Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Problem With Fiction

In the last few years, I've consistently heard of, read about, and experienced many situations where high school students have not been able to read and report out on nonfiction pieces that they're assigned or choose to read. This problem has become more and more interesting and pressing due to the current importance that is placed on standardized test scores. Our state (Maine) uses the SAT as the standardized test measurement for all high school juniors. There is no fiction on the SAT, yet the majority of our high school English curriculum is made up of fiction.

Rather than point the fingers at English teachers, who tend to harbor most of the 'blame' when our students are not achieving at reading, this issue seems to be one that can be shouldered most effectively by every high school teacher. Maybe I'm forgetting some subject, but it seems that all contents teach nonfiction in high school. Right? From art to math to science to social studies and world languages, nonfiction is the preferred genre. So, if this is the predominant source of reading material for high school students, why are they lacking the skills to read nonfiction?

My idea for writing this post came from a recent New York Times Idea of the Day segment titled "Schools Nonfiction Problem (True Story)". I was intrigued by this article because it aligned with what I've been hearing at staff meetings, in professional development sessions, and with what I've seen in my own classroom. I feel that this article brushes the surface of this problem but does not touch the underlying issue at hand: How do we best equip students to understand nonfiction materials, while allowing for choice and required readings in English courses?

Tom Kuntz, the article of this piece, refers to a Renaissance Learning study that concluded that only two of the top twenty reading choices of high school students were Night by Elie Wiesel and A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer. What's interesting to me is that on that same list are several fiction choices that are obviously assigned readings for English classrooms. Fahrenheit 451? The Great Gatsby? Of Mice and Men? These are not student selected readings for most students. These books were assigned for homework.

To me, this study showed more about what books were assigned for class reading and less about what students are actually ready for choice books. (I mention this because Kuntz picks on the Twilight phenomenon. Twilight, I'm sure, is not assigned reading for most, if any, high schooler.) In my classroom, I encourage choice reading during our Silent Sustained Reading time, which we have every class period. During this time, students may read whatever book they like, and I keep track of their accumulated book titles. Relatively few students choose nonfiction titles for SSR books, but those who do tend to be boys and they often choose adventure/ biography titles.

The real answer to this problem, in my opinion, is not by attacking students for their free reading options, but by including more nonfiction in the regular curriculum. I would not be the prolific reader I am today if not for all of the trashy, subversive fiction I read as a teen. Somewhere, somehow I also developed an interest in nonfiction. I feel like that interest and ability to process nonfiction stemmed from some of the fiction I was reading as well as a keen interest in the world. How do we cultivate curious and adventurous readers? It's great that kids are reading vampire stories. How do we get them to want to read about the history of vampire mythology? How do we get them to read about the controversy over whether or not Twilight is appropriate reading material in the New York Times?

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