I still remember the books that I read in my high school English classes: Death of a Salesman, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth, Life of Pi, Pygmalion, The Princess Bride, Antigone. . . and recently, as I pondered over why I had read so few non-fiction books during those four years, I realized that the books I read in school were all fiction. Why is that?
Could it be because non-fiction classics are just few and far between? But that’s not the case; I would consider books like Thoreau’s Walden, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species “classics” among non-fiction, along with other prominent essays and poetry/prose collections. Could it be because non-fiction is kind of dry? Doubt it. Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies are definitely more interesting than some of the books I’ve read for English class. Then is it just habit? Do we love English classics because we’ve loved them for years and years?
I don’t really know the answers to these questions, but in the last few years, non-fiction has been slowly (and grudgingly, in some cases) being incorporated into English classes in the U.S. through the Common Core State Standards. This means that texts such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream address, EPA’s Recommended Levels of Insulation, Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence, Amy Tan’s Mother Tongue, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and Wayt W. Gibbs’ Untangling the Roots of Cancer, among many other “informational texts”, as they are being termed, are emerging in the classroom1. (See the Scholastic collection of Common Core reads for a better idea of what kind of books kids are reading nowadays. Color me impressed!)
Although I’m disappointed that I missed out on this amazing variety of reading material, I understand why many English teachers and readers don’t approve of this change: more non-fiction requirements means less time to read the classics, thus changing – maybe even to the point of restricting – how students read and think critically2 3. From my point of view, I’d prefer to get literary breadth before depth, because how else will we know if we like classics, history, science fiction, or poetry if we haven’t been exposed to it early on? However, it’s definitely problematic that the increase in reading material will cause important literature lessons to be cut short.
What do you think about this battle between non-fiction and fiction books in the classroom? Are you pro-“informational texts”, pro-classics, or a fan of both?
- Common Core State Standards Initiative (2012). Common Core Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Appendix B: Test Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks. ↩
- NPR (2013).New Reading Standards Aim To Prep Kids For College — But At What Cost? ↩
- Huffington Post (2012). Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards Mark The End Of Literature, English Teachers Say. ↩