Monday, December 20, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction?

Recently, there has been some talk about removing Fiction from the classroom and replacing it with more Non Fiction. Besides being a tech nerd, I am an English Teacher first. Here are some of my thoughts on Fiction in the classroom.

This year was one of my hardest years teaching the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I actually did not teach all of it. I took some passages and events and used them to teach satire, which is the true purpose of the unit. One of the biggest reasons I chose to teach selections was the fact that my students were going to struggle with making connections to the jokes that Twain had planted throughout the text. I supplemented with other short works from Twain and some pieces from The Onion. I felt ok with doing this. I wasn't happy, but I was ok.

Twain is my favorite author. I love his wit and humor. I truly believe he set the tone for modern American humor and SNL can point to him as an early forefather. Every year though, I see his great works move slowly away from the students that come into my classroom. Every year, the jokes take a little bit longer to connect. The allusions are a bit harder to find. After a decade of teaching his work, it has become painful to see the blank stare of students as I explain that the "magic" hairball is satirizing fortune tellers and their "magic" crystal balls. My Twain unit is slowly turning into a Satire unit where I pull newer material in every year. Is there going to be a day where I show nothing but Simpsons and SNL to teach Satire?

The one thing that is really tough about being an English teacher is that ever year, the curriculum gets old. As it gets older, the students are slightly removed from it. In the curriculum for my district, the "newest" piece is Death of a Salesman. That is now over 50 years old. I think Death of a Salesman is still relevant to students today and the Dustin Hoffman movie is a great performance of the work. I still love teaching The Crucible and the kids cannot get enough of Holden and The Catcher in the Rye. (I personally think they like it because I let them say Fuck. Kids.) It's Twain and those crazy Romanticists and Transcendentalists that are losing the power they once had on students. Many kids cannot see the connection of Huck coming of age and Thoreau writing that people should be who they are no matter what others think. What next?

As teachers, we have to be ok with letting go of some of the texts we grew up loving and look at some of the great newer literature out there. I'm not suggesting that departments go out and use the flavor of the month every year, but they need to be willing to be open to new ideas. The texts are classics, but the focus needs to be on the skills. If you can get kids to understand coming of age and dystopian society by using The Hunger Games, why not consider the change.  There are plenty of great books out there that appeal to the new generation of reader. Some of these new books are Graphic Novels!

It took me two years and tons of leg work to create a Graphic Novel Class. (It is officially called Pictorial Literature because community members might be bothered by having a class with the word graphic in it.) I saw a hole in the curriculum for a certain group of students and I thought a class that had different offerings would appeal to students looking for something different.

I teach Bone by Jeff Smith as an Epic Novel comparing it to The Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. I also teach Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Maus by Art Spiegelman and graphic versions of Poe and Twain Short Stories. I also do a cool ( I think it's cool) Dystopian Novel Unit using Watchmen, Dark Knight, V for Vendetta and Kingdom Come. Our textbook is Scott McLoud's Understanding Comics. It's been an an exciting class that is run no differently than any other literature based class. I'm constantly tweaking it and is better this year than it was last year. It's time for curricula to change around the country. No longer are the classics of my youth (I was in high school in the 90s) the classics of today's classroom.

I understand the push for more non-fiction in the classroom. Kids are going to encounter non-fiction in life on a regular basis and after school, fiction is for recreation. However, fiction can inspire. Fiction can make a person view life in a completely different way. Fiction is art. The way an author crafts a sentence or plot structure is beautiful. If we move away from fiction, are we heading toward the world Bradbury envisioned in Fahrenheit 451 (Top 5 Novel for me)?

Fiction is something very special. They are stories of people about anything and everything. Not only can Fiction be used to teach anything you want as a teacher, it can be the inspiration for a student to pick up the pen. As important as it is to help kids develop critical thinking skills, the creative mind needs to be nurtured as well and Fiction can help in that area. 

Very few people know this, but there is a collection of short stories out there by a Nicholas Provenzano.  Now, I bet that person was inspired to write by reading great works on fiction as well as not great works of fiction. Everyone has a story to tell and we now live in a time where people can share their stories with the world. Fiction plays an important role in molding creative young students. Why would we want to take those stories away from kids who are just discovering their own potential as creators?

Do not buy into the concept that the fiction is outdated and not relevant to today's kids so it must be replaced. Tons of great fiction can be found if teachers and administrators are willing to look for it and spend the money to replace the older texts. I fear that the dollar and cents of the matter is what is truly dictating the slow evolution in the English Curriculum.

What are your thoughts on Fiction and Non-Fiction in the English Classroom?

- @TheNerdyTeacher