(Image credit: hanging by a thread accessed on Flickr January 6, 2010)
Grant Wiggins must be living in a different world than me if his post for ASCD's blog "Ban Fiction From the Curriculum" is any indication. Although Wiggins has removed the post because of all the nasty comments on the piece that he now claims was satire, his primary arguments still stand:
(1) Boys don't like fiction, and therefore we need to toss most of it since the classroom favors girls.
(2) Most fiction should be shelved because it doesn't serve our "future needs."
And then there is this statement:
"No, I am not kidding. I think it is absurd that the bulk of reading making up the ELA curriculum involves fiction. There are few good reasons for retaining so much literature and many good reasons for dumping most of it."
Since when does our understanding of the 21st century call for a utilitarian approach to education? Not anywhere that I've read or seen. Quite the opposite. At what point are boys exempt from developing thier imagination and creativity--something the reading and writing of fiction powerfully exercise? Sounds pretty sexist to me. Do we need more choice? Probably. But less fiction? No way.
Certainly at Lovett we hold a liberal education, one that fosters mind, body and soul, in high value. We would never adopt a "fictionless" curriculum. And, as we work passionately to find the best means to educate our students for the conceptual age, we strive to develop our students' creative and innovative mindsets-minds that are flexible and adaptable with an ability to see and think differently. More than ever we know that the narrative form-be it fiction or non-fiction-has an extraordinary power for deep learning and an understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
The magical wand that makes an English classroom relevant and engaging for all students (and I would argue this is true for any classroom) is the teacher. A masterful teacher may or may not have the latitude to select the texts he teaches (althoughwe offer a great deal of freedom to our teachers, and in the single-gender classrooms of our middle school more choice is evident); however, a masterful teacher can bring seemingly irrelevant texts to life with and for all of their students. Deep-reading is a challenge in a world where the text message beats the Hamlet soliloquy every time; and yet, when students have opportunities to perform, to contextualize the text to the modern day, to have choice in their demonstrations of learning, then the reading matters and their creativity and humanity are honored.
I do agree with Wiggins about the need for more non-fiction reading, of all types, in our English classrooms. In particular, I love the notion of a humanities approach and the opportunities to transform an English classroom to something that looks more interdisciplinary without the scheduling headache. Lovett's signature course, the junior year American Studies, is a true interdisciplinary model combining an English class and a History class to examine six themes across American history with the lenses of literature, art, music, etc. It's a powerful and demanding learning experience for our students.
I suppose it is for this very reason, the opportunity to look at the world through different lenses and make these connections using a variety of texts and resources, that I am particularly excited about Bennett Spann's new Senior English elective. An American Studies teacher, but with an eye towards building our students' global perspectives, Bennett will be teaching "Moments Of Crisis: An Exploration of Good and Evil, Civilization and Dystopia." He describes the course (still in formation) as follows:
In this course, students will read fiction from various cultures that are deeply rooted in tragic and often shocking realities. In addition to several short novels, students will supplement their readings with non-fiction in order to understand more fully how the fictional realities of the authors relate to their respective cultures. The goal of this course is to increase global and cultural literacy as well as to examine commonalities between seemingly disconnected countries, cultures, and ethnicities. The course will also encourage students to reflect upon the simultaneous idealism and tragedy of the human experience. Students will write interdisciplinary essays that emphasize social commentary and explore the relationship between fact and fiction. We will primarily focus on Africa, South America, China, Russia, and Italy with some excerpts illuminating other areas as well.
List of Texts:
The Life and Times of Michael K, J. M. Coetzee
Death in the Andes, Mario Vargas Llosa
The True Story of Ah Q, Cheng Ah
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsy
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Dario Fo
Masterful teachers. Variety of texts and learning resources. Nimble minds. Creativity and imagination. These are the things we must foster in the 21st century. Ban fiction? Never.
(To read more excerpts from Wiggins' original post (and a thoughtful response) see Matthew's post at Online School's Education Debate as well as Angela Maiers and Chris Lehmann's blog responses.)