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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  • Barbara

    I agree that non-fiction can be exciting. Another series would be Patrick O’Brian’s series about the British navy (starting with Master and Commander) all of which are based on actual naval battles during the Napoleonic wars. I’m interested in your take on “Bring Up the Bodies”. I was disappointed in Wolf Hall (the first book in the biography) but maybe I’ll give BUTB a try. The reason for my disappointment in Wolf Hall was that it seemed like a rehash of material from Norah Loft’s The Concubine, Brief Gaudy Hour (I can’t recall the author) and other historical fiction written around 1950-1970 (the books were my mother’s and I read them and a lot of the popular histories she also collected when I was in high school).

  • It isn’t just non-English teachers who don’t want to teach literature, the classics at any rate. There is among secondary teachers what one can only call a schism, with those aligned with the classical tradition on one side and those advocating total student choice on the other. I like the middle ground proposed by Kelly Gallagher in “Readicide.”

    Carol Jago isn’t someone I’d call naive; she knows that the CCSS says at the 12th grade level 70% of a student’s reading should be nonfiction. She also believes that this number is all-inclusive and not a descriptor of what goes on just in English classes. Yet what we are witnessing is the corporate push to get English teachers and school districts to purchase all manner of prepackaged junk to meet the nonfiction mandate.

    I can’t help but think about Barbara Kingsolver’s comment: “All writing is political.” Fiction embodies ideas, and historical, scientific, philosophical, and mathematical details articulate those ideas. What is theme if not that? I, too, love the verisimilitude of books like “The Hot Zone,” which was instrumental in creating a heightened since of fear in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. And is there anyone who has read “The Things They Carried” without scratching his head about which parts are true and which fiction?

    Evan the best YA authors get this blending. A. S. King uses the philosophy of Zeno of Elia (Motion is Impossible) symbolically in “Ask the Passengers.” A kid will learn more about Socrates reading that book than by reading a textbook explanation.

    One of the biggest problems w/ the CCSS and the standards movement is that it’s about teaching a standard. Education is suppose to about learning subject curricula. Instead, we tell kids to learn the standards. This rhetoric matters, and it suggests a paradigm shift that began in 1983 with the publication of “A Nation at Risk.” Now we stand on the brink of that precipice.

  • Carl Rosin

    I second Glenda’s eloquent and erudite comment. People — especially administrators who may be inclined to cow English departments into ditching fiction — have to read this stuff critically (ironic how a managerial misreading or miscontextualization may endanger the teaching of reading and thinking).

    That “70%”, which I’ll use here although I don’t assume that it is the optimal target, is NOT defined as only for English classes, which are the only strongholds of fiction; add in the reading kids have to do in Social Studies and Science and so on, and it’s reasonable to think that English teachers don’t have to jettison any fiction to be in compliance. But we know that administrative failure-of-imagination may force teachers in that direction…and teacher failure-of-imagination may be complicit.

    All of us teachers target our lessons to the kids we teach, to some extent. These dogmatic formulas and easily-measured targets spring from the worst kind of management instinct and undermine the kind of imaginative thinking that teachers have to do if we are going to be dynamic. I’m happy to see standards, but spare me standardization.

  • Hollyanna

    While I do agree with you, Robin, that narrative drama is essential in our classrooms, I also agree with the Common Core’s directive to infuse more non-fiction. One of my favorite quotes is by Ursula LeGuin: “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Stories are the human threads which connect all mankind. Yet, kids and adults do not read enough. We have been killing the love of reading (Readicide by Kelly Gallagher) and there are few lifelong readers despite our best efforts in Pre-K-12 education. At best, this new directive is decreasing the amount of fiction students read because students do not read enough. In a perfect world, students would spend hours deep into the lives of Hatchet, Hugo Cabret and Melody (Out of My Mind) while also devouring National Geographic Weird Facts, Amelia Lost and World Kids News feed on Twitter. As our flat world changes dramatically, so must our reading diet and our instruction in Pre-K to 12 classrooms. Students need to be equally savvy with tech manuals as they are with flash fiction and situational irony. And we as teachers need to follow Donalyn Miller’s (The Book Whisperer) advice when leading children to be passionate, lifelong readers. If we can get children to fall in love with books, then we won’t need to worry so much about the 50/50 balance.


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