The adoption of Common Core by most states has generated another of those silly wars that we’re so fond of in education. Like the meaningless debates over whole language and phonics, this one centers around reading/language arts and once again sets up a false dichotomy: Fiction or nonfiction?
Common Core guidelines indicate that fourth graders, for example, should spend half their reading time on nonfiction – everything from historical texts to recipes to train schedules. By twelfth grade, roughly seventy percent of students’ reading should be nonfiction according to the Common Core guidelines. English teachers and the ubiquitous Diane Ravitch are aghast. “Why does David Coleman dislike fiction?” she asks in her usual low-keyed way. (For the uninitiated, David Coleman is president of the College Board and helped design and sell the Common Core curriculum.)
In a carefully reasoned opinion piece in the New York Times, Sara Mosle makes the point that the problem isn’t the amount of nonfiction that students are required to read, but the type. She also argues that the lines between fiction and nonfiction are not as sharp as they once were; instead, good nonfiction can tell the story of an event, a life, a movement, an idea.
Our definitions of fiction and nonfiction need to be changed and expanded. Years ago when I was in elementary school, I remember that the fifth grade reading book was called, “Animals, Plants, and Machines.” It was the worst year of my young reading life. I did the required reading quickly and then pulled out my library book and read what I wanted to. If I could just make it to sixth grade, the reading book was called, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” Nonfiction in those days represented a dry dreadfulness to most kids.
Today, however, we are blessed with writers who know how to write nonfiction in a way that students can learn about the facts while thinking about what they signify. David McCullough, Rebecca Skloot, Malcolm Gladwell, Atul Gawande are just a few writers of “narrative nonfiction” and there are many others. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be all primary source documents in high school although even those can be fascinating and useful in the hands of a good teacher. And good writers can incorporate primary source material to enhance the story (see Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl).
We need a more balanced approach to English/language arts so that kids can take apart the text and then write about a range of ideas. A real problem with reading instruction today is that teachers have gotten into the habit of introducing discussion questions and writing assignments that focus on the reader rather than the text. “What would you do if you were in Huck’s place?” “Have you ever had to make a tough decision like Oliver?” “What would you do if you saw a white rabbit disappear down a hole?” “What would you do if your parents didn’t like your boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s parents?” No wonder some kids grow up thinking it’s all about them.
Adding more nonfiction to the reading requirements doesn’t mean the death of fiction, but teachers, as always, need to be aware of the myriad choices for both fiction and nonfiction. I suspect the ratio of fiction to nonfiction will even out over time as the Common Core moves away from politics and the sometimes humorless folks who write those kinds of guidelines for unseen children and their teachers. Nonfiction gives kids information they need to navigate through life; fiction gives them the ability to navigate thoughtfully.