(A piece online in the NYTimes has been getting a lot of attention in the past few days. Here's a quick response.)
Perhaps our students do need to read a bit more non-fiction
The Common Core calls for having kids read
more non-fiction. A recent post
on the NY Times website says that reading non-fiction is a good idea because it
will help students write non-fiction. This is the best argument I've seen for
reading non-fiction, and it echoes something I've said for years: that it is
absurd to ask students to write analytical essays when they never read
them. Nevertheless, the most important thing is that kids read a lot. If
you read a lot, it’s easier to learn to write. And if you can write, you can write anything, more or
less. You just have to look at
some examples first.
When I taught Leafstrewn's Senior creative
writing course (those were the days!), I structured the whole course around
literary apprenticeships. As a class, we read, studied, and then emulated
a number of authors; in the culminating project, students read, studied, and
emulated an author of their own choosing. The course was easily the most
satisfying and coherent teaching I've ever done.
For most kids, creative writing comes more
easily than analytical writing. This is probably partly because most kids
have read a fair amount of creative writing but very, very little analytical writing.
If, therefore, we want our kids to get better at writing analytical essays, we
should have them read some analytical essays—but not necessarily thousands of
pages of them.
Any reading that’s not pleasure reading
should have a clear short-term purpose
The Times post
starts off with a very compelling story about Malcolm Gladwell reading a
hundred Talk of the Town pieces before writing one of his own. But the
post draws the bizarre conclusion that this anecdote supports the Common Core's
drastic (and, like the rest of the Common Core, totally non-data-driven) call
for fully half of students' reading to be of "informational texts."
This conclusion is silly. First of all,
the argument suffers from one of the great weaknesses of educational discourse,
the tendency to overly short-term thinking. Reading 100 Talk of the Town
pieces probably took Malcolm Gladwell about two hours. Those two hours
were no doubt excellent short-term
preparation for the immediate task before him, but surely no one would argue
that those two hours were what made Gladwell a successful New Yorker writer. Gladwell's writerly skill was probably
the result of decades of reading,
and if we want our students to be able to write more like Malcolm Gladwell, the
question we should be asking is not, What did Malcolm Gladwell read for the two
hours before he wrote his first Talk of the Town piece, but what did he read
for the decades before that?
Fortunately, my amazing research skills were
able to provide some insight into Gladwell's reading habits. The first
sentence of the first search result of the first thing I typed (typoed,
actually) into the google box on my browser ("lamcolm gladwell childhood
reading") provided this
testimony from the man himself:
"I am, first and foremost, a fan of
thrillers and airport literature, which means the number of books that I read
this year that reach the literary level of the typical New Yorker reader is small."
Now, I love Jack Reacher just as much as the
next guy, but I would not use Gladwell’s reading list to argue that the best
preparation for writing for the New Yorker is to read a lot of Lee Child novels. Instead, our students should, over the long term, be reading
a lot of whatever interests them, and then, in the short term, be reading more
targeted texts for specific purposes.
The Gladwell anecdote highlights not only the distinction between
short-term and long-term thinking, but another important distinction as well:
the difference between pleasure reading and purposeful reading.
As I've said
before, I think of pleasure reading not as skimming, but as a deep
immersion of the kind that can remove you from yourself and your
surroundings. Gladwell, like many travelers, likes thrillers for
precisely this escapist reason (it's less clear why people would want to bring
them to the beach!). For me, as I get older, non-fiction increasingly
provides this deep immersion, but in any case the purpose is largely the
pleasure, the immersion--and the benefits of this immersion are comfort and
facility with language. These benefits accrue only over the long term.
A course of pleasure reading will not show many practical results in a time
frame of less than a year or so (though I have learned a thing or two from Jack
Reacher about guns and Ford Crown Victorias). Pleasure reading also strikes me
as different from "informational text," which is the Common Core term
for non-fiction. The NYTimes post used The Immortal Life of Henrietta
Lacks as an example of the
non-fiction that students should be reading. That book would serve well--but for pleasure reading, not for a specific
Purposeful reading is pretty different from pleasure reading. This activity is almost always of short-term benefit. For
students, there are two main purposes: (1) to get information; (2) to learn how
to write a particular kind of
text. The first purpose is more important for Social Studies, Science,
and other "content area" courses, and the second is more important
for English class. Since I think reading is a very effective way to
learn, I think the main place for purposeful reading of informational text is
in the content areas, and the main purpose should be to get information.
Ideally, these informational texts should also be pleasurable--I never learned much history in
school, and most of what I know about history comes from adult pleasure
reading, mostly of the popular kind—but in a social studies course the purpose
is primary, and it is, again, short-term.
Deep knowledge and understanding will no doubt accrue over the
long-term, but the short-term purpose is informational.
The second kind of purposeful reading—that
aimed at craft, at learning how to write a particular kind of text—is the main
reason for English class ever to privilege non-fiction. The excellent journalism program at Leafstrewn
has students read regularly, but the reading is always purposeful, aimed at the
immediate goal of improving the students own writing—learning how to write a
news lead, learning how to handle quotes in a profile, learning how to frame
the nut graf in a feature article, that kind of thing. This kind of purposeful reading is
extremely effective, and we need to learn how to incorporate it better into our
regular English classes as well.
The Common Core’s emphasis on reading
non-fiction should be in the “Writing” section, not the “Reading” section
What we don’t need is non-fiction just for
the sake of non-fiction. Unless
kids are supposed to learn, immediately, about Mumbai slums or how to do
amazing reportage, there’s no particular reason to have them read Behind the
Beautiful Forevers instead of, say, Midnight’s
Children. I happen to prefer the Boo book to the Rushdie book, but a
very gifted former student just wrote her college essay about how the Rushdie
book changed her life. That kid
can write anything; all she has to do is spend a few hours immersing herself in
some models (last year I suggested Pale Fire and a few weeks later she produced an astonishing
Nabokovian story in the form of a scholar’s notes on a haiku). For a particular writing assignment, she should read texts that can serve as models, but in general she should read whatever interests her. There is good reason for her to read what interests her--or what interests her teacher--but there is no good reason for her to read what interests David Coleman, or an imaginary marketing executive. The Common Core, like most curricula,
is not founded on evidence or data.
In the matter of “Informational Text” as in many other matters, the Common Core is confusing the appearance of usefulness with the reality of usefulness, confusing what might be useful in the short term with what is
necessary in the long term, and, above all, I suspect, showing a disdain for anything that is not ostentatiously practical. As so often, it seems to me that the people who see themselves as hard-minded realists are actually the ones who are deluded about reality, while those the realists deride as idealistic dreamers are actually a lot more realistic.
Over this, as I.B. Singer told my
father-in-law about another tempest in a teapot, no children will die; but
then, some children might suffer unnecessarily. Why not just let kids read what they want to read? The first thing is to provide time,
space, and books, and the second thing is to create a culture in which books
are discussed in a meaningful way.