Since its inception, the Common Core has urged educators to incorporate informational and non-fiction texts into curricula across the board. With next-generation assessments coming down the pike, English teachers across the country have collectively white-knuckled their grips on the literary cannon in fear that a deranged Common Core nonfiction bandit might sneak into their bookrooms in the wee hours of the night only to replace each work of fiction with some tepid and dry non-fiction counterpart.
Breathe easy, my friends. The classic works of literature that we hold near and dear to our hearts aren’t going anywhere, but the manner in which we teach these novels could certainly benefit from a hardy dose of (– I hesitate to use the word “authentic,” but –) authentic value. Integrating the right kind of non-fiction in the right kind of way can be the difference between acquainting students with likable characters and transforming the way students perceive and move through the real world.
Why The Common Core Nonfiction Shift?
To be frank, exploring fiction through a non-fiction lens is nothing new. It has always happened in pockets – the Holden Caulfield personality test, the 1920’s era research paper – these kinds of lessons have been sprinkled into our instruction for decades.
But think for a moment about the kind of power that lies in lessons as ubiquitous and memorable as those two mentioned above. Why do so many teachers ask their kids to psychoanalyze Holden Caulfield? Why do so many struggling readers and writers find a buoyant relief in researching and writing about the Black Sox scandal?
It’s because they’re experiencing a particular brand of learning is pertinent to their own interests, experiences, and passions in the world. It’s often interdisciplinary. It’s typically project-based. And it’s changing the way we think about teaching literature across all grade levels.
#1. Play Psychologist
Reproduce the success of your tried-and-true Holden lesson with the power of popular research. Ask your students to pay a brief visit to PsychologyToday.com for a wealth of highly engaging and surprisingly relevant psych articles.
In this fashion, your kids can crank any character through the gears of psychoanalysis. Marry articles about addiction and alcoholism to Blanche DuBois. Consider how Elizabeth Bennet measures up in the modern world of relationship psychology. Unpack the benefits of Augustus Waters’ state of mind about disease using evidence from a real case study.
The opportunities for synthesis are nearly endless while both rigor and engagement shoot through the roof. The notion of “playing psychologist” is, in itself, a deceivingly tempting prospect. Meanwhile, your students will be peeling back layers upon layers of literary analysis, honing a skillset they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.
#2. Harness History
Readers must have a solid understanding of a novel’s historical context in order to truly appreciate and understand the happenings of the plot. This is truer for some novels than others, e.g. the roaring twenties and The Great Gatsby. But beyond providing students with an additional layer of content to latch on to for the purposes of supporting comprehension and dissecting an author’s purpose, this kind of inquiry provides rich opportunities for students to travel down historical rabbit-holes, to chase down the elements of history that they find most compelling, to trace the lines of time from their own lives, through those of the characters’ they’re reading about, to their very origins.
Harness history by providing students with choice-driven project-based learning opportunities tethered to the literature they’re reading. If it’s The Hunger Games, examine the origins of dystopia, of modern sociological dystopian phenomena, of WWII inspired language and imagery. If it’s Lord of the Flies, launch a side-by-side comparison of Jack and any dictator’s [auto]biography. Again, the possibilities are expansive.
#3. Scrutinize Scientifically
While this seem like an unlikely venture for most English classes, the recent popularity of 20% projects and “genius hour” have stemmed (no pun intended) scores of incredible interdisciplinary ELA and science “stuff.”
The thing about science is that it’s everywhere, so once you’ve mastered the first trick of uncovering the right scientific questions, and once your students have done the same, the stuff of English research, reading, and writing begin to evolve in a truly interesting way.
Why does paper burns at 451 degrees? What does plugging a knothole with cement actually do to a tree? How much money did Gatsby spend on his parties, and was his lifestyle monetarily sustainable? How might undercooked pork affect the health of young boys who are otherwise malnourished and stranded on a deserted island?
Challenge your students to do a bit of myth busting, to research these kinds of questions before crafting a proposal in which they pitch a technologically viable innovation that upends the happenings in a work of literature you’ve adored for years. Then share the manner in which you mind was blown in the comments below!