Monday, June 29, 2015
More Nonfiction in English Classes?
There was a front-page story the other day (June 20, 2015) in the New York Times. Headline: "'Tom Sawyer' and Court Opinions: A New Mix in English Class" (link to the story). The piece was about the effects of the Common Core on the public school English curriculum: "English class looks a little different," noted the reporter, Kate Taylor.
Yes, the Common Core has issued a "call for students to read more nonfiction," Taylor continued.
All right. Let's flash back a little. When I was in high school (1958-1962), we read precious little nonfiction in English class--if, in fact, we read any at all. All year (when we weren't working on grammar and usage and vocabulary and the like) we read poems, stories, plays, novels (not too many of those, however--though I do have sad memories of Great Expectations, for which I--a ninth grader--was profoundly unready, unwilling, unable, un-everything).
When I began teaching English myself in a public middle school (fall, 1966), I continued doing unto others what had been done unto me (see previous paragraph).
But as the years drifted along, I more and more began supplementing our literary studies with underlying nonfictional factors. When we read The Call of the Wild, for example, we learned about the Klondike Gold Rush. The Diary of Anne Frank, of course, requires knowledge of the Holocaust. And so on.
Even later, teaching at a college-prep boarding school (the final ten years of my career), I liked to teach Henry Louis Gates' fine memoir, Colored People, and I routinely explored with my students the nonfictional terrain of the fictional works we were visiting--from The Crucible to Hamlet to The Awakening to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And on and on and on.
I spent my vacations traveling around the country touring and photographing sites related to the literature we were reading (I taught American lit + Hamlet, that great American play about that great American hero)--from hometowns to settings to cemeteries.
As we read novels and plays and poems, I customarily gave my students maps and historical and biographical background to help them unlock the texts. It's only common sense, right? How do you read The Scarlet Letter without knowing about Puritan Boston? Or The Great Gatsby without knowing about the Roaring Twenties? Or "The Road Not Taken" without knowing about the forests of New England?
So ... to the extent that the Common Core is urging (requiring?) teachers to do this sort of thing, I am most definitely On Board. Reading a literary text in isolation from its myriads of sources cuts students off from the very humanity of the works they're reading. And English is one of the humanities.
Of course this can be overdone. Fiction is not merely autobiography, cultural history, etc. But those things inform fiction, and the more informed a reader is about them, the better. Doesn't it add a piquant pinch of pepper to Frankenstein to know that Mary Shelley was so stunned by the Mer de Glace in the French alps--the massive glacier (now not so massive, thanks to you-know-what)--that she later used it as the setting for a key encounter between Victor Frankenstein and his creature?
Does it mean anything to you to know that virtually every place name in The Call of the Wild is a location that Jack London had seen during his year in the Klondike (1897-98)?
And so on.
(By the way, I am well aware of the literary theorists who say we should ignore all of this and focus just on the text itself. Doesn't work for me. Obviously.)
Anyway, what worries me about the Common Core requirements is that they will become perfunctory and routine and rote--especially if we test kids on them. What we've learned by all this testing is a simple principle: Whatever is on a standardized test becomes the curriculum. Everything else is superfluous.
But then there's this: I don't agree at all with the notion that kids read too much fiction in English classes. With some rare exceptions, English class is the only time they read novels, short stories, poems, plays. The other seven or so periods a day, students are reading ... nonfiction. Science, history, etc. So I have no problem with setting aside 1/8 of the day for something more imaginary, creative--especially since much of English class has become, due to all the testing, a place for drill and focus on things that are easy to measure.
So ... yes ... urge English teachers to explore with their students the extra-literary worlds of the literature they're reading. But don't mandate yet another series of dry (easily measurable) activities whose sole purpose is to supply "outcomes" to assess on yet another standardized test.