Considering Common Core: Why Fiction Matters

If you, like me, are in a state that has fully adopted the Common Core, then you know one of the major shifts in literature is away from fiction and into informational text. That’s not to say that we are to throw away all of our novels and short stories, and stop writing poetry and narratives, but the emphasis of the Common Core is clearly on non-fiction, informational writing and reading.

For many of us, particularly those of us who teach in elementary levels, this is going to be a huge shift in what we teach, how and the resources we have available to us. Although we do use smaller non-fiction texts in my classroom, much of the reading that we do right now is fiction: novels, short stories, narratives, poetry, etc.

The rationale, as I understand it, is that being ready for the world of work and college requires analytical thinking skills and understanding of the world, and the writers of the Common Core seem to believe that non-fiction is a critical component to that kind of learning. Fiction is still part of the expectations (and in Massachusetts, our state has put fiction in greater measure than some other states thanks to our state officials using their “wiggle room” to add in more fiction standards), but reading and writing and research will mostly unfold around informational strands in the new standards.

I had this in mind as I was reading a great piece in the The Boston Sunday Globe last weekend.  In the piece, called Why Fiction Is Good for You by Jonathan Gottschall, the idea of reading fiction as a way to explore the world, make moral decisions, and use critical thinking skills for a whole range of reasons gets its due (although the act of writing fiction is barely mentioned.) Gottschall notes that recent research around the brain and stories seems to indicate just how important this connection is:

This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.

But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.


When we think of how learning informs the future citizens of the world, we want to remember that a balance of texts is a key consideration, and as this article shows, the reading and understanding of fictionalized stories is not a frill, but an important part of how we come to understand ourselves and the world in which we inhabit. I surely hope that the push into Common Core does not mean that there are classrooms where these ideas are not longer fully explored.

As he writes, fiction shapes us — for the better.

Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.


Peace (in the real world of stories),


Why I Was Writing a Poem Every Day

For the past few years, I have been writing in the shadows of Bud Hunt, as he spends April posting images at his blog designed to spark poetry in his readers. I’m not sure why I am always obsessed with writing a poem at his site every single day … but I do, and I did. Some of the poems are just junk — throw-aways that I composed in minutes as I start my day and best left forgotten as digital debris. Others … have some potential, and that is the reason why I like writing every day.

Sometimes, something sparks, and a poem in particular might grab hold — some line, some word, some sentiment — that might be developed later on. I tried to podcast my poems with Cinch as much as possible this year, although I suspect I was mostly the only one listening to my voice. Which is fine. I did it as a way to archive my inflection as I was writing — where is the stress of the line, and maybe, what is the emotional underpinning of the poem itself. (What I didn’t do so much this year is archive each day’s poem in Google Docs, which I usually do, so now I will need to spend some time at Bud’s blog, grabbing my words back.)

I love writing poems because they are so different from much of the other things that I write on a regular basis. I’m not sure I always succeed in what I am trying to do with my poetry. I don’t have enough discipline all the time. But the writing of verse taps into something interesting, and it reminds me that poetry for my students can often do the same thing. The poets who emerge when we write poetry in the classroom are often the unexpected students — the ones who struggle with the essays and the longer stories and other pieces of writing. There are poets hidden in all of our classrooms. We just need to find them.

Here is the last poem I wrote for April with Bud. He showed us an image of a car, from inside the dashboard. Somehow, I had this idea of being pulled over by the police for writing poetry too fast (I do).

The cop pulled me over and asked:
why so many poems in so many days
and where the hell do you think you’re going, anyway?
He demanded my poet’s license and writing registration
so I dug into my pocket for my papers and my pens
and assorted ideas,
shoving them into his outstretched hands,
and watching him shuffle back to his cruiser,
deep in thought.

Out of his sight line,
I secretly pulled out the scrap of paper
where I had been dabbling with rhythm and rhyme for some time,
thinking of how this might work here
or how I might just save that for some other line
when I heard his boots scraping against the pavement,
and saw his face peering in at me.

He let me off with a warning
of writing too fast in an overly connected world
and later, I noticed, in the margins of my poems,
he had jotted down a few ideas for an unfinished piece
and it all worked perfectly.

Peace (in the poems),

Student Book Glog: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This is part of a series of digital poster projects done by my students around their choice independent reading books. You may be sick of reading about The Hunger Games, but I still have a lot of students who are devouring the whole series.

Peace (in the peace),

Student Book Glog: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

We are just finishing up an independent book project using Glogster, and as I did last year, I am going to feature a bunch of student projects over the coming days to show how using the digital poster site can engage readers and also, provide the classroom with recommendations for books to read (which is the main reason that we do poster projects, anyway, and with Glogster, I am archiving the book recommendations for each following year.)

Today’s featured glog is about Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick.

Peace (in the poster),


My Classroom Angry Birds Experiment

After watching Paul Anderