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.
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.