Narrative Drama, Key to Good Teaching

Thomas Cromwell, hero of Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies"

Thomas Cromwell, hero of Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies”

I’ve just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies and can’t help but think about it in terms of the discussions about the Common Core State Standards that I’ve been engaging in (here, here, and here).  That’s because, in the battles that have been erupting about whether fiction should be sacrificed to make way for non-fiction in English courses, Mantel’s book blurs the boundaries.

Bring Up the Bodies may be fiction, but it is very well researched fiction. Indeed, it plunges the reader so thoroughly into the world of Henry VIII and his first three wives—all seen through the perspective of Henry’s “Master Secretary” Thomas Cromwell—that it feels like history. Mantel has done what the greatest historians do, which is to so thoroughly imagine history that one feels as though one is there. To do so, she has blended fact and fiction into a seamless whole.

Some of those arguing for the new Common Core don’t seem to appreciate how much education depends on narrative drama. The issue is not fact vs. fiction, as Nell Duke from the University of Michigan appears to think:

 “Some students really prefer factual kinds of texts,” she said, noting that some studies have suggested boys especially prefer nonfiction. “Historically, elementary schools haven’t given kids much opportunity to read that kind of text. For those kids, reading storybook after storybook about talking animals could be a bit of a turnoff.”

First of all, it is a caricature of English teachers to think that they only assign animal storybooks, but put that aside. I could imagine the boys Duke is referring to being excited by any number of non-animal novels—say, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, about a young boy surviving in the wilderness. Or, to cite another couple of books with the same theme, My Side of the Mountain and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. They are all fiction but they read like fact. At that age, boys are not going to care about the difference.

And then, to turn the case upside down, there is Watership Down, which may be a storybook about talking animals but one that will teach you as many hard facts about rabbits as you could possibly want to know.

And then there are those factual books that read like fiction. I remember receiving James Watson’s The Double Helix for a Christmas present and becoming so enthralled with it that I stayed up all night reading it.

(Side note: I discovered years later that I received the book because we are directly related to John Griffth, the theoretical chemist who helped Watson and Crick with their mathematical calculations. Humorously, in the book Watson one afternoon goes to Griffith’s room to double check his figures and finds him in bed with a girl.)

I am not at all enthusiastic about science, but The Double Helix made me as sympathetic as it was possible for me to be.

Here’s the point: we all crave drama (our politics are driven by it) and children and adolescents are particularly inspired by it. The problem with the debate over the Common Core is not between fiction and non-fiction but between reading that captures our imagination and reading that does not.

If school administrators understand this, then all is okay. Unfortunately, one of my readers (cbjames) wrote about what can go wrong with the new standards:

I teach middle school level English so I will still be using literature for most of our classroom reading. However, I have been told that I should pair every piece of fiction we use with a piece of non-fiction. I think this is fine for grades six through eight.

I have been told that the proportion of fiction used should then begin a steady decline until it has reached under 30% by the middle of high school. I’ve been told this by three different people at this point. The term “literary non-fiction” has never been mentioned. 

A recent article defending the Common Core acknowledges the danger of what cbjames is witnessing and says we must guard against it. Here is Carol Jago, author of With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature and Classics in the Classroom:

It may be the case that in some schools high school English teachers are being told to cut back on the poetry and teach more informational text. I’m hoping this mistaken directive can soon be reversed. English teachers need to teach more poetry, more fiction, more drama, and more literary nonfiction.

I’m not sure upon what Jago grounds her hopes. Maybe she hopes that the educational world will be swayed by her own teaching, which certainly sounds inspired:

To reverse this trend [students reading less] we need to make English classrooms vibrant places where compelling conversations about great works of literature take place every day. They need to be spaces where anyone who didn’t do the homework reading feels left out. They need to be places where students compare the lives of the Joads as they left the Dust Bowl to travel west to California in Grapes of Wrath with the lives of those who stayed behind through seven years with no rain in Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Nonfiction). I’m not talking about force-feeding students but rather inviting them to partake of the richest fare literature has to offer. One thing I know for sure. The teenagers I taught were always hungry.

I like the way that Jago intermingles fiction with non-fiction and emphasizes the drama of learning. I believe she’s essentially right when she says that students can be seduced away from their video games and their social media with a more compelling drama. My worry is that she is naive, that she doesn’t factor in the way that  school systems (as opposed to individual teachers) are not always open to emphasizing drama. When I was a young academic, I was excited by how process writing, designed to make writing appear real and urgent, was being introduced into the schools and was to be taught by every discipline. Now, as an old man in a dry month, I see only English teachers teaching writing and I see students writing to prompts for standardized tests. Will that happen with the new reading directives?

Before the Common Core, at least no one complained when English teachers filled their lesson plans with compelling texts. No one demanded that they throw in works they weren’t interested in so as to fill the void left by science and social studies teachers uninterested in having their students read.

Put another way, it sounds like too many non-English teachers refuse to teach reading because they find the texts boring and so, as a consequence, boring texts are being sloughed off on English teachers. Someone, after all, has to “prepare the students for college.”

In this scenario, everyone loses.

Here’s my challenge for school administrators and school boards. Tell your non-English teachers to locate the most interesting books in their fields and teach them to their students. Tell them to stop focusing on “just the facts, ma’am” and instead to generate narrative excitement. Inform them that this is their primary goal.

The facts will follow.

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