Common Core and the Emergence of Non-Fiction

With all the recent Common Core commotion (all that fussing and finger pointing), it can be hard to keep a level head – in the classroom and on the message boards.  Here, I’m hoping to set sensationalism aside for a moment in order to discuss a few interesting takes on teaching something that was actually born from the adoption of these [now controversial] Common Core State Standards. 

Ready?  Set.  Non-fiction.

As it so happens, you’re reading some right now.  And perhaps that’s the point.  Non-fiction and so-called “informational texts” make up the bulk of what highly productive members of society most regularly consume.  You’re reading this post to expand your repertoire of educated perspectives, to hopefully uncover some new morsel of learning, to discuss and reflect and refine your craft.  Is that what makes you successful?  Is that the panacea for college and career readiness?

Who knows…?

But I do know that since non-fiction has been written (quite boldly) into the Common Core, curriculum and instruction across the nation has been impacted, for better and for worse.  I have heard rumor of school districts that, in a flurry of misunderstanding, have offloaded nearly all of their fiction titles in order to make space for biographies, memoirs, and the like.  I have read a number of articles that misquote the standards, most often claiming that 70% of books students read in their English classes must be non-fiction titles.  (Please declare shenanigans on this claim!  The CCSS makes mention that, in grade 8, 55% of students’ overall reading – across disciplines – be non-fiction.  This number is upped to 70% by grade 12, but given the battery of required Social Studies, Science, and Math coursework, wouldn’t this make sense?)

I have also seen great teachers adapt with this fresh push toward informational texts, seen great educators reimagine their lessons with an emphasis on non-fiction, ultimately cultivating some incredible student learning.  As I’ve recently seen this thing flourish, it seems to have taken two major (and seemingly effective) forms:

1 – Making fiction more meaningful through non-fiction.

I’ve seen this explicitly posed to students as an essential question (i.e. How can the work of fiction we just read be made more meaningful through non-fiction?  What research can you do to pull more meaningful understandings from this story?  How can historical context, science, psychology, and academic research empower the literature, empower our comprehension, empower our earthly existence?).  This has been a mainstay of ELA curriculum for years – the traditional “research paper” (i.e. pairing Gatsby with a 1920’s research project), the classic psychoanalysis (i.e. answer this psychoanalytical personality survey from Holden Caulfield’s perspective)… but as non-fiction has increased its share of the curricular “market,” these strategies have become increasingly valuable!

2 – Empowering fiction writing with non-fiction 

I had the pleasure of seeing this in action this morning, in a 7th grade ELA classroom.  Students were asked to research particular topics of their choosing with the ultimate purpose of writing a work of fiction revolving around this information.  In essence, these students are becoming accustomed to engaging in the research process on a regular basis (i.e. “intelligent Googling”) while simultaneously honing in on their writing skills.  Rather than drawing from their experiences, students are drawing from the informational texts they’re reading!  Rather than writing “fluffy” stories about summer reading or fabricating statistics rooted in picture prompts, they’re engaging in an authentic process utilized by real authors on a regular basis.

3 – Fighting for fiction!

All of that being said, let’s not lose sight of all that fiction and literature have to offer us.  I won’t beat a dead horse here – but if you need any convincing, please check out “Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer,” “Reading Fiction Can Make You More Empathetic,” and, my new favorite (MRI scans included!), “This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Fiction.”

Share your best practices for integrating non-fiction below!

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