The Nonfiction Debate

This morning I read a piece in The New York Times about the Common Core Standards‘ nonfiction requirements: What Should Children Read? With the implementation of Common Core Standards, the article reports, fully 70 percent of the 12th grade curriculum will consist of nonfiction titles, which is quite a shift from where the focus seems to have been in recent years. My memories of assigned readings throughout my public and private education, from elementary school through university, primarily involve works of fiction (one notable exception being The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank). I do have fond memories of reading Scholastic’s Weekly Reader publication in class, as well as reporting on “current event” articles from the local newspapers from time to time in fourth and fifth grade.

I haven’t read the new standards in their entirety myself, but I imagine that teachers will have to take the good with the bad. One question that the debate over fiction versus nonfiction raises is why we want children to read certain titles and genres. As we engage in necessary and important debate, we must never lose sight of the fact that we want, more than anything, for children to read, full stop. A quote that particularly jumped out at me from the article this morning was the following:

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

My initial response to this is visceral and biased because I have a deep and abiding passion for fiction and children’s self-expression. There is nothing like sharing a wonderful work of fiction and fantasy with children. It could be considered an imperative of human tradition, if we trace back fables, fairy tales, and oral storytelling through the ages. Nothing compares to the feeling of being carried away by imagination. And, as we know, if we want to successfully compete in the world of tomorrow, we need creativity! Additionally, fiction is tied inextricably to reality. It allows for seeing events and challenges through different lenses and can help children to develop theory of mind (that is, being able to see things from other points of view). The most successful schools will balance the development of all of the unique strengths and skills of children, including those who will one day lead us in business and those who will one day lead us in the arts. Our emphasis on self-expression does not need to undermine an understanding of facts and figures. In fact, self-expression can make for mathematicians and marketers who can reach other people more effectively.

I personally don’t relish the thought of living and working in a world devoid of self-expression. I prefer to engage with other people with rich imaginations and passionate interests on diverse topics. I love it when someone can share with me something from a book or article they’ve read. We’re so much more interesting, on the whole, when we’re reading and writing and just generally expressing ourselves.

The benefits of reading and writing fluently are seemingly endless and it is always a top priority in education, no matter your educational philosophy or stance on fiction versus nonfiction. We can all agree that we not only want children to read and write, but to enjoy doing so (because it is with this enjoyment that they will be most successful). Coming from a preschool education background, I find the debate a bit — dare I say?– silly. I believe that by the time children reach high school, it’s getting a bit late in the game to light their fire. By this stage of development, they should not only read and write fluently, but be able to select quality fiction and nonfiction that sets their minds and hearts ablaze. By this stage they should have encountered and been guided by numerous teachers, mentors, and librarians, showing them the tremendous diversity available in the written word and engaging and challenging them with discussion.

In preschool circles, we talk about creating for children a “text-rich” environment to encourage early literacy. This means that children see examples of text in many different contexts, from labels and signs to books and magazines. They have the opportunity to read recipes and follow printed directions. They read and draw maps. They observe teachers taking notes and writing reports and they have the opportunity to dictate descriptions of their own artwork and projects. When I was teaching preschool, I would often check out adult reference books from the library on topics my students were interested in, from sharks to rabbits to construction to pies. As passionate as children are for stories, rhymes, and imaginary pursuits, they are passionately hungry for nonfiction — for understanding exactly how real things work and fit together and what it all means. (Have you ever shown a princess-obsessed four-year-old girl a book of real castles or shared stories of true royalty? They’re hooked from the word go. Even infants prefer books with pictures of REAL faces, real foods, and real objects, as compared to illustrations — the very earliest level of nonfiction available in bookstores and libraries.) Based on my own experiences as both teacher and student, I don’t think it would be too much of a challenge to apply the same principles as children grow. High schoolers too have passionate real-world interests that teachers can cultivate and pursue through examples of nonfiction texts. Nonfiction and fiction sometimes compliment one another, as my own recent research into the life of Mary Todd Lincoln (my interest inspired by watching the movie Lincoln) has revealed — I have dipped into both fictionalized and fact-based accounts of her life to try to gain a better understanding of her as a complete person. Here is what appeals to me: an articulate, compelling piece of writing that invites me to learn something new.

We bathe young children in dozens and dozens examples of texts so that they will know what is available to them and how written language is utilized; so that they will see its value, I suppose. By the time we’ve grown up a bit more, we should be sold on it. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to be convincing high school students that reading is really a very good and important thing to do — they should by that time be fully invested themselves, as well as competent in researching topics of interest. Wouldn’t it be something if we weren’t telling them what to read but instead they were telling us what they’re reading?

Readers are better writers. If this is what we want for students (and I hope we do), we can certainly agree on Sara Mosle’s statement:

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing.

In all areas of curriculum, it would behoove us to focus on quality over quantity. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I would also like to suggest taking a grand leap and trusting in students to pursue areas of personal interest — be it fiction or nonfiction — because it is then that true, meaningful learning begins to happen. We need to lay the groundwork, issue the invitation, and then give students the space for the magic to happen. When we want to learn something, when we feel that spark, the sky is the limit and even the most well-written standards can’t hold us back.

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2 thoughts on “The Nonfiction Debate

  1. Anelie says:

    “Yes!” x 1,000,000. The short-sightedness of David Coleman’s quoted comment is thoroughly exasperating – education is about students as whole people, not just employees. And if training for a job (which, as you say, is mysteriously never ‘novelist’, ‘journalist’ or ‘advertising copywriter’, to name three roles where effective writing is a must) IS all we care about (sob), then the person who can write a compelling account of their childhood will also write a more insightful, readable and persuasive market analysis!

    I do so wish there were more room in syllabi the world over for more self-directed learning. My own inadvertantly patchy high schooling led to me reading all sorts of odd stuff at odd times, a significant proportion of which (at least 50% I’d say) turned out to be directly useful to my eventual tertiary studies. Read everything: you never know when it will come in handy! 😉

  2. […] if you’re really dedicated to the task, demonstrate how books — physical books — can be used for research purposes, not just Google. But that’s another post for another day. Stay […]

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