Today I had a day-long conversation on Twitter about whether we should still be teaching fiction in the curriculum.  This was in response to a recent article by Grant Wiggins entitled “Ban fiction from the curriculum.”  In the article, Wiggins makes the argument that fiction is essentially a sissy genre read by women at the turn of the century (the last century, not this one).  He also argues that most of the reading we do in our adult lives is non-fiction, and fiction reading is more of a hobby than a necessity.

I will agree that reading fiction for me was a hobby as a child. More like a necessity. I was always reading as a child. I devoured Dahl, Tolkien and L’Engle as well as The Dark is Rising Series, and The Chronicles of Narnia.  As I got older it became Herman Hesse, Vonnegut, Joyce, Huxley, Toni Morrison, Castaneda and others. I’ve even read the Bible cover to cover (I highly recommend it. The whole world makes a lot more sense if you have.)

By the way, none of these were required readings for school, though I was lucky to have a few teachers who let us pick a book from a list to read.

image courtesy of Celeste on Flickr

However, these books helped fuel my imagination. They kept me company when I moved to a new school and had yet to make friends.  They gave a voice to teenage angst and inspired me to write my own stories and poems. (Like my friend, Nick, I, too have published poems myself, though not online–yet.) In all, reading fiction helped me explore ideas, worlds and possibilities that would shape who I am today. My best teachers guided me through the process of unwrapping fiction and making connections between characters, across novels and across time periods.  I learned what it may have been like to be a slave, I studied how C.S. Lewis’ religious life inspired his stories of Narnia. I sifted through beautiful imagery and marveled as a story unfolded, twisted, and was resolved through the power of skillful writing. It inspired me to write. Which I did nearly every day of my life for at least 5 years. (I have the journals to prove it.)

So what does this have to do with Wiggins?

I would agree that much of the fiction I was asked to read in school was poorly chosen (Sarah Plain and Tall is a horrendously boring book, as is The Long Winter), though to say that fiction is ‘girlie’ is a blanket statement that belittles some of the inspiring and talented authors listed above. There is nothing girlie about the dark thoughts of Damien or the death, betrayal and battles of Tolkien and Lewis.

I would also agree that in my adult life I tend to read more non-fiction that applies to the work that I do.  I now devour education books the way I used to devour Tolkien.  Some, I must admit are hard to get through (Marzano’s The Art and Science of Teaching). I also have an RSS feeder full of blog posts, articles and resources that I sift through on a regular basis. That said, I find myself picking up books like Matilda or even the Narnia series to escape reality a little. I find that for every non-fiction book I read I am also reading a fiction book at the same time.

Recently, I began reading Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed Midnight’s Children as my fiction book (David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames is next on the list) to keep by my bedside.  I have to admit, I had to re-teach myself how to read this kind of fiction. It contains visceral images, metaphors that appear and re-appear throughout the story like thread holding together a tapestry, and the writing has an irregular rhythm to it like waves crashing on the shore. Needless to say, it’s a beautiful piece of writing unlike anything I’ve read in the last 10 years or so.

Again–Wiggins?

Our brains work differently when we read non-fiction as opposed to fiction (this is my own observation, I can’t quote any research). It is imperative that we are able to read non-fiction for obvious reasons–it is practical and pertains to our daily lives/needs. However, when I read non-fiction, I may be touched by a story, but it doesn’t paint pictures in my head or weave intricate tales of daring and adventure (aside from a biographical/autobiographical story).  It reaches a different part of my brain, and (dare I say) my heart.  Sometimes we don’t know how we feel until we read how someone else has expressed or described a feeling we can understand and with which we can empathize. 

All the mushy stuff aside, learning how to unravel a story through its metaphors, trying to decipher a character’s motive or grasping an author’s double entendre helps students work out real-life scenarios.  Think about all of the messages our students are bombarded with every day on the TV, Internet, radio and magazines. These texts, scripts, etc… were not written by researchers or scientists, they were written by writers. People who write fiction.

This is not to say that there is not poorly-written fiction out there that could be designated as ‘trashy’ or ‘shallow’ or the like. There are also poorly-written history books, poorly-written whitepapers and trashy research written by poor scientists.

