When most people think about analysis in the “literature” classroom, they envision scenes of students interpreting Shakespeare, or grappling with the language and message of authors like Toni Morrison, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
Students gain access to incredible things through fiction. We study characterization, we make connections, we understand the importance of setting, and yes–we analyze the author’s choices and intentions. It’s a worthy and valuable journey to take with a high school class.
However, in recent years, voices have emerged making a case for nonfiction in the “literature” classroom, and thank goodness they have. Kylene Beers, who wrote When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do, Adolescent Literacy and Notice And Note (all books that are primarily focused on helping students read fiction) recently came out with a new book Reading Nonfiction. Beers, along with many other “reading gurus” are recognizing more than ever that nonfiction is creating a new access point for teachers of English to help students do deep thinking, reading and writing.
In my classroom this year, I am making a point to incorporate nonfiction into the classroom as an anchor text, rather than as a supplemental text. The plan is to read, watch, listen to and analyze as much nonfiction this semester as we do fiction. I am using the lens of Personal Authenticity to re-imagine how students can build personal connections to the work they are doing. Nonfiction is a fantastic way to help students build those connections.
The problem of practice our department is grappling with this semester is How might our students create more authentic and diverse forms of literary analysis ?
It is my (current) belief that nonfiction is one of the best ways to help students engage in an authentic experience of analysis with a text. This semester some of the nonfiction texts my students are engaging with include both text and documentary. No Choirboy, by Susan Kuklin profiles several young men who were sent to death row for crimes they committed (or accused of committing) as teenagers. The book allows students to grapple with real life issues about our justice system. It builds empathy, helps students construct meaning, and sets them up to take a stand about an issue and persuade a reader of it in a persuasive essay that they will design themselves.
Is it possible to look for characterization or plot development or conflict in this text? No. However, we do look at how the setting of a prison impacts real people. We study the way human beings’ abilities or inabilities to handle (real life) conflict impacts the decisions we make. We also study word choice, author’s intention, and yes, even figurative language. This text allows students to take a stand, have an opinion and be informed on that opinion based on reading— not movies, not hearsay, not what their friends or families think, but what they have read.
In our cell phone, Netflix, social media driven society, this kind of authentic engagement with reading is really refreshing. After the No Choirboy unit, I asked my students if they enjoyed reading nonfiction in a “literature” classroom and if they think it’s worth incorporating into future classes. The response was overwhelmingly that a mix of the genres is best. The students like the imagination and creativity of fiction books, but they like the relevance and rawness of nonfiction. One student even wrote, “I prefer nonfiction because it’s more realistic and interesting. Unlike fiction, which is fake, these stories are both real and interesting. I liked No Choirboy.”
As usual, the students say it best.