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?
In 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?
My 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?