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Novel idea? Emphasis on nonfiction over fiction shaking up Illinois classrooms

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 9:49 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 4)

(MCT) — The second-graders sat cross-legged on the floor, fanning out from their teacher in a classic scene that has played out for decades in America's schools. But these kids weren't getting ready to read stories.

Instead, this was "informational text" time in Mr. Halverson's class in DuPage's Wood Dale School District 7, with students using iPads cradled in their laps to access nonfiction information about germs, their study topic.

Welcome to an avant-garde classroom in Illinois, where nonfiction is edging out fiction. It's part of a controversial curriculum shake-up and marks a pivotal change in thinking about what public school students should be reading to prepare for college and work.

To be sure, it's not that novels, plays and poems will be read "nevermore," as Edgar Allan Poe's raven would say.

But educators acknowledge that the quantity of fiction will decline as more nonfiction is added to lessons across the curriculum. This will be true even in English classes, where fiction classics like "Lord of the Flies," "The Great Gatsby" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" have dominated reading lists for generations.

English teachers will make more room for so-called informational text and literary nonfiction. That could include anything from digital and print articles to essays, letters and speeches, like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's wartime "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat" address to the House of Commons.

For better or worse — only time will tell — the emphasis on nonfiction is a key element of the new Common Core learning standards in English language arts and math that are reshaping curricula across the country.

Adopted by Illinois and 44 other states, they are considered more rigorous than previous benchmarks for what students should know and be able to do. Testing in Illinois on those standards is scheduled to begin in 2014-15.

In reading, the idea is that greater use of nonfiction exposes kids to what they'll face in the future. At college and work, most reading material is nonfiction, and developers of the standards say K-12 students need more practice to understand, assess and synthesize complex nonfiction information in a variety of subjects.

"When you were taught to read, you were taught to read mostly with fiction. We just assumed you'd be able to transfer that to reading nonfiction, but that is not true. You have to prepare differently," said Wood Dale School District 7 Superintendent John Corbett. His district was gung-ho about using the new standards.

Second-grade teacher Joshua Halverson, at the district's Oakbrook Elementary School, said it's easy to blend more nonfiction into instruction because many children prefer it. His students still read fiction, he said, but he notices more of them pick nonfiction books.

Confusion and debate

The new focus can offer some innovative blending of course material, teachers say.

At Wood Dale Junior High, for example, an eighth-grade language arts class looks like a music or history class.

The soulful sounds of famous blues artist B.B. King fill the classroom of Megan Geary, who takes students through nonfiction material about the origin, instruments, musicians and geography of the blues.

Her class has incorporated nonfiction as a lead-in to studying the short fiction story called "The Treasure of Lemon Brown," about an old blues singer and his harmonica.

Geary is partnering with social studies teachers on a unit of study focused on looking at the past. The interdisciplinary approach is another key element of the Common Core standards. They emphasize that literacy isn't just the purview of English teachers but the responsibility of teachers of science, history and other subjects.

In that vein, the new standards push for a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction across subjects in the early grades — a big change for young children, according to educators — followed by 55 percent nonfiction in junior high and 70 percent in high school.

The numbers stem from the amount of fiction and nonfiction appearing in passages of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

The percentages have caused some confusion and spurred debate.

This summer, a mom on a blog for parents of public school students in New York blasted the figures as "arbitrary and wrong-headed, and if enforced, may kill the love of reading among many children."

Fiction reading has been on the rise, she noted, with the popularity of the "Harry Potter" novels and the "Hunger Games" trilogy.

"My eighth-grade son ... reads many thousands of pages a year," the mother wrote. "Should he be forced to read thousands of pages of nonfiction to match this? Or should he instead be discouraged from reading novels, so that his 'informational text' quota can be more easily reached?"

Education historian Diane Ravitch also has been critical, saying this spring on her blog: "I don't know how one develops imagination without reading fiction. ... I can't imagine a well-developed mind that has not read novels, poems and short stories."

In Illinois, some parents may not know yet about the Common Core standards. They are just beginning to move into classrooms, and some districts are still in the planning stages.

The Chicago Public Schools system is putting the new standards into place this year, though some schools got an early start and are several years into the rollout. The effort has not been without challenges.

"Three years ago, it was tough," said Armour Elementary School Principal Shelley Marie Lugo-Cordova.

Before Common Core, more than 75 percent of reading in her school's early grades was fiction, Lugo-Cordova estimated.

"We need a good balance. I don't think we had a balance in the past," she said.

Steve Zemelman is director of the Illinois Writing Project, which provides teacher training in reading and writing.

Both fiction and nonfiction are important, he said.

Fiction not only provides enjoyment, but also helps societies, families and communities share values and make their arguments, Zemelman said.

"They do it with stories," he said. "So fiction is just a natural part of our human existence, and it is important.

"At the same time, you can make equally strong arguments about nonfiction ... in terms of providing information and being able to understand and interpret it well."

Cutting back on novels

In Chicago-area high schools, the reaction to Common Core has been mixed, with some educators resisting a move away from a rich menu of novels, plays and poetry even as others incorporate more nonfiction.

At Will County's Lincoln-Way Community High School District 210, officials have been reducing the number of novels in English classes, said Sharon Michalak, assistant superintendent for curriculum.

"Our anthologies in English language arts have nonfiction in them, so we are asking our teachers to use more of the nonfiction pieces. In the past, they did, but just not as much," she said.

The district also has created a senior-level English class exclusively devoted to nonfiction.

In Lake County, veteran English teacher Elise Womack said Zion-Benton Township High School's curriculum has been evolving for several years now. The school has already increased the use of nonfiction to match what students will see on the ACT college entrance exam, she said.

Some parents have objected, especially those of honors students, she said.

The situation gets more complicated in high school because students are usually placed in different levels of classes, depending on their skills, and educators acknowledge that honors students tend to read more than others.

So it's not clear whether the Common Core standards will increase reading — whether it's fiction or nonfiction — for all high school students.

Administrators also point out that high schools may already have reached the 70-30 percent guidelines for nonfiction and fiction, because many classes use only nonfiction texts and materials. That means dramatic change may not be necessary.

Philip Prale, the assistant superintendent in Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 who oversees curriculum, said his district isn't looking to do away with literature, which he believes "opens up worlds for people."

Instead, teachers will use nonfiction materials to add context to a novel, such as material about the migrant experience during the Great Depression as part of the study of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."

"I think we'll get to the 70-30," Prale said. "And we'll still be able to retain a focus on literature."

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