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Students should read non-fiction

Snowed in over the weekend with no chance of newspaper delivery, I had a taste of what my mornings will be like when we move to California. I will have to read the Post online. It is, I learned, blessedly convenient: click on "TODAY'S NEWSPAPER" at the very top of the home page and you get each story lined up from front page to last.

People like me worry that the newspaper habit many of us picked up in school will be lost in future generations. I remember being required to read enough of the San Francisco Chronicle front page when I was in elementary school to pass a short current events quiz. In high school, there were many projects and papers that required familiarity with the news.

For the next few weeks I am going to explore the future of news reading---and more broadly the whole matter of non-fiction in schools---to see if there isn't a way to both preserve my generation's allegiance to written news coverage with some depth and detail, and to add to schools something they have never had---a mission to instill a love of book-length non-fiction.

I hope you have some ideas about this, and can point me to teachers and schools that provide good examples. Newspapers may someday die, but my weekend experience proved that great news writing will survive online. Fiction has an iron grip on school reading assignments, but the histories and biographies that have made my adult reading so often a joy should be able to win more student attention than they have up to now.

Tablets, iPads, investigative web sites, news cooperatives---all the changes are bewildering. But we can't let schools wander away from connecting students to writing about what is real, and keeping them in touch with the forces that will change their lives, and those of their children and grandchildren. We just need some creative ways to do it.

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By Jay Mathews  | February 9, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  decline of newspaper reading, lack of non-fiction in schools, news on the web, non-fiction reading in schools, non-fiction writing  
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Thank goodness for the New Yorker for quality nonfiction on a variety of subjects. Also Smithsonian magazine.

Posted by: pittypatt | February 9, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Agreed. I wish we might substitute some of those stories for the short fiction that usually turns up in high school English homework.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 9, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

But we can't let schools wander away from connecting students to writing about what is real,
Yes let us introduce students to the perceived reality presented by newspapers. Far better to train students early on that if it is in the newspapers it is reality.

Printed newspapers were so important to our society. The day after you could wrap fish in them.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 9, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Your employer should inquire about the small number of newspapers it delivers to schools that even come out of bundle-cord. There is just no place for the products of journalism in student's everyday curriculum. So, while you might make the point --an excellent one -- that access to top-flight thinking and writing are available on the web at no printed cost, the fact is that current interpretations of accountability of teachers demand posting of plans and complete thematic and curricular integration as justification. The result is that current life outside the school window, including intellectual life, is addressable only if relegated to a "current affairs" class.

At least one teacher at DCPS's Wilson HS has for a number of years assigned such stuff as Malcolm Gladwell's brainy and popular social psychology as part of his AP English courses. A social science colleague of his makes much of what might be an otherwise dull DC History course by requiring daily reading and comment on daily journalism.

But, you should realize that these would not likely be risked by untenured teachers without an already solid reputation.

To give my identity away to my kids: No, an education through high school is not worth much if a student cannot read, engage, and quarrel intelligently with your column (and equal or better ) in the WaPo and the NYTimes. There's little reason that engagement cannot be a contemporary reinvention of the Carnegie Libraries' ideal of equalized access to educational success and social mobility. Except schools constrained by authoritarian accountability straight-jackets.

Posted by: incredulous | February 9, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Jay- I agree is it is a problem, you see it in all kinds of ways in the class room and public and school libraries, but to fix it you will also have to address a range of issues: The bias against non-fiction in early grade curriculm, overwhelming feminization of schools and libraries, I say this as a female librarian. Even in most cases it is mothers not fathers reading to their kids. (Women read less and purchase less nonfiction. Even if this moderately affects our choices it can translate to kids.) I also blame scholastic. You look at their flyers and they have very little non-fiction. DK publishes some great stuff, but they are more expensive and not as easy to get. Also we need to think about the tie-in. My father swears that he started reading non-fiction because of all the super-hero science fiction comic books he read as a kid in the 50's. You don't see the corallary in today's fiction- magna does not have those story lines and as much as I enjoyed the books, neither does Harry Potter or the Twilight books. The challenge and maybe part of what is killing newspapers is that non-fiction does not seem to draw people as much anymore, this is the problem of those of us that are parents now.

Posted by: Brooklander | February 9, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Of this I am certain, well written nonfiction can instill wisdom and maturity like "nothing else" can. Oh, how my kids loved learning through the eyes of scientists, expolorers, etc. via biographies. The whole of a journey, the trials, tribulations, and triumphs are seen in such books. With great reading selections under their belts, as children grow, they hold a library of experiences on which to draw strength and insight. Sure, hopefully, kids will have a nice variety of reading, but it is the history and biographies that I believe instills character.

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 9, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately we do not have newspapers delivered to our DC school, not even the school's library, and our teachers have not embraced the Post's e-Replica version either, sadly. Newspapers are an excellent source of non-fiction, even if you think they are "perceived reality." What better tool for students to identify and analyze examples of bias (and I don't mean only on the editorial page)?

I would also like to comment on something incredulous said, that the use of NF texts "would not likely be risked by untenured teachers without an already solid reputation." That is patently untrue and sounds too much like fear-mongering. A teacher who supports critical thinking and/or augments fiction with NF texts is actually enhancing the learning experience by providing a richer and broader perspective from which students can examine the world -- and I defy anyone, "master educator," principal or Michele Rhee herself, to say otherwise. Let's not let this paranoia force us into making what we think are "safe" curricular decisions that actually short-change our students. Because those children we graduate every June and send off to college 2 months later will find themselves sitting alongside students who eat NF texts for breakfast.

Posted by: goldgirl96 | February 10, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

When our HS students are expected to understand chemistry, calculus, and the like, how is it that we don't believe they could read actual complete history books, like "Mornings on Horseback," "Washington's Crossing," "Battle Cry of Freedom," and "The Path Between the Seas," just to take four examples of popular history books. It is as though the English Department, which controls reading, has decided our HS students can read a book, but only if it is ficion.

Posted by: fitzhugh1 | February 14, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

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