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


  1. Thanks, Nick, for taking the time to expound on our 140 character conversation today! Rather than leave a lengthy response here, I will be writing a post of my own. I'll let you know when it's done :)

  2. Thank you for 1) having the guts to be honest about the "canon." Thank God I teach middle school, where we have long focused on finding contemporary books that kids relate to (and there are so many superlative ones).

    Thanks for 2) praising fiction. Yes we need more non-fiction. But no babies with the bathwater please.

    Thanks for saying it.

  3. I definitely see why there is a push to teach more non-fiction. As an adult you certainly are exposed to more non-fiction than fiction. I wonder if the push to eliminate fiction would dissipate if non-fiction were used more often for literacy in K-5 (K-6 in some districts)? In my 5th grade classroom I certainly do quite a bit in literacy with fiction, but I balance it out by teaching reading through social studies. In the beginning you definitely get some kids who read it the same way they do fiction- instead of setting a purpose, and examining the various features unique to n.f.

  4. I teach grade 4 in Ontario.

    In our classrooms, 80% of the texts that we use are supposed to be Non-Fiction.

    Although the boys really gravitate towards NF, I sneak in more Fiction than I am supposed to when I can. Depends on the day, the lesson and most importantly, the student.

    Being a French Immersion teacher- our selection of second language books is really lacking. I feel that there are NO fiction books being purchased at all for junior/intermediate grades..... Brutal. All I have to work with for small-group instruction is Non Fiction..... aie!!

  5. Just to play devil's advocate, may I suggest the following:

    - One of the key rationales for the existence of English as a course (specifically on the secondary level) is to teach philosophical dialogue. In a global society, our students need to be able to understand their own views and to articulate those views diplomatically with those who see the world differently. In reading a text, students are confronted by the author's beliefs and values. In responding to a text and to their classmates, these students actively practice dialogue skills that are foundational for global collaboration in any field.

    - If this is true, then exposing students to only texts written in one language, within predominantly one culture, during a period of 100 years is a great disservice. Students need to understand the values and beliefs of 20th/21st century America, but if that's all they can appreciate when they graduate, all hope of dialogue has been destroyed, replaced with the assumption that every idea worth considering is native to our own society.

    It is important to give students texts that they can understand and immediately relate to, but if we avoid giving them anything foreign (via time or space), how can we expect them to sit across the table somebody completely different and come away with a mutual understanding?

  6. Fiction helps us understand the world and our place in it in a way that non-fiction just can't do. It is an important part of learning, growing up, and connecting with reading.
    It is awesome that you are so open to considering less classic texts...sometimes when you teach students to fall in love and understand ideas through a text that seems more "relevant" to students, it opens doors to digging in and exploring the classics because now they have something they can relate it to.

  7. Fiction bores my 6 yr old daughter but give the girl anything to do with bugs and animals she is all over it. Hopefully, when she is in high school there will be some fabulous nonfiction in the curriculum to keep her interested.

    On a different note, I'm in my forties and have finally read Fahrenheit 451 - as a graphic novel!

  8. If doctors had not read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, would there be organ transplants today? If scientists had not read Jules Verne's books, would man have gone to the moon? But then, Verne's books would have been more 'modern' compared with Shelley's. Still, I like to think that some scientific developments had been inspired by writers. Who knows what will develop in the next fifty years because a kid read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?


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