In middle and high school English classrooms across the country, nonfiction is too often used only as either reference material or a short unit mid-way through the year to fulfill state standards. This was my own experience in high school, and it was not until I reached college that I discovered that there were entirely new worlds of literature I had never accessed. Disregarding the genre and suggesting that it does not hold as much literary value as fiction does is detrimental to students’ learning. By integrating it into the curriculum, English teachers can use engaging nonfiction to develop student self-efficacy while fostering creativity.
Douglas Hesse suggests three major advantages to integrating non-reference nonfiction into the language arts curriculum. (I’ll refer to non-reference type nonfiction as creative nonfiction, which includes memoirs, essays, literary journalism, place/feature writing, biography, etc.) Firstly, we should teach creative nonfiction to give our students a better map of the textual world. It may be simple to boil down genres and teach nonfiction as only reference material, but that is not an accurate depiction of literature. If you scan the shelves at a bookstore, there are thousands of books that don’t fit into our boiled down genres.
Secondly, he suggests that we need to teach our students literacy beyond the institutions. Sure, it is vitally important that they can write an analytical essay, but reading nonfiction can offer them literacy beyond that. (Though, as Jennifer Wells points out, reading creative nonfiction can help students on college admission essays and the like.) Hesse writes, reading nonfiction can “shape our civic, social, and personal lives, our senses of the world and ourselves in it” (Hesse 20). Reading nonfiction can give students our view of the larger world and help them form their own viewpoints.
Lastly, Hesse claims that reading nonfiction fosters creativity. He writes, “creative nonfiction is especially valuable for teaching a kind of imagination that differs from pure fiction. Even if it deals with the world of fact, creative nonfiction demonstrates that this is a world rendered and shaped by someone” (Hesse 21). Reading good nonfiction shows students how great writers can take something true, maybe even ordinary, and make it interesting to readers. By studying the work of writers who can do this, students can learn from their creativity and use it in their own writing.
Reading nonfiction in the classroom also lends itself perfectly to autobiographical writing, which is a great way to increase students’ sense of self-efficacy. An engaging memoir or autobiography could be used as scaffolding for students’ own writing. Autobiographical writing offers struggling writers a voice—they all have something to say about their own experience. As Spires and her colleagues suggest, “As students derive a sense of self through autobiographical readings and writings, they have the opportunity to create a foundation on which to build as they continue to develop their academic voices” (Spires 298). Often, the prior experiences with writing that students may have had in the past with teachers taking a red pen to their papers, can leave students with a negative attitude toward writing. If we, through autobiographical writing, can encourage them that they do have something original and interesting to write about, that negative attitude may change. Using nonfiction in the classroom can be a means of encouraging reluctant writers.
Not only can nonfiction engage reluctant writers, but also reluctant readers. Often, according to Marc Aronson, students who are interested in nonfiction are often labeled as “nonreaders.” He suggests that boys, especially, have an innate desire to learn to master their own worlds, a mastery that nonfiction has the potential to offer them. This is why boys are often seen reading car and hunting magazines written for adults. He writes, “The problem is not that boys do not wish to read, but that what they wish to read—what, in fact, they desperately yearn to read—is not what we prefer to publish” (Aronson 99). Nonfiction offers girls, I think, something powerful too; many forms of nonfiction depict meaningful relationships between people that fiction often misses.
These value judgments placed on reading are often harmful students. Myrna Hynes writes about a student of hers, Jeffrey, who thought he was a nonreader. He said, ““I don’t read for fun. Like, most of the people here, they have novels that they read for—enjoyment! I read for facts. . . . So, if I find what I was looking for, I will do it.” Out of context, it seems that Jeffrey was explaining what kind of reader he was. He was, though, explaining why he considered himself a nonreader. By not giving value to nonfiction, we alienate many of our students who do like to read, but might not like to read novels. By teaching with nonfiction in the classroom, we provide different kinds of readers a sense of self-efficacy, which can open up doors to new kinds of reading as well. RCA2011.
Aronson, M. (2003). Beyond the pale: new essays for a new era. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, INC.
Bishop, W. (2003). Suddenly sexy: creative nonfiction read-ends composition. College English, 65(3), 257-273.
Hesse, D. (2009). Imagining a place for creative nonfiction. English Journal, 99(2), aZ18-24.
Hynes, Myrna. (2000). “I read for facts”: reading nonfiction in a fiction world. Language Arts, 77(6), 485-495.
Spires, H.A., Williams, J.B., Jackson, A., & Huffman, L.E. (1998). Leveing the academic playing field through autobiographical reading and writing. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 42(2), 296-304.
Wells, J. (2008). “it sounds like me”: using creative nonfiction to teach college admissions essays. English Journal, 98(1), 47-52.