28 November 2012

Non-fiction can be "lethal?"

In another part of my life, I post excerpts from bits of journalism to a blog. The bits are related the countries and the curriculum of the AP course in Comparative Government and Politics.

I don't usually post excerpts here, but this appeared in an op-ed section of the New York Times and it's a good introduction the book I just finished.

You can tell I haven't studied Literature because I don't know what that means. As a teacher and a social scientist and historian I always assumed that non-fiction could be Literature.

Now any of us who have been subjected to textbooks knows that some non-fiction will NEVER be Literature. I don't know why most textbooks are so poorly written that they induce sleep more than admiration. That's an argument for the study of more non-fiction.

Why anyone would find more study of non-fiction a "lethal dose," is beyond my ken. Unless, of course, the objection was to the lack of good examples. How about beginning with the essays of Stephen Jay Gould? There's a guy who wrote Literature. Literature about ancient things and evolution.

Well, the book I finished is not Literature. That's coming up next. Meanwhile, what do you think of Sara Mosle's ideas about non-fiction?

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

What Should Children Read?

By Sara Mosle

[T]he Common Core State Standards [are] a set of national benchmarks, adopted by nearly every state, for the skills public school students should master in language arts and mathematics in grades K-12...

Depending on your point of view, the now contentious guidelines prescribe a healthy — or lethal — dose of nonfiction.

For example, the Common Core dictates that by fourth grade, public school students devote half of their reading time in class to historical documents, scientific tracts, maps and other “informational texts” ... Alarmed English teachers worry we’re about to toss Shakespeare so students can study, in the words of one former educator, “memos, technical manuals and menus.”

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”...

One education columnist sums up the debate as a fiction versus nonfiction “smackdown.”

A striking assumption animates arguments on both sides, namely that nonfiction is seldom literary and certainly not literature...

As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I’m with Mr. Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing...

I love fiction and poetry as much as the next former English major and often despair over the quality of what passes for “informational texts,” few of which amount to narrative much less literary narrative.

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways...

Narrative nonfiction also provides a bridge between the personal narratives students typically write in elementary school and the essays on external subjects that are more appropriate assignments in high school and beyond...

There are anthologies of great literature and primary documents, but why not “30 for Under 20: Great Nonfiction Narratives?” Until such editions appear, teachers can find complex, literary works in collections like “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,”...

If students read 100 such articles over the course of a year, they may not become best-selling authors, but like Mr. Gladwell, they’ll get the sound and feel of good writing in their heads. With luck, when they graduate, there will still be ranks of literary nonfiction authors left for them to join.

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