November 24, 2014

The End of Nonfiction: Common Core standards force us to rethink categorization

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Photo by CCAC North Library

Reference is dead. Don’t worry though, fiction and nonfiction will keep it good company in the great resting place in the sky for obsolete library sections. These days, it’s the Common Core standards that should be driving collection development in the school library, and CC requirements extend well beyond fiction, nonfiction, and reference.

I’m not suggesting you jettison all reference materials. Quite the contrary, we must free these valuable resources from reference shelves in the off chance that someone will need to ask a question without having easy access to Wikipedia (I’m joking, sort of). The information locked within our reference resources is valuable—but needs reformatting to meet current needs. Many traditional reference publishers like ABC-CLIO, M. E. Sharpe, World Book, and Encyclopaedia Britannica have taken their print content and created successful digital versions. Pushing the envelope a bit further, these resources need to live within the regular circulating sections of our libraries.

The Common Core calls for primary sources and short pieces on social studies and scientific topics. Our reference collections are primed to deliver in that category, just not in their current format. What if an encyclopedia didn’t cover everything about the Civil War and instead offered a set of 10 short passages rich with primary sources? Now that reference book is a perfect supplementary resource for a history class. For this to work, however, we need a new name. “Reference” is a loaded word that conjures up noncirculating books. So what do we call these new texts?

Definitely not “nonfiction.” I think it’s time to excise that confusing concept. For every student who’s asked why nonfiction encompasses fairy tales, books about monsters, and everything boys want to know about Star Wars, let go of the idea of nonfiction. You can even see the struggle in the language of the Common Core. “Literary nonfiction?” Isn’t that simply well-written informational texts?

For me, that’s the answer: “informational texts.” Reference books still hold a wealth of content that students need for research and independent learning. Why not collect them into a large informational section?

Then let’s look at books that are primarily about a narrative. These can be collected together in the… well, the narrative section. This means the fairy tales, literature, and so many of the graphic novels that would be tucked away in the 700’s per Dewey can instead be shelved together based around a common narrative structure. Referring to “narrative” and “informational” books also alleviates the use of a negative term—nonfiction—to describe works that aren’t fiction and thus are true even though they may be books about ghosts and monsters. For younger children, perhaps we could subtitle the sections according to books that most overtly “tell me a story” or “teach me about something.”

Clearer terminology can also help in assisting teacher peers. Educators looking for Common Core texts are being told to seek out nonfiction, when, really, the standards are just pushing for more informational texts. Fiction can be written in a highly informational style, case in point: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. Meanwhile, much nonfiction is highly narrative (think Bill Bryson’s travelogues).

A shift around the Common Core is one that libraries might need to make to realign our top-level collection descriptors with how students access and use books. Instead of contrived separations that section off fiction and call everything else nonfiction, let’s turn instead to the texts themselves. Let us ask of each book: are you telling me a story? Or are you teaching me something? Then, we can start building the next big thing in our libraries.

 

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Christopher Harris About Christopher Harris

Christopher Harris (infomancy@gmail.com) is coordinator of the school library system of the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership.

Comments

  1. An interesting premise … worth some thought

  2. WendieO says:

    So — biography, especially picture book biographies, tell a story AND are informational. Where do they fit in this new organization?

    • Christopher Harris says:

      WendieO, I think this is where you have to look at the root purpose of use and the writing style. Is the Bio for research purposes? Or is it more for narrative reading?

  3. How ’bout a designing a solution using tags Chris? Rather than reorganizing the physical library, it approaches the problem with a digital and social solution. Penn is one example of a successful catalog with tags: http://tags.library.upenn.edu/

  4. Interesting idea! But where do we account for truth (you should pardon the archaic expression)? Some narratives arise from the imagination, others from reality, as you point out. I think Epistemology 101 is a crucial component of information literacy and education in general: What is true, and how can you tell?

    • Clare Murphy says:

      Your comment about “truth” rang a bell with me. Besides the fairy, monster and folk tales, our current ‘NF’ shelves are full of words on less-than-clear-cut truths. Indeed the need to state opinions and beliefs drive the writing of a good portion of those shelves. Is evolution true? -depends on who you ask. (And you will find texts on a range of opinions & theories on that topic.) Is a particular strategy to make money in the stockmarket “true”? Also, opinions that a particular goverment form (or party, person, theory or argument) is best? I recently heard the quote “History is written by the victors” which reminds me that even if a specific piece of historical data is accurate, the pieces missing from any text (and no one can put all the pieces in a book) lend that less-than-truth bent to any text on a historical topic, no matter how scholarly.

      Categories are simply tools for rough groupings. I am all for finding better groupings than living forever with Fiction/NF. But I am glad we don’t use “True” as a label for that rough category that we have currently labelled NF.

  5. Clare Murphy says:

    Interesting thoughts.

    I love fiction. But I also really appreciate the rest of the universe of shared written, spoken (and illustrated?) thought. I would love to see us come up with better terminology than our current “NF”.

    Funny to think that libraries of long ago were filled with shared written thought: philosophy, scientific and engineering, travel, language, along with songs, poems, plays, and tales & mythologies, through which a person could become “educated”.

    Now, entertainment fiction seems to have taken the vanguard of importance, and everything else is “not fiction”. I wonder just when that happened?

  6. Karen Stearns says:

    Dear Chris, As a former h.s. ENG teacher and now English Educator at SUNY Cortland I appreciate your post. My concern is that it’s necessary to “help” teachers (teacher, now, right! Teachers who have degrees and reading lives!) find non-fiction and/or complex texts for their classrooms K-12.

    If one has a reading life and keeps abreast of current issues through newspapers, magazines and journals, isn’t finding complex texts your students will want to read a no-brainer? Aren’t teachers reading non-fiction of interest themselves?

    I guess I find it appalling that the Core Standards have brought with them an outcry — that if the tried and true (To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, Night, etc.) aren’t the be all and end all of what young people should read, teachers’ lament is “what do we teach then?”

    We’re surrounded by texts we can use to help adolescent readers develop a critical literacy. Equal to librarians, ELA teachers should know that and have the appropriate funds of knowledge necessary to engage kids in interesting and complex texts.

  7. Karen Stearns says:

    Forgive the grammatical error above; I thought I would be able to edit the post. Sorry!!

    • William Lawrence says:

      It’s true what you said about core standards, and as someone from the younger generation I can tell you I have always questioned the stick in the mud attitude of what I was taught. “This is this way because it has always been this way,” that kind of thought doesn’t last the test of time, and if you are not willing to adapt and modify your teaching methods you will fall behind.

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