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Traditionally, it was common to hear language arts teachers saying things to each other like, “I’m teaching Romeo and Juliet right now,” or “Our next unit will be on Things Fall Apart.” But times are changing. New standards emphasize reading informational texts along with literature—not to mention the importance of reading across texts. With more and more frequency, language arts teachers are being asked to bring nonfiction into the English classroom and to connect it with novels, poems and plays. As such, we are no longer just “teaching literature” but rather introducing themes, essential questions and topics that stretch across multiple genres.
It’s a big task, but there are some easy things you can do to start putting both fiction and nonfiction into conversation in your classroom:
Engage With Essential Questions
Essential questions are broad, thematic explorations that serve as a useful lens for looking at multiple texts. The purpose of essential questions is “to bring multiple texts together into conversation with each other so students begin to see how their own voices become part of a larger academic dialogue,” says John Golden, instructional specialist and author of the textbook for Honors and Pre-AP® courses Advanced Language & Literature.
For example, when teaching Shakespeare’s Macbeth, you might focus on essential questions such as: What are the dangers of excessive ambition? What is lost or gained in the quest for success?
Have students consider not only how Macbeth addresses these questions but other texts as well, such as short stories (Amy Tan’s “Rules of the Game”) or mythology (Icarus). The texts need not be directly related to Macbeth, and they don’t even have to be from the same eras, as long as they are examining the same essential questions. So, students studying Macbeth might look at the nature of ambition by reading Machiavelli, Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela or even the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
“College professors are telling us that students are too easily overwhelmed when confronted with more than one source. So, high school students need lots and lots of practice analyzing and synthesizing multiple texts,” says Golden. Instead of using only literary criticism or other nonfiction written about a literary text, nonfiction can be viewed more broadly in ways that give kids a chance to engage with literature on their own terms. Big ideas—the lure of power, cultures in conflict, dystopian societies—can be linked to classic/popular literary texts that are often taught today, such as Lord of the Flies, 1984, or The Kite Runner.
5 Activities to Try
- Stage a debate. “After reading a fiction and nonfiction textual pairing, have students role-play in a debate,” recommends Golden. Given the topic of income inequality, for example, what would economist Paul Krugman have to say to Jay Gatsby in conversation? What would they have in common, and on what points might they disagree? Stepping into the shoes of different points of view and engaging in (literal) dialogue will allow students to experience the texts in new and authentic ways.
- Write original arguments. Once students have considered multiple perspectives on a particular topic, they need to write their own informed points of view, bringing in the texts to support their perspectives. Controversial topics easily invite argument, but more personal ones do as well. Even as freshmen and sophomores, students can investigate issues such as language and power on so many levels.
What does it mean to be bilingual—and bicultural? We’ve seen this issue in our current presidential debate, but there are poems and memoirs that reflect on the relationship of language to identity. Then adding a classic text like Cyrano de Bergerac (and the movie Roxanne) only adds to the ideas students have to think about. Plus, why not get right into where students live most of the time: their digital identity (or identities)? There are many excellent writers—Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, Jon Ronson—who are writing about this.
- Evaluate texts. After reading a novel, ask students to address the question: Should this novel be taught as required reading? Students may answer this question in the form of a letter to the board of education, an in-class debate or a traditional academic essay. Conducting research on the subject will tie in nonfiction resources to substantiate their arguments. “Interrogating a text—really asking, what is its power through time?—is a valuable exercise that will get kids involved in contemporary questions and issues,” says Renée Shea, former director of Freshman Composition in the University System of Maryland and co-author of Advanced Language & Literature.
- Pair fiction and nonfiction from the same author. For strong writers of both fiction and nonfiction, Shea recommends Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Franzen, among others. “From one author, pick fiction and nonfiction pieces that concern similar topics,” says Shea, such as Edwidge Danticat and the subject of immigration. Pair two passages from each piece; compare and contrast them. Ask: What does fiction offer? What does nonfiction offer? What are the benefits or drawbacks to each genre? Is one more effective than the other and why?
- Assign topics to groups. Break students into small groups and assign them each a thematic topic connected to your fictional text. Then, each group finds and brings in one nonfiction text to the class pertaining to their particular topic. Have them present to one another and share their resources.
4 Standout Pairings
Check out these examples of commonly taught texts with suggested conversations from Shea.
If you’re reading: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare …
Bring in: “Shakespeare in the Bush” by Laura Bohannan, an anthropological article published in 1966, that will get students discussing how one’s culture informs the ways in which a story might be read. Or bring in an excerpt from “Ambition: Why Some People Are Most Likely to Succeed” by Jeffrey Kluger, in which he synthesizes multiple research studies that examine traits that drive people’s ambitions, which could be applied to several characters in the play.
If you’re reading Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, a novel about the Japanese internment …
Bring in: Letters from those in internment camps, official legislative documents surrounding the internment itself and reparations, photographs of the camps by Ansel Adams, as well as contemporary argumentative pieces about Guantanamo prison and treatment of recent American immigrants.
If you’re reading: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian novel about a future in which books are banned and burned …
Bring in: Copies of the First Amendment and the essay “Free to Be Happy” by Jon Meacham, which examines the role governments should or should not play in the happiness of its citizens. Also, at the height of the McCarthy era that Bradbury is criticizing, Senator Margaret Chase Smith delivered a speech in Congress called “A Declaration of Conscience,” in which she railed against the fear Americans had been feeling about speaking their minds.
If you’re reading: Antigone, the Greek drama by Sophocles …
Bring in: Excerpts from Justice by Harvard professor Michael Sandel, in which he examines various ethical viewpoints with relevant and accessible modern-day examples. Or bring in an excerpt from I Am Malala, the autobiography of the teenage girl from Pakistan who, like Antigone, was willing to risk her life to defend her beliefs by standing up to the Taliban, who prohibited girls from attending school.
Finally… Remember to Relax!
“Don’t feel like you have to find everything all by yourself,” advises Shea. “This is where being part of a community of teachers is important.” Sharing resources with other teachers will help develop your library of texts. Golden agrees: “The idea of moving away from ‘teaching a book’ and moving toward ‘teaching thematically across texts’ is a relatively new concept, and teachers need support.” Start small, and add more texts as you go. Keep your eyes open, and you’ll start to see connections everywhere you turn!
Find more help with teaching thematically to high school honors and Pre-AP® students in Advanced Language & Literature, a new textbook coming in the spring of 2016.