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Nonfiction Bites

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

A few weeks ago, Carol Jago pointed us via her post on this blog to Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews's call for nonfiction titles; his contention is that not enough students in our system are exposed to nonfiction in their English classes. Carol also shared with us her own excellent picks, which she sent to Matthews via e-mail.

Short and sweet

I didn't add any titles of my own; by the time I got around to reading the column, dozens of responders had already posted lists of what amounted to hundreds of worthwhile nonfiction books. But I did skim through the suggestions, as well as the continued discussion in  Matthews's follow-up post, and this comment, by reader "gideon4ed," caught my eye:

Why does non-fiction need to be taught through full-length books? Much of the non-fiction I read comes from newspapers, magazines, blogs, book reviews, studies and reports. These are more manageable chunks of text for students to read, provide many more topics to grab students' interest, and allow students to see the many ways non-fiction reading and writing are part of everyday life and work.

Although there are definitely substantial differences between a sustained read of a full-length book of any kind and an excerpt or short article, I do agree that with the amount of time we have with our classes, short pieces fit the bill much better than full-length ones when it comes to examining a wide range of topics, styles, and formats of nonfiction writing.

Perhaps that is why readers and anthologies seem to work so well for AP® Language and Composition courses, though of course they are best supplemented with other sources that provide a more dynamic and topical reading experience for the students we hope will become lifelong critical readers of the writing that surrounds them in all its media forms.

I've written before about good sources for short, rich, provocative nonfiction pieces that can be used to update the widely-anthologized pieces we find in many of our textbooks. For example, I continue to adore my subscription to Lapham's Quarterly, and every so often I dip into the online Arts and Letters Daily to see what similar publications around the world are offering.

The best newspapers and magazines, as suggested by "gideon4ed" in his comment, provide excellent opportunities for reading not only well written news items and editorials, but travel pieces, arts reviews, biographical profiles, technical writing, extended arguments, satires, and every other form of nonfiction suggested by the AP® Language syllabus guidelines. An RSS aggregator can help you "clip" useful pieces, and is an easy (and easy-to-learn) way to keep track of multiple sites.

Following the Jay Matthews piece, the New York Times decided to get in on the action, posting a lesson plan on including nonfiction in the curriculum. While not necessarily geared toward AP® Language, which is already nonfiction-heavy, it's a good way to begin a discussion in other classes around the importance of examining both fiction and nonfiction and their roles in our non-school lives.

Non-creative writing

Hand-in-hand with reading nonfiction, writing nonfiction is an equally useful classroom activity. In this vein, I challenge a sweeping generalization, asserted in Matthews's piece by Will Fitzhugh of The Concord Review, that

a relatively new trend in student writing is called "creative nonfiction" [and] allows high school students (mostly girls) to complete writing assignments and participate in "essay contests" by writing about their hopes, experiences, doubts, relationships, worries, victimization (if any), and parents.

(originally published at Education News)

Certainly you don't want the high-school angst-confessional to become your students' primary mode of expression, but there's no reason to rule it out entirely, especially as it can become a starting point for more far-reaching topics, as you encourage students to make connections between their own experiences and those of others, bringing to life contemporary and historical experience.

Some of the best writing I have had from my students, AP® as well as non-AP®, has stemmed from autobiographical experience expanded to muse on more universal themes. Whether a "This I Believe" essay, a profile of a significant person in the student's life, or a tightly-focused short memoir piece, there are plenty of opportunities for encouraging authentic writing opportunities that emulate the varieties of nonfiction writing students may encounter during their school careers and beyond.

Fictional nonfiction

I also wonder at Matthews's assumption that fiction doesn't offer many of the benefits as do his favourite nonfiction authors like Barbara Tuchman. A good historical fiction can provide as much insight into an era as a well-written historical nonfiction, a fact recognized by many good history teachers who assign such reading alongside their  textbooks. I've known science teachers who assign novelized imaginings of significant scientific discoveries, clarifying complex concepts through the medium of story.

Such examples are strong arguments for assigning good reading---both fiction and nonfiction---in courses outside English, a cause taken up by a commenter to Matthews's post and discussed briefly (and a bit dismissively) in the follow-up post. But the importance to literacy of content-area reading is a whole other discussion in itself.

Nonfiction isn't always "true"

Ultimately, teaching students to assess and appreciate nonfiction is indeed important, not only in terms of building a knowledge base, but also in terms of understanding what builds a factual story---and that "factual" is not always synonymous with "true."  As English teachers well know, fiction can be just as "true" as nonfiction in terms of conveying the human experience or opening doors to factual knowledge, and nonfiction can be manipulated in the service of constructing a limited perspective that may as well be untrue.

Critical reading of what constitutes "truth" can help students make sense of the world, even in the face of "false" memoir or textbooks constrained by political bias. But reading nonfiction isn't a panacea for lack of critical thinking skills or good writing skills. Reading anything well and practicing a wide variety of writing styles can help to teach those skills. A good English curriculum may include that kind of variety in ways that do not necessarily need to include full-length nonfiction texts.

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