So rather than ban fiction, let’s re-think how we teach fiction and non-fiction.

  • give students choices
  • do away with the ‘standard’ books that everyone reads in ‘x’ grade
  • require students to read one non-fiction book for every fiction book they read
  • stop silo-ing texts into subject areas and teach reading across the curriculum
  • if a kid really hates fiction, then let them read what they enjoy reading

Thanks to Nick Provenzano, Chad Lehman and Lark for starting me thinking about this.

Please stop by and read Nick’s take on the issue on his wonderful blog, The Nerdy Teacher.

14 Comments

  1. pjhiggins

    Reply

    I appreciate your pointed response to Wiggins' criticism (for which he's taking a slight drubbing in the comments), especially your list of ways to resurrect the teaching of fiction so that it has meaning for all students.

    One of my curricular undertakings this year is to help our staff redesign our 9-12 English classes; during our preliminary discussions, a lot of talk has been centered on our students lack of exposure to informational text, and overexposure to fiction and the "canon." You mention choice as a means of helping students access fiction and non-fiction, and I couldn't agree with you more–I remember a teacher of mine who turned me onto L'Engle during a free-reading day in 4th grade and then let me finish the trilogy instead of moving on with the class novel. That simple act of allowing me to choose my books has stayed with me. There is power in giving kids choices in what they read. Now, to fund it…

  2. Reply

    Excellent points MB. As a society, Fiction tells the story of who we are by the stories we create. Tolkien's stories are filled with metaphor and symbolism that speak to the time period he lived. Those stories are relevant today. Also, the works of Children's authors help grow the creative minds of young learners. Shakespeare, as boring as he could be for some, wrote some of the most amazing stories and poetry the world has seen. All of these parts of Fiction play a role in the story of us. I would hate to live in a society that would eventually be judged on the textbooks our students read.

  3. Don Kaplan

    Reply

    Very interesting; very interesting. First I'll pass this posting along to my colleagues particularly since we are constantly hearing the sage words of Mr. Wiggins. I guess we'll have to add this to the heap.

    As for me, I find that the teaching of fiction or the broader genre of literature is a chance to get kids to do three things: read deeply, think deeply, and write (based on what they have read) deeply. Unlike history, fiction or literature gives students a chance to see beyond the facts and patterns. In literature, we have so many opportunities not afforded by the other disciplines: a chance to empathize, a chance to see into other's thoughts, a chance to see beyond the obvious differences. Literature gives us stories that help us make sense of our lives, our world, our experience.

    I totally get that Wiggins and others can do without it; look at the lack of connection to religions, the old stories of who we were; at the same time, look at how people are rushing to become part of the other larger stories: the Obama story or the Tea Party Story. We need to be a part of something larger, something unknowable…that is what stories are. They allow us to play with ideas, experiences, and questions, while offering us advice, "friends," and examples.

    If this is too fluffy for Mr. Wiggins, then I can get a bit more concrete. A kid reading Emerson and applying it to _The Scarlet Letter_ or Whitman can begin to believe in him or herself. A student reading Morrison or Harlem Renaissance fiction (like "The Typewriter" by West) can begin to understand the history of experience but also the ability to explore new potentials and the power of challenging the status quo. Even reading Poe's "The Stranger in the Crowd" or Lahiri's _The Namesake_ give students the chance to see via the craft of story that America and the American experience are not as they seem to be…or are they?

    Stories are for those who love to imagine. I have a colleague who loves to read from cover to cover those huge computer books on how to use this or that operating system. Is it useful? Sure. But when I read the Bible or some bit of historical fiction or some great literary work or even Craig Thompson's graphic novel, _Blankets_, we see the possibilities of the human experience, not simply "information." We use our imaginations; we realize there are other ways to do things; and most importantly we begin to believe in possibilities that WE can achieve. Does that happen when I read a book on "How the Internet Works"? *&^^% NO!

