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.

More Ways to Skin the Information Writing Cat

I certainly believe that, as teachers, we need to prepare students for the kinds of academic writing they’ll be asked to do as they move up the grades and into college by teaching them to write powerful essays that demonstrate deep understandings of content. But I don’t think they need a steady diet of thesis-driven essays. And so last week I looked at using Dummies books to engage students in information writing.

This week I offer three other ways of writing engaging nonfiction pieces that explain and inform. All three are grounded in one or more mentor texts that students can study for structure and craft. And all three invite students to write with passion, voice, insight and even humor in a mode of writing that sometimes runs the risk of becoming mechanical and dry.

Compare & Contrast: Using a Children’s Picture Book to Explore Different Perspectives

As opinion writing made its way to lower schools, many teachers discovered the wonderful picture book Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. In rhyming couplets, the book recounts the debate between a boy, who is poised to squish an ant, and the ant, who pleads for his life by mounting a persuasive argument that provides all sorts of facts about ants. And it ends with the following invitation for readers to decide:

Many teachers use this question as a prompt to write opinion pieces about the merits of killing or letting the ant live, using the arguments in the book to support their position. In fact, the book is so popular, it spawned its own website, which one year sponsored a Hey, Little Ant essay contest for kindergarten through third-grade students. But I like to use the book instead as a mentor text for writing information pieces that set two characters with opposing viewpoints together, say, a gray wolf who’s been reintroduced in the west and a rancher who wants to hunt him, or Columbus and a Taino Indian discussing who was here first. A Hey, LIttle Ant-inspired book would let students explore both the facts and misconceptions about each side’s position—while letting kids play around with rhyme without sacrificing meaning.

Narrative Procedures Re-Invented: Unleashing the Power of the Second-Person Point of View

While narrative procedures do not appear, as such, on the Common Core Standards, they are a kind of writing that informs or explains a process or procedure, which makes them a good vehicle for meeting the information writing standard. Unfortunately, though, for some students that means explaining how to make something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich year after year after year. And so at some point I and a few intrigued teachers began rethinking procedural writing in middle school by introducing how-to essays and stories written in the second person, such as Lorrie Moore‘s “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce” and two pieces by high school students.

The first is Chris Kanarick’s hilarious “How to Survive Shopping with Mom,” which appears in the wonderful anthology Starting with ‘I’: Personal Essays by Teenagersand includes many priceless moments, such as the following:

As you and Mom begin your leisurely stroll through the first floor of the mall, Mom will suddenly veer off to the left, arms out-stretched, eyes wide, and nose in the air looking like something out of The Night of the Living Dead. Mothers can smell a sale from a mile away. There is no scientific explanation for this, it just happens. Follow her. You have no choice. Remember who’s got the money.

And then there’s Dorsey Seignious’s incredibly moving “When You,” which appears in another great anthology for older students, You Are Here, This is Now and acts as an instruction manual for grieving:

When watching someone die, you must be very quiet. Always look down at the ground and examine your feet. Be uncomfortable and very somber. Allow your eyes to fill with tears. You will bite your lip until it bleeds, but you won’t notice until you wipe your tears with your sleeve and feel the sting of the sleeve on your lips. You will see the bloodstain on your sleeve, and then you will believe.

There is something strangely liberating about writing in the second person. I’m not exactly sure why this happens. I think it gives the writer more distance from his subject than the first person point of view does, while allowing for more intimacy than the close or omniscient third person. Whatever the reason, students are often eager to try it on after reading pieces like these, and when they do they write with more voice and detail than they have before—even when exploring more academic topics.

Real-Life Responses to Literature: Appreciations & Forewards

Finally, in Thinking Through Genre, Heather Lattimer uses Tobias Wolff’s introduction to Raymond Carver’s short story collection Cathedral as a masterful example of real-life reading response for her “Response to Literature” chapter. I was happy to discover it there, but it was only when I started reading forewards to re-issued classic children’s books, such as Anna Quindlen’s “Appreciation” to the 2007 edition of Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Timethat I began to consider the possibilities of studying forewards as a genre.

Writers of forewards and appreciations explore the meaning a book held for them, while also summarizing and talking about elements such as characters and themes. They also usually include a memoir-ish vignette about reading the book for the first time and they frequently touch on the reasons why we read, as Michael Chabon does here in his foreward to the 50th Anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. “Milo’s journey, Chabon writes,

. . . was mine as a reader, and my journey was his, and ours was the journey of all readers venturing into wonderful books, into a world made entirely, like Juster’s, of language, by language, about language. While you were there, everything seems fraught and new and notable, and when you returned . . . the ‘real world’ seemed deeper, richer at once explained and, paradoxically, more mysterious than ever.

To try on forewards, I like to invite older students to think about a book they loved as a child—whether it’s The Cat in the Hat, Captain Underpants, or Tuck Everlasting—and re-read it to try to better understand the magic it once held for them (and perhaps holds even still). These books are clearly not on the complexity band for these students’ grade level, but I’d like to make a case for this being an example of the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which helps students practice the kind of critical thinking they need to do at their grade level with an accessible text that ultimately helps them write about more complex texts.

All three ideas also help students deeply engage with writing—and for that reason alone, they’re great.