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.

Skills versus Meaning: The Problem with Packaged Reading Programs

I began to work in schools in the late 1980’s, right around the time that the tides were turning away from packaged reading programs—otherwise known as basals—to what Ralph Peterson and Mary Ann Eeds, authors of the seminal book Grand Conversations, called “real books”—books “written by authors who know how to unlock the world with words and to open our eyes and our hearts.”

Those were the years in which teachers and schools heeded the words of the great children’s book author Katherine Paterson who said:

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.”

To that end schools invested in classroom libraries where students could choose independent reading books. And teachers helped students form literature circles to discuss what they read in accordance with Peterson and Eeds’s four core beliefs:

    • Story is an exploration and illumination of life
    • Interpretation is the result of a transactional process in which readers bring meaning to as well as take meaning from a text
    • Children are born makers of meaning
    • Dialogue is the best method for teaching and learning about literature

It was a heady, invigorating time—and a challenging one, too, as many of us learned that it wasn’t always enough to just put a book in a child’s hand or let them talk with their peers. Some students couldn’t comprehend what they read; some didn’t know how to listen and talk in a way that could build and deepen understanding. And so many of us started teaching strategies and skills that would help students reap the rewards that Katherine Paterson so eloquently spelled out.

I’ve dedicated my work life to supporting teachers do this valuable work, but this year I’m seeing a disturbing trend back toward packaged reading programs, a.k.a. 21st century-style basals. I think this has happened for a number of reasons: the climate of testing, the obsession with data, the belief among some who wield power that corporate publishing conglomerates know more about teaching than teachers do. Plus there’s the fact that real, authentic reading—that transactional exchange that stretches imaginations and illuminates life—is hard to assess and quantify. But with so many schools going back to packaged programs, I decided that I needed to look at them more closely, both to see what I was up against and make sure I wasn’t misjudging them.

And so one day during a break I opened up the fourth grade version of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s program Journeys to see what I could see. Having been raised on Dick and Jane, the first thing I noticed was that the Table of Contents was filled with the name of real authors whose books were worth reading precisely for the reasons Katherine Paterson’s enumerated. There was Kate DiCamillo and Julia Alvarez, Laurence Yep and Pam Munoz Ryan. The illustrations were charming and I had to concede that the vocabulary component might be useful. But I ran into trouble when I looked more closely at one of the weekly lessons.

The text for that week was “The Screech Owl Who Liked Television,” which combined two chapters from Jean Craighead George‘s autobiographical collection of stories about animals, The Tarantula in My PurseThese two chapters recounted the George family’s experience with an injured gray screech owl they brought into their homes, and among the many things the story explores and illuminates is how little we can ever truly know the animals we share our lives with and how letting go is as much a part of love as trying to spare and shield those we love from the pain that letting go brings.

If we say that meaning is the ultimate goal, you would think that the week’s comprehension lesson would focus on a strategy or skill that helped students access and consider the text’s deeper meaning. But the comprehension lesson was on fact vs. opinion, with students asked to search the text for examples, as if reading were a scavenger hunt. I do think it might be possible to use an understanding of fact and opinion to get to those deeper levels, but the program didn’t ask students asked to do that. Instead they were asked to explain how the facts and opinions they collected could or couldn’t be verified as a means of proving what each sample was.

To be fair, there were some comprehension questions that seemed to circle the deeper meaning. But the students weren’t given any strategies to answer those beyond the literal level, which was all that seemed to be expected of them from the sample answers in the Teacher’s Guide. Mostly they were asked to recall information, not to stretch their imaginations and consider what their eyes and hearts were open to. In this way, the text seemed little more than the vehicle to practice a skill with, rather than one to read closely and examine in order to “gain the maximum insight,” as the Common Core Standards Publishers Criteria requires instructional material to do.

So . . . my final verdict? The texts in Journeys were dramatically better than the Dick and Jane books I grew up on, which makes these anthologies a potentially great resource for short, well-written texts. But what they asked students to do with these texts was often boring and lifeless, with insight seemingly relegated to the sidelines and skills disconnected from meaning. And that left me with one final question: Was it a fact or an opinion that all packaged reading programs were aligned to the Common Core Standards—despite whatever they claimed?  Verification seemed in order.