    Isn't it Mustapha Mond (sp) in _Brave New World_ who is one of the 10 controllers of the World but also the one with a safe full of great works of literature? He hides them realizing the power. Is that what Mr. Wiggins is up to? Am I making a ridiculous connection? Or am I just using my skills at reading literature to better understand the world around me? I think the latter.

    I'm reminded of the text we just finished _12th Night_ with our ninth graders and many chose to investigate how Viola-Cesario challenges a world that is dominated by men. Can you get kids to start thinking like that so easily outside of literature?

    Can you, Mr. Wiggins?

    Finally, as I learned in grad school, our ability to read, understand, assimilate, analyze, synthesize, and manipulate comes from hard work and the reading and writing about literature. It is, however, useful not only with literature but with any aspect of life. I like to think I can read anything (fiction, the students in my class room, the new administrator trying to change curriculum even though he says he has taught but it is clear he never has, etc.).

    The study of literature is as important as anything else and perhaps more useful. Do we really need to study science? If gravity exists, do I need to spend time verifying it? On and on…

    As for Mr. Wiggins making the argument that "that fiction is essentially a sissy genre," I guess Mr. Wiggins should…well, I'll stop there. I know what should be said to him, but I'll let you imagine my response.

    And THANKS, Philly-Teacher! I appreciate your hard work and dedication!

    Don Kaplan
    Teacher of the Sissy Genre — Literature
    Independent School Just Outside Philly

  4. Chad Sansing

    Reply

    Regardless of how clever a modest proposal he thought he was making, of all the challenges to tackle, Wiggins wants us to reconsider how we balance the curriculum? We should be figuring out how to systematize inquiry its consequent robust, diverse, student-generated reading lists.

    I mean, come on. If you want to be edgy, do away with the adult ogliarchy of control in schools.

    Best,
    C

  5. wrtngtchr

    Reply

    Now that we have all had time to take a deep breath after Wiggins' provocative words, let's continue the real conversation about how to include more non-fiction, composition, and rhetoric in high school.

    Argument and persuasion is the perfect antidote to defensiveness and outrage. We may have a perfect storm brewing which requires a more prominent role of non-fiction, composition, and rhetoric in every high school curriculum.

    My thoughts: http://wrtngtchr.wordpress.com

  6. Matt Arguello

    Reply

    I'm not going to post an in-depth response, others have done so and well. But I must say, this is possibly the most ill-informed, foolish idea I have heard in a long time.

  7. Josiah Henson

    Reply

    It was "sissy genre" writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, that wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin" which woke up many Americans to the horror of slavery. A book that was the second best seller behind the bible. Lincoln remarked upon meeting Ms. Stowe, "So you're the little lady that wrote that book that started this big war". When slave supporters belittled Stowe for never having been on a plantation or at an auction she responded with real life testimonies in her book, "A Key To Uncle tom's Cabin". Most Americans have never heard of that non-fiction book, but everybody knows "Uncle Tom's Cabin". I've heard alot of quack educational theories, but not reading fictional books takes the cake. Let's make reading even more unappealing by removing all the great fiction from our shelves.

  8. Tracy

    Reply

    Fiction is definitely not a 'sissy genre'. It is heavy reading. Nonfiction is a great vehicle for us to learn. But fiction allows us to live outside ourselves. It allows us to examine the world we live in, see other viewpoints, and examine our own lives. If it weren't for fiction many of our students would not be provoked to have meaningful conversations about heavy topics such as rape, incest, racism, abortion, and other justice issues.

  9. Reply

    Mary Beth-
    Love your response to Wiggins post. It has stirred up a necessary conversation. Successful, lifelong, and passionate readers read widely across multiple texts and genre. Each experience grows us in new and different ways. Each experience makes us more able to understand and appreciate alternatives and new perspectives. I can not imagine my life without the influence of fiction without I would have base to make sense of the world of information.

  10. Reply

    Angela, I agree that there is often overlap between genres and that it is important to be well rounded. Fiction helps us make sense of and work through real-world problems, as Tracy states above. Wiggins has definitely stirred up a dialogue that is very important.

  11. Reply

    Interesting. I do know that boys read more nonfiction, and that teachers often assign hideous novels, but banning fiction from the curriculum seems a bit overkill!

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