Friday, October 11, 2013

Pairing Fiction and Nonfiction: A Common Core Pleasure

It may seem strange to start a post for a nonfiction blog this way, but I confess that when I read for pleasure, I usually choose fiction. One of my very favorite things in the whole world is curling up with a good novel. So as I was exploring the Common Core website in hopes of finding an idea for this post, I latched onto the ninth "anchor reading standard." It calls for students to analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics. Asking students to compare and contrast different texts or genres (fiction and nonfiction, for example) is not a new idea, of course. But it gave me the perfect excuse to assign myself a work of historical fiction I’ve been meaning to read for a while, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.

If only all assignments were this gratifying! Chains is a gripping, fascinating story, and even if I had been totally unfamiliar with the subject matter I still could not have put it down. But my appreciation and understanding of the novel were deepened by my familiarity with some of the subjects Anderson explores: the day-to-day lives of enslaved African Americans in the 18th century, the destructive relationship between slave owner and slave, and the irony of waging a war based on the revolutionary ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” at the same time people were being bought and sold. They are topics I address in my nonfiction book, Master George’s People.

Because historical records document that a great many of George Washington’s slaves ran away, I could confidently claim in Master George that Washington’s “people,” as he called them, “yearned to live their lives as free men and women.” Unfortunately, however, these people left no written accounts that we know of. Very few of them could read or write. So without evidence to back it up, I couldn't say how any of these men and women personally felt about being enslaved. Novelists, thankfully, are free to let their imaginations and their pens roam beyond the historical record. In Chains, Anderson's fictional heroine, Isabel, tells us just how it feels to suffer the indignities of slavery, to ache for freedom. And because Anderson makes us care about Isabel, we suffer and ache—and hope and rebel—with her.

Another wonderful historical novel I recommend pairing with Master George’s People is Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. This moving, impeccably researched book explores what live was like for the enslaved people owned—and fathered—by the author of the Declaration of Independence. Like Chains—and, I hope, Master George—it raises fundamental questions about equality and freedom and the contradictions inherent in our nation's founding.

In a recent column in the Huffington Post, Vicki Cobb said that the Common Core standards are not in our books, but in the way our books are used. Pairing narrative nonfiction with top-notch historical fiction is an excellent way to use both. For more suggestions on matching fiction with nonfiction in middle grade classrooms, check out this Nerdy Book Club blog post by Susan Dee. What are your favorite fiction/nonfiction pairings? I hope you'll leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to include them in a future post.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I deleted the earlier comment cuz of a type.

Great post, Marfe. If children are to master the skill of reading, they MUST practice, practice, practice. Children don't become readers until they get the idea the reading is a portal to another world. These pairings you're mentioning are a perfect way to use fiction to establish an emotional connection with history that arouses curiosity for a child to want to know, "Yes, but is it true?" Thus creating an opening for nonfiction.

Melissa Stewart said...

Great post, Marfe! I agree that pairing fiction and nonfiction is great way to teach content and address Common Core standards. Standard 9 is all about looking at a variety of books and other sources on the same topic and comparing them. It's a great way to get a more well-rounded view of a topic.

Steve Sheinkin said...

I've heard from teachers/librarians who pair my book, Bomb, with Ellen Klages' novel, The Green Glass Sea - two very different looks at life at the top secret atomic bomb lab at Los Alamos. I love hearing stuff like this!

Unknown said...

Like Steve, I've had some of my books paired with fiction, most often it's The Long Road to Gettysburg with Killer Angels and An American Plague with Fever
1793. It's very flattering to be associated with these books and the classroom discussions are always interesting. The kids (in my humble opinion) see reading and comparing two books as a challenge (to see which one is better)and really gets a genuine dialogue going.

Susan Kuklin said...

My nonfiction book, No Choirboy, has often been paired with Walter Dean Myers's Monster. A number of teachers have written to me about the lively discussions after reading them together. Comparing a fiction and nonfiction subject is a great teaching technique.

Thanks for writing this Marfe.

Unknown said...

I have been rethinking the idea of paired text quite a bit lately. I have seen students thrive with the integration of nonfiction and fiction books when I have taught units on ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, the Medieval Times and World War II. I am now intrigued about the inclusion of other forms of literacy such as the use of maps, charts, graphs, music, illustrations and photos. Are there any success stories that someone would care to share?