Taking the Plunge into Nonfiction

It’s true that when I look at the books on my shelves and the stack on my nightstand, fiction outnumbers nonfiction by more than ten to one. That’s because fiction feeds my soul like nothing else I know of. But the following are also true: I rarely go anywhere without a New Yorker (especially when it involves the subway, a.k.a., the Underground New York Public Library); I’m an avid fan of the science program Radiolab; I read all sorts of blogs and online digests (including my new favorite brainpickings); I don’t mind waits in doctors’ offices as long as I can read People magazine; and I’m a bit of a news junkie.

All this qualifies me as a reader of nonfiction, though as I said in my last post, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what I do as a nonfiction reader until this year when nonfiction became the big, hot topic. So I began to explore nonfiction reading by asking myself two critical questions: Why do we read nonfiction? And how do we actually do it?

Taking on the why question allows us to consider what we might call the enduring understandings about nonfiction—that is, the lasting value of reading it throughout life, not just in the classroom, that we want students to get. My hunch is that most students would say we read nonfiction to learn new information or facts. And while that’s certainly part of why I read nonfiction—to find out the Supreme Court’s decision, for instance, on the Affordable Care Act or know what to do with the butterfly bush I fear I killed in my garden—I don’t think that’s the whole story.

Beyond gathering information I think I need to garden, to travel, to work in schools and to generally be an informed citizen, I read nonfiction for many of the same reasons that I read fiction: to engage with the ideas an author is exploring in a way that will enrich, expand and illuminate my sense of how people and the world work. In fiction, the writer explores those ideas through the vehicle of the story, while nonfiction writers do it through the facts they present and what they see as the implications of those facts. And in this way, I read nonfiction for the reasons that author and guest editor Alan Lightman describes in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2000:

I want to see a mind a work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand . . . to feel that I’m going on a journey. The [writer] is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observation and facts. The facts are important but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move.

Of course, Lightman is talking about essays here, which are only one form nonfiction takes. Yet when I look at the exemplar texts in Appendix B of the Standards, I see many texts in which facts are not the whole story—where there is, in fact, a mind at work, taking us on a journey, whether it’s Kathleen V. Kudlinski exploring the evolution of thinking about dinosaurs in the grade 2-3 exemplar Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs or Henry Petroski, author of the grade 6-8 exemplar “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” using facts about the development of the paper bag to explore the idea of perfectability in design, which he has an opinion about.

And here’s where the why leads into the how: Whether we’re fully conscious of this or not, I think we read nonfiction with an awareness that it’s not a single entity, requiring a single way of thinking, but, in fact, has as many sub-genres as fiction does, including essays, feature articles, all-about books, editorials, biographies, memoirs, reviews and, of course, textbooks. All of these sub-genres traffic in facts, though I think that, as readers, we’re also aware that facts are used slightly differently in these various sub-genres. All-about books and most textbooks, for instance, mainly use facts to inform—that is, they give us facts for facts’ sake. Feature articles, on the other hand, along with essays and texts like Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs use facts to explore ideas or issues. And editorials, arguments and texts like “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” mainly use facts to explore ideas or issues the writer has an opinion about. And knowing this as readers, we automatically come to nonfiction texts wondering what the author might be exploring through the facts she presents.

Unfortunately, in addition to sometimes teaching nonfiction as a single entity, we also don’t always make clear to our students what we mean by an idea, which the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus says is a near antonym to a fact. Of course, the word ‘idea’ has other meanings beyond the one stated here. But an idea is not the same as a fact. It is bigger than any single fact and usually contains some kind of judgement or observation about the facts, such as “Boy, were we wrong about dinosaurs.” That idea is stated explicitly, but most ideas are not, and they often can’t be accessed through many of the strategies we currently give students for reading nonfiction, such as skimming or scanning a text or looking for key words.

