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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The War Between Fiction & Nonfiction And Everything In Between

By Peter DeWitt — November 08, 2013 4 min read
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After the first snow day of a new school year, I would sit down on the carpet with my first graders and read Snow Day by Moira Fain. It was, and still is, one of my favorite picture books. It tells the story of a girl who didn’t finish her homework, because her siblings had different plans. The next day when she was supposed to hand it in, a huge snow storm pummeled the town and her school closed for a snow day. Unfortunately the main character Maggie runs into her teacher Sister Agatha Ann, who provides her with some words of wisdom.

“When I was young, the snow was deeper

And all the hills seemed so much steeper.

The crusty ice I walked upon

Would never once give in,

And every sled race that I ran

Would surely be a win.

It’s good to see the snow again

From a child’s point of view,

Because what you see is different

When you’re a bigger you.”

Those words are painted on our cafeteria wall and provide a constant reminder of the wonder of being a child. Whenever I read the book I could care less about whether its fiction or nonfiction. I care about the message it sends, and the discussion it creates as I read it to students.

Due to the Common Core State Standards and the conflicting guidelines people interpret from them, there is now a war that pits fiction vs. nonfiction. We all know that there are various degrees of fiction and nonfiction but some schools are becoming fairly rigid in their stance on what teachers need to read to, and with, students.

Jinnie Spiegler from the Morningside Center recently wrote,

It's finally happened: The axe has fallen on fiction at school. Leafing through the English Language Arts (ELA) syllabus at my daughter's middle school this fall, I saw lots of non-fiction: issues and controversies, historical fiction, research and organization, comparative essays, argumentative essays. But there wasn't much literature on the list. And that's when I realized: fiction is shrinking."

It’s unfortunate that this is happening because fiction should not be shrinking. I wonder if the Common Core is the reason behind this...or if it is the reaction of the school that causes less fiction and an increase in nonfiction. It seems that during these times educators are being hit with many conflicting messages and a balanced diet of literacy is at stake.

The reality is that as much as I love to read picture books with students, and I’m a huge fan of fiction because of the creativity it inspires, I would venture to guess that there are children and adults who feel the same way about nonfiction. As much as there are children who need fiction in their lives, there are children who thrive on nonfiction as well. In education the pendulum always swings from one end to the other without ever stopping in the middle.

Is State Testing the Culprit?

Keeping in mind that students...all students...need a balanced diet of literature, it’s really important that we all understand the difference between the different types of text that students need for their future. Unfortunately, the fact that these different types of text are tested on high stakes tests each year has not helped the confusion and has made the emphasis more about the test than about why these different texts are truly important. In You Want Me to Read What? (Educational Leadership. 2013) Tim Shanahan wrote.

The problem is that these testing specifications conflate so many functions and text types that they confuse, and perhaps undermine, the whole point of distinguishing literary from informational texts in the first place. The idea is to ensure that students gain sufficient experience in dealing with the varied characteristics and demands of a wide range of texts. By including biographies or other "true stories" within the informational text category, narratives--both fact and fiction--can continue to dominate classroom instruction, narrowing the range of texts served up rather than ensuring a real expansion."

In some states, like New York, the fiction vs. nonfiction battle seems to be more complicated. The State Education Department created modules for each grade level. Although the modules are optional, many schools feel the need to adopt them because the information may ultimately end up on the yearly high stakes exam, which are all tied to teacher and administrator evaluation.

Unfortunately, there have been complaints about some of the passages and books that ended up on the list of required reading. According to Dawn Fucheck, the President of Newburgh City School District School Board in Newburgh, N.Y. the district is trying to return close to $6,000 worth of books because they contain inappropriate content. Reporter Pauline Liu writes,

“Dozens of teachers attended the meeting at the Board of Education offices at 124 Grand St. The Newburgh Teachers’ Association has blasted the award-winning novel, “Black Swan Green,” by British author David Mitchell as inappropriate for 14-year-olds.

Excerpts of the book are required reading under New York state’s Common Core curriculum.”

Liu went on to write,

Since the curriculum calls for students to read only 20 pages of the book, the teachers suggested that the district could have avoided controversy by photocopying the required excerpts. Newburgh Free Academy English teacher Jen Costabile complained that the problem is not limited to just one book. "At least three of the books listed on the modules (curriculums) contain passages using inappropriate language and visual imagery that most people would consider pornographic," said Costabile."

What is Informational Text?

The fiction vs. nonfiction battle seems to be increasingly complicated because so many experts, teachers, school leaders and parents are walking away with very different perspectives on, not only fiction and nonfiction, but on informational texts as well. In Points of Entry (Educational Leadership. 2013) Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher wrote,

We define informational text as text that teaches about the physical, biological, or social world. The Common Core State Standards muddle this a bit by including a broader range of texts that are more accurately described as literary nonfiction--that is, biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. But these are often less challenging for students because they use narrative structures that are already familiar in fiction."

In order to effectively move forward and strengthen the education system, schools need some time and less accountability. Many states are looking for flexibility from the federal education department when it comes to high stakes testing so they can truly take time to weed through the Common Core State Standards and get a better sense of what needs to change in the classroom.

Muddling the difference between the different types of texts are only going to lead to more confusion during a time where many educators feel as though they are on information overload. The bottom line is that it is worth our time as educators to get a better understanding of what students need when it comes to literacy, but we all should agree that they need more than just fiction and a better balance with nonfiction and informational texts. In his article in Educational Leadership, Shanahan wrote,

Arguments against the wide use of informational text with students lack an evidentiary foundation and ignore the reading demands that students will face in college and the workplace. The argument for informational texts is not that students should read more information and less literature but that they surely should read more of both (Jago, 2013). Righting the current imbalance will simply require increases in the reading of information."

As we stand at the Common Core buffet of reading, there seems to be a risk that we are going to force students to binge just for a better grade on a test, when we should be teaching them to try everything from the menu to help prepare them for their future. I just hope the push to require so much reading, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, doesn’t push more students to not want to read at all.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.