Thursday, May 22, 2014

Nonfiction in the language arts classroom need not be 'narrow'

We’ve been mulling over Kate Kinsella’s provocative piece in Language Magazine, “Cutting to the Common Core: The Benefits of Narrow Reading Units.” Kinsella makes several key points.

First, she argues that informational texts find little place in the language arts curriculum and that, despite the Common Core, the danger is that teachers “cobble together units of study” in which informational texts serve as a “cursory … addendum” or are “added as something of an afterthought” to the central literary-based thematic unit. If most students are given little in the way of informational text, some students are given too much. English support classes, for example, are sometimes built around what Kinsella calls the “attention-deficit unit,” where students are given “regular ventures” into brief informational text selections: “the genesis of the American potato chip on Monday, the ruins of Pompeii on Tuesday.”  So, too little informational text or too much (or, at least, too disjointed a selection).

Many of us would agree that Kinsella has rightly sketched the depressing contours of the language arts curriculum in many a district. And Kinsella is right to sound the alarm, since the Common Core’s call for increased informational text is based on what we all know to be necessary for college- and career-ready students: regular and sustained practice with complex, content-rich informational text.

Kinsella offers an intriguing solution: narrow nonfiction units. She suggests two varieties: “daily newspaper accounts of an ongoing story” or “brief but increasingly complex and varied informational texts that concentrate on a subject or issue.” She argues convincingly that these units “mirror the complexity of college-level course assignments” and that the “recycling of key concepts and related high-utility words and phrases” mean that narrow reading units have particular “conceptual and lexical advantages” for English learners and struggling readers.

The key point on which we would diverge from Kinsella, however, is in the role of literature in the language arts classroom and in these units. Kinsella references a news article on urban gangs as a “welcome respite from weeks of meticulous literary analysis” and writes of trying to engage students who “don’t grasp the irony in Shakespeare or the eloquence of Emily Dickenson [sic].”  These comments make clear that Kinsella sees literary study as arcane and, frankly, painful.

Alas, it clearly often is.

But it shouldn’t be. And the informational text mandate is our chance to change all that.

We agree with Kinsella that informational texts must become a more central, regular feature in our language arts classrooms (and in the classrooms of our content area peers). Literary texts, however, should not be discarded with the bathwater! A study of urban gangs, for example, can be enriched by Shakespeare’s seemingly timeless insights in Romeo and Juliet as well as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and perhaps Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” Arich, engaging unit should have a range of literary and non-literary texts, so that students can recycle key concepts and words, think about issues that matter, and read, write, and discuss from a grounded intellectual position.

We don’t want students wasting weeks on meaningful, esoteric discussion of literary minutiae. We want them reading and writing about issues and ideas that matter – and that means engaging with great literary writers who delve into these – alongside a range of informational texts. Building these units will take time and effort but can produce magnificently rich rewards.

We can do it!

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