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We Learn Facts from Fiction

NCTE is always so magical, isn’t it?  It’s a five-day frenzy of learning and teaching and connecting and wondering and writing, which should be exhausting.  But it’s not.  Somehow, I come back to school every year with so much energy, revitalized by the conference and its plethora of ideas and inspiration.

This year at NCTE, as the words and wisdom of my teacher heroes washed over me, I was drawn in by one theme that kept recurring–the role of narrative in informational text.  Given that the theme of the conference was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” this wasn’t surprising.  What did surprise me, though, was that almost everyone I heard speak discussed how narrative helped learners in the context of nonfiction.  I began to wonder–what about narrative in its most accepted place–fiction?  What information do readers learn from reading fiction?

ptiIn addition to hearing from many teacher-researchers, I also got to hear from many authors.  David Levithan, e. lockhart, Libba Bray, Lester Laminack, Paul Janeczko, Georgia Heard, and more spoke about their writing processes.  Every one of them mentioned research at length, and I jotted a note–“research processes are as multigenre as its products.”  All of those writers had a unique research process, but they were all strong.  These authors put work into making their fiction as fact-based as possible.  Others discussed putting their own lives into their fictional works–Sherman Alexie has too many parallels with the narrator of Part-Time Indian for it to be a coincidence.  What’s more authentic and research-based than a lived experience?

bsogMy brain was whirling.  How many fictional novels have helped me fill gaps in my understanding?  Between Shades of Gray enlightened me to the fact that there was a Baltic genocide.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian taught me about culture on a reservation.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close brought 9/11 to life for me.  Peak showed me the world of Mt. Everest in a new light.

Fiction transports us to other worlds…it lets us know we’re not alone…and it saves our lives.  But it also teaches us a great many facts.  We don’t ask our students to read in order to just make them better readers.  We ask them to read because we know it will improve their lives…help them attack the “idea poverty” they suffer from, in Kelly Gallagher’s words.  Fiction, especially the YA fiction that is so popular in my classroom, is educational at an informational level.  Readers acquire knowledge of topics they had limited prior knowledge about by reading fiction.  They also gain understandings of universal themes and grand ideas, but they also learn facts.

Forgetting this is a grave oversight, and perhaps is at the root of why YA lit isn’t always considered “serious” literature.  Kelly Gallagher also said that “there is wisdom in Hamlet that is not found in Gone Girl,” and he’s right.  But there’s also factual information in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series about Egypt and archaeology that I did not get out of Antony and Cleopatra.  We do a disservice to authors when we discount their research processes just because they write in a genre called fiction.

All that we learn, and that our students learn, may best be processed in narrative form…but information doesn’t just have to come from nonfiction.  This is an important lesson–it’s why reading needs to be a schoolwide, nationwide, worldwide focus–not just the job of English teachers.  Reading EVERYTHING helps us acquire knowledge, expand our schema, make sense of the world, and become productive, intelligent, informed, democratic citizens.  And it also makes us pretty damn happy.

What fiction are you and your students reading that helps you acquire knowledge?

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2 thoughts on “We Learn Facts from Fiction

  1. amy December 3, 2014 at 12:16 pm Reply

    I just talked about acquiring knowledge with a student today. She is reading her second A.S. King book. The first, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, taught her not just about a person thinking of murder and suicide, but of homosexuality, and Bogart movies. Now, she is learning about POWS in Everybody Sees the Ants. Interestingly, she didn’t even recognize that she had learned these things until I prodded her in our conference. I think there is something to that in connection to what you say here. Learning information and talking about that information is important. Thanks for this insightfull post!

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  2. Gary Anderson December 3, 2014 at 10:03 am Reply

    Atticus Finch probably taught me more life lessons than I’ve ever learned from a real person, but you’re right–narrative has a way of making factual information “stickier.”

    Ernest Hemingway and The Yellow Birds taught me what it’s like for some when they return from war. Charles Dickens gave me Victorian England in ways that no textbook could ever provide. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man scratched away at my awareness of what it might mean to be Black in America.

    In class I’ve used the works of Amy Tan, Harry Mark Petrakis, and Tony Romano to help students understand various versions of the 20th Century American immigrant experience.

    My guilty pleasure is thriller author Randy Wayne White who does a lot of research for his Doc Ford books. From those I’ve learned a lot about marine life and native tribes in Florida.

    I’ll probably be thinking of examples for the rest of the day–thanks, Shana–but the last one for now is how Larry McMurtry helps me understand life in the Old West.

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