We also, I fear, make matters worse by emphasizing the notion of the ‘main idea.’ Like themes in fiction, many texts explore more than one idea, and reducing the complexity of a writer’s exploration into a tidy statement doesn’t always serve readers well. Also, we don’t always mean an idea when we talk about the main idea. Instead, we use the term either as a synonym for a topic sentence, the aspect of a topic focused on in a paragraph, or a single-sentence summary of the who, what, where, when and why of a text—none of which are necessarily the same as an idea.

I’ll share more thoughts about the how of reading nonfiction in my next post. But for now I think it’s important to remember that as the Common Core asks students to read more complex texts and engage in more critical thinking, it also invites us to think more deeply about what and how we teach. But before we start revising our practice, we need to know what we’re teaching toward—or as Katie Wood Ray puts it in a phrase I wish I’d coined myself: “Before Revision, Vision.” She uses it in Study Driven to stress how important it is for students to have a vision of what they’re aiming for in writing before they jump in and revise. But I think the same holds true for us. Before we revise how we teach nonfiction, let’s develop a deeper, more complex vision of what it really is, so we know more precisely what our instruction needs to aim for in order to better hit the mark.

12 thoughts on “Taking the Plunge into Nonfiction

  1. As always, your post has given me much to ponder. I particularly love Lightman’s idea that “an essay must travel and move.” I wonder if we as teachers did a better job of presenting education as a journey into the unknown, rather than a means to an end, students would be more willing to come along for the ride.

    • Absolutely! For me I think learning has always been a journey–and a messy one at that, which means that I don’t always know where I’m going. The end point depends on what happens on the journey; it’s not fixed in stone the way I fear that we, and now the CCS, sometimes suggest. It’s more a plunge into the great unknown, which can be both scary and exciting. And I do think more students would come along for the ride if the destination was more in their control.

  2. Thanks for diving into this topic!

    I love informational text. I read it for at least two reasons. First, I read to learn concrete things that are important to me for some reason, or for inspiration to try something new. Examples might be the news, instruction manuals (yes! I read them!), education-related and political blogs, and books and articles on how to do a better job of teaching. (Like this blog!) Second, I read to be amazed and gain an appreciation for the wider world. Right now I’m reading Eric Foner’s history, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, and Nick Lane’s, Oxygen: The Molecule that made the World. I won’t “use” the information from either of these books in my daily life, but find that my thinking and life are greatly enhanced by the knowledge I’m gaining from these books.

    As I look at how I’m reading Oxygen, for instance, I could say the “main idea” is this: Oxygen is both really important and really dangerous for life. That statement sounds really banal, and doesn’t to justice to the complexities of the book. I don’t read these books for the ‘main idea.’ I read for details (I call them stories) that amaze me, or cause me to look at the world in a different way. For instance, I love the way Lane describes oxygen as a “pollutant”, a by-product of photosynthesis that the plant has to handle carefully like industrial waste while the oxygen is in the leaf cells. Once it leaves the cells oxygen can increase in concentration like other pollutants. Concentrations of oxygen have fluctuated over the time scale of billions of years through fascinating interactions with some very interesting balancing mechanisms that involve the weathering of rocks and other forces. I find both the time scales involved in the fluctuating oxygen levels, and the ‘idea’ that oxygen is a dangerous by-product like industrial waste to be very interesting. Knowing both of these things makes the world just a bit richer place for me. In that way, I suppose, reading informational text to be amazed and filled with wonder is very much like reading poetry! The ‘end product’ is wonder and a new eye for a more interesting world.

    Thought I’d share what I’ve been thinking about with informational text. I’m looking forward to hearing what you are thinking about in future posts!

    • Steve, what a brilliant description of why and how you read non-fiction. I too find that reading such texts take me into “stories” that make me see and think and listen differently. And I am left thinking about how we read for details, not main ideas. Or maybe that we read for details that help us form our own ideas about what it all means – like considering that oxygen is a pollutant. thanks!

      • Hello Suzanne! So happy to see readers responding to each other! I just got back from Colorado where I facilitated a two-day workshop with Dorothy Barnhouse where we talked a lot about it not mattering what detail in a narrative a reader latches on to. What’s important is what a reader does it. And both yours & Steve’s response reminds me that the same is true with nonfiction. We start with a detail that intrigues us and build our understanding from there.

