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Getting Comfortable Teaching Nonfiction

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Many of us got into teaching English because we love literature.

I'm sure if you polled  high school English teachers, the vast majority have literature degrees, read novels in their (limited) spare time, and can wax poetic about which authors and poets they most love teaching in their courses.

There are, of course, many English teachers who came to the job via some other profession, but a good chunk of them still identify as bookish types.

Which is why, I imagine, when an English teacher inherits an AP® Language course, he or she might experience some dismay at discovering that it's not a course that is meant to involve novels or poetry at all, but nonfiction instead: What do I know, after years of becoming an expert in the field of literary works, about nonfiction?

I wasn't ever much of a nonfiction reader myself. Memoirs and biographies? Eh. History and philosophy? Read 'em for school, but that was it.

But now I've found myself more interested than I used to be in nonfiction, in part because I've spent more time with it in the classroom, but also maybe because I find it interesting and relevant in my own life, whereas before I guess I just didn't see the point.

In the past year, I've found, with much more time on my hands, I've been more or less alternating between fiction and nonfiction reads. Faithfully recording my reading list on Facebook, I've tallied Three Cups of Tea, The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank, Going Solo, Ambivalence, and The Tipping Point alongside the thirteen fiction works I've finished since starting my sabbatical (gotta love the reading time a year off affords!). Before leaving on my trip, I'd read an Oliver Sacks, a couple of Michael Pollans, a Bill Bryson---hey, this nonfiction stuff is neat!

I just finished reading Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, and it resonated with me for several reasons.

It's a bit rambly, so I hope you'll bear with me as I try to synthesize everything that's been tumbling through my mind since about half-way through the book.

It's OK to like nonfiction, lit-geeks!

Pink's argument is predicated on the concept of the two "halves" of the brain---left (analytical) and right (creative, empathetic)---working together to form "a whole new mind," one that is adapted to face the challenges of a world and job market where knowledge-based tasks are increasingly automated and no longer define the elite. Instead of relying solely on "left-brain-directed" skills like analyzing and calculating, those who wish to succeed will need to integrate those skills with "right-brain-directed" aptitudes, which Pink identifies as "Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning."

Pink doesn't insist on those aptitudes taking over to the exclusion of the analytical ones, as some previous gurus have done. Becoming a "new-minded" person involves no longer suppressing those aptitudes, as we are so often encouraged to do to achieve success, but fostering them in conjunction with the left-brained ones.

So, what does this have to do with being an English teacher? Well, it occurred to me as I was reading, isn't literature kind of "right-brained"? I mean, so often we defend the importance of reading literature because it fosters empathy, creates a kind of symphony of words, provides meaning, and, yes, is all about story. Very right-brained. But we're supposed to integrate the two, right? So having some left-brained, analytical-thinking stuff thrown in there is good for my brain!

Well, that was a no-brainer (sorry).

Not really a revelation, after all. But it did get me thinking about other things.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Right Brain.

So teachers of English literature deal largely with material that's supposedly heavily right-brain-oriented, right?

Then why do so many of the assignments we give our students, especially in AP®, reflect solely left-brain-oriented skills?

Think about it: we teach students how to analyze literature. That's to say (simplifying greatly, yes) that we teach students to apply left-brain thinking to right-brained material. In some cases, almost exclusively. I remember a thread on the AP® English listserv in which a particular teacher excoriated others for even daring to think that anything that wasn't analytical work belonged in their classes. No photo-essays, dioramas, or PowerPoint slideshows based on novels. No tea parties in-role as literary characters. The only purpose of an English class, as he saw it, was to produce analytical thinkers, readers, and writers. And that meant analytical writing. Lots and lots of analytical writing.

I don't think anyone agrees that analysis and the production of analytical thinking are the only purposes of the literature itself. That's why lots of English teachers try to incorporate more "creative" techniques into their teaching and assignments.

