussion will be, but enough to give the idea.

We’ll see how it goes!

Example 1: Elementary Fiction Text The Trumpet of the Swan

Set up: We’re reading Chapter 9: The Trumpet through the theme of justification.

Random Sentence: “I have robbed a store,” he said to himself. “I have become a thief” (p.80).

1. Identification.

Identify the context. What’s happening? Where does this passage fall in the grand scheme of what’s going on in the story?

Louis the trumpeter swan, who can’t make a sound, is desperate for a real trumpet to impress his true love. He finds one in a music store in Billings, Montana, and he dove through the glass window of the store and took a trumpet. After he realizes what he’s done, he is horrified.

2. Connection.

Make connections with your prior knowledge and understanding. What allusions occur to you? Do any allegorical meanings reveal themselves? What symbols strike you? Can you think of anything you’ve learned before that it makes you think of?

It made me think of Les Miserables, actually, but I don’t think my third graders would think of that. I think they may think of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which they’ve read. They may discuss the difference, if any, between a robber and thief, and they may think of what it means to become something like a thief. If you steal one thing, does that make you a thief forever? How big of a thing do you have to steal to make you a thief? It’s a great example of internal conflict.

3. Reflection.

How does the passage speak to you? How can you read it toward the theme that was identified?

My students often come from families where someone they know has been or is in jail, so I can imagine that they will discuss that. Through the lens of justification (the identified theme for the chapter), I can see them discussing what justifies stealing something. If it’s justifiable to steal bread to feed yourself or a child, what else is justified? Does Louis think he’s justified? Can you be justified and regretful at the same time?

4. Invitation.

What action could you take in your own life as a result of the truths you’ve learned in this passage of literature? Can you commit yourself to that action?

I would hope they would decide that they won’t steal things for stronger reasons than they are scared of punishment. I hope they see that Louis truly regretted doing it and felt his whole life of goodness before this was overturned by this one act. He felt he had betrayed himself. I also hope they will consider thinking about the cost of trying to impress others and justifying bad choices in the name of making or keeping friends.

 

Example 2: Secondary Fiction Text A Separate Peace 

Set up: We’re reading Chapter 5 through the theme of truth.

Random sentence: “It was a messy break” (p. 55).

1. Identification.

Identify the context. What’s happening? Where does this passage fall in the grand scheme of what’s going on in the story?

Finny has fallen/been pushed from the tree and shattered his leg. Gene encounters the doctor who tells him to visit Finny in the infirmary and tells Gene the break was messy.

2. Connection.

Make connections with your prior knowledge and understanding. What allusions occur to you? Do any allegorical meanings reveal themselves? What symbols strike you? Can you think of anything you’ve learned before that it makes you think of?

The break was messy in more ways than the one the doctor means. The break is messy in its intentions, its origins. It’s a metaphor for Gene and Finny’s relationship, which is irretrievably broken. It’s ironic because as soon as Finny fell, Gene said he was finally rid of the fear he had, yet the fearful time was just beginning.

3. Reflection.

How does the passage speak to you? How can you read it toward the theme that was identified?

It’s right after this huge climax of Finny’s falling out of the tree, and it’s our first real understanding that Gene is an unreliable narrator. So there’s this element of falsehood surrounding it. Gene is lying to himself, to the reader, and he’s going to lie to Finny. He sets this whole system of untruth into motion. He’s like Nick Carraway in Gatsby. We can’t trust him. We know it, but we can’t stop hoping he’ll pull it out. It makes me think of the idea of a frenemy. It’s like Gene invented it way before it became a thing.

4. Invitation.

What action could you take in your own life as a result of the truths you’ve learned in this passage of literature? Can you commit yourself to that action?

I think my life would be better if I would commit to be more honest with myself. You can never really offer a true apology if you aren’t, and without true apology, you’ll always be an arrogant person.

Example 3: Secondary Non-fiction Text The Boys in the Boat

Set Up: We’re reading Chapter 11 through the theme of loneliness.

Random sentence: “For ten cents, a lonely fellow could dance one dance with a pretty woman” (p. 203).

1. Identification.

Identify the context. What’s happening? Where does this passage fall in the grand scheme of what’s going on in the story?

Joe has gone to work on a dam to earn money. It’s brutal and hot and lonely. On weekends, especially after they’ve just been paid, the men go to bars and dance halls.

2. Connection.

Make connections with your prior knowledge and understanding. What allusions occur to you? Do any allegorical meanings reveal themselves? What symbols strike you? Can you think of anything you’ve learned before that it makes you think of?

Is it wrong to think of the song “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”? The idea of ten cents is interesting because “dime” is slang for a pretty girl, a perfect ten. It’s interesting how men value women against money.

3. Reflection.

How does the passage speak to you? How can you read it toward the theme that was identified?

In some ways the loneliness here, where they’re willing to pay to be able to dance with someone, is like the loneliness in the boat. They’re working hard, and they’re a team, yet they’re really alone. Money is so scarce – it’s the Depression – and the men will pay for a dance over other things they surely need. I wonder if they’re missing women as love interests or missing their moms. It really speaks to the human need not to be isolated. We need connection, even if it’s false and fleeting.

4. Invitation.

What action could you take in your own life as a result of the truths you’ve learned in this passage of literature? Can you commit yourself to that action?

The best action I think would be to try to alleviate someone’s loneliness. Can I reach out to someone who is lonely? Can I befriend them?

Why I Love This as a Reading Strategy

  1. It’s self-differentiating. Students with higher thinking skills will be able to give deeper responses, yet on-level students will be able, especially with practice, to delve more deeply into the text than they may otherwise have been able to.
  2. I particularly like that it’s something that can be used over and over, and will be new with every experience.
  3. I like that you can have students work in groups. It’s perfect for group discussion.
  4. You can have students choosing different random sentences and then sharing out with the group or class, so it stays fresh.
  5. Taking a deep dive into a single sentence is incredibly powerful. It’s also a nice check for understanding to make sure students understand what they’ve read.
  6. It’s respectful of the text.

Keep Reading!

I hope you try the strategy. If you do, please let me know how it turns out. Be sure to try it a few times before you make a decision on its efficacy in your classroom. I’ve found it takes a few sincere tries to really get a feel for something new (even food!).

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