      • Suzanne,
        Thanks for the reply! I really enjoyed reading what you are thinking about.

        After I posted I started to wonder (isn’t it cool how writing helps one think!) about how reading informational text is different than fiction. If I were to make a stab at how, it would be this (at least for me…): I read informational text to use it for some more immediate purpose or to be amazed. Does this ring true for you?

        How I read is different depending on that purpose. For the first, I have a strong sense of why I’m reading — e.g. I want to know how to wire the ceiling fan correctly so I don’t blow a breaker, or, I want to read Vicki’s writing about how to set up a Details – Wonder chart so I can introduce that tool to my students better. I read and re-read until I am absolutely clear about what the text says. To help get clarity, I go through a series of mental rehearsals where I try to tell myself what the text just said. These rehearsals help me sort out and remember the important parts and, perhaps more crucially, see how they are related to each other. Does this seem like the way you read when you want to use something you learn about?

        For the second purpose, I read for details that are interesting. I believe that I collect these details and put them into a story so I can remember them. Most of the time these are in the form of comparisons. (E.g. Oxygen is like industrial waste from the “leaf factory.” It has to be handled with care. Leaves “hold” oxygen in special catalase molecules that bind the oxygen tightly like it was in a haz-mat vessel. The leaf can transport the oxygen safely out through the stoma.) A good informational text writer seems able to help highlight these areas where productive comparisons can be made, and memorable stories are told. I think of the physicist Feynmann, who has a bunch of stuff on YouTube. He’s brilliant at finding those places that make complex ideas understandable.

        You seem like you enjoy informational text and have thought a lot about how you read it. I was wondering if these ideas ring true for you, and if you have other insights.

        Thanks to you and Vicki for some good thinking on some hot days!!

    • I’d never thought of how nonfiction is like poetry, but you’re absolutely right! I read it to be amazed and filled with wonder just like I do with a poem. For me this week it was an article in the New Yorker about mosquitoes and the controversy around a biotech company that’s attempting to genetically alter one type of mosquito in order to eradicate dengue fever that I wound up finding utterly fascinating in ways that were totally unexpected. And your response is another testament to the power of details–and the danger of telling students to not to get hung up on the details rather than to linger and revel in them as the place where meaning–and delight–resides.

      • I wonder how much the CCSS pushes informational text as something to “use” for some purpose…not that this is a bad reason to read informational text!…at the exclusion of reading informational text as something that amazes and enriches? What’s your sense?? I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around the CCSS. I’m in Iowa and we’re a bit behind the curve on this, though catching up fast…

      • For better or worse, I spent a fair amount of time last year studying both the CCSS & the text exemplars and I think that, while there’s much talk about reading to acquire–or even ‘extract’–knowledge, the goal seems to be to read closely and deeply for a variety of reasons. Most of those reasons center on the ability to analyze and argue, not on amazement or enrichment; but many of the exemplar texts do, indeed, amaze and enrich, like Walter Wick’s wonder-full A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder and 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy, both of which are 3rd grade exemplars (which is what I think you teach). And there’s nothing that says we can’t meet the Standards by focusing on the amazement factor. In fact, I’d say students are more likely to read deeply–and even analytically–if they are amazed and full of wonder. It seems to me the driving force behind nonfiction reading and, along with curiosity, the other great driving force, something we should be fostering–especially if we want students to be independent.

  3. It took me many years to learn how to read and appreciate nonfiction text. It wasn’t until I started using Readers Workshop and several professional books such as Mosaic of Thought,that I learned along with my students how to really read nonfiction. I am still learning along side of my students! We are learning from each other. Teaching over 30 years and learn more every day….and love it more every day.

    • Such a good thing to remember when the world of education seems rough. What other profession gives as many opportunities to learn and think day in and day out? Not too many, I think. And I’m enormously grateful for that.

  4. Pingback: It’s All About the Journey: Understanding Nonfiction | To Make a Prairie

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