But Pink's thesis suggests that such techniques shouldn't play second-fiddle to the analytical stuff, as it does even in classrooms where teachers develop creative means of instruction and evaluation. He suggests that really, there should be little distinction between work that comes out of left-brain, analytical thinking and right-brain thinking:

Not just function, but also design

Not just argument, but also story

Not just facts, but also symphony

Not just logic, but also empathy

Not just seriousness, but also play

Not just accumulation, but also meaning

We need to see that second set of aptitudes not as a subsidiary set, and not to be engaged only as a "trick" to get our students to do the hard work of analysis, but as valuable in and of themselves, working in concert with the first set to develop students who have this whole new mind, and who value the skills that will prevent them from becoming statistics in a world of offshore knowledge-based jobs.

Also, with the idea that both sets of skills are equally important, AP® Language teachers can start to think of teaching nonfiction as teaching students to see as much meaning in nonfiction works as they might in fiction ones. Thinking this way can also help the teachers get their own heads around reading material they might not have tackled before teaching the course. After all, what is rhetoric but the efforts to engage story, empathy, and meaning, often through skillful application of design, symphony, and sometimes a bit of play?

Free your mind, and the rest will follow.

I could go on at greater length (and maybe I'll come back to some of these ideas in another post), but by now I'm sure there are some of you who are saying, "That's a whole lot of theorizing. Where's the practical stuff?"

I can't answer (yet) any questions about how to evaluate non-essay assignments objectively; I'm still grappling with that myself.

But one of the handy things about Pink's book is that each chapter ends with a "Portoflio" of activities that are designed to develop each of the six "right-brain-directed" aptitudes, many of which are highly adaptable to classroom use. I read the hardcover edition; apparently the paperback version has even more.

Some examples:

DESIGN: Keep a design notebook. Pink recommends making a note each time you see a cool design or a bad one. Many teachers ask their students to keep notebooks of turns of phrase they happen across---in books, in TV shows, on the street---that have attracted their attention. You could start a wall of them in your classroom. Discuss them or have students add their observations to them using Post-it notes. Or collect them online as a discussion board or Twitter feed. In the SYMPHONY section, Pink also suggests keeping a metaphor log.

STORY: There are tons of useful suggestions in this section, from writing a mini-saga to enlisting in StoryCorps to attending a storytelling festival. All of them have obvious applications in a writing classroom. And in an AP® Language classroom, the stories need not be fictional---there is a lot of persuasion to be had in the telling of a good story. Teaching students to master anecdote will serve them extremely well in developing a voice.

SYMPHONY: Listen to the Great Symphonies. I took an "Art of Listening" class as an elective in university, and it was great. The guided listening helped me understand better what I was hearing, and why it worked. And it's perfectly analogous to understanding what works in writing, with the added bonus that for some students, music is more visceral than words. Ask students to bring in their own favorite pieces of music and perform a "guided listening" tour of them, explaining what to listen for and what it contributes to the work as a whole. There's that dreaded phrase from the AP® Lit Open Question! Might students understand it better if we give them an analogous activity?

EMPATHY: Play "Whose Life?" In this game, you take someone's bag or purse, remove anything with the person's name, and then look through all the items to reconstruct who the individual is from the clues offered by the contents. Obviously, this would be a good starter for a writing activity. But it can also be an exercise in understanding context, bias, and synthesis, if you discuss what is fact and what is speculation as you sort through the items, and how to put them all together to create the persona behind the stuff, thus engaging both sides of the brain at once!

PLAY: Play the Cartoon Captions Game. Pink suggests using de-captioned New Yorker cartoons for this game, but there are tons of great cartoon resources available online too. If you're trying to get your students to look more closely at visuals, this is an entertaining and challenging way to do it.

MEANING: Say thanks. This exercise involves writing a detailed letter of thanks to someone who has greatly influenced you and then reading it aloud to them. I can think of many permutations of this exercise, which makes good writing meaningful in a personal way to both the writer and audience. Meaningful assignments are where it's at, in a Pinkian "new-brained" world.

So what would you do in your practice to help students engage this "right-brain-directed" aptitudes along with those school is already so focused on developing?

As teachers, we're charged with preparing our students for their futures, and I think Daniel Pink does a good job of articulating what that future will look like and need. If you've got some time for some good non-fiction, I recommend checking out his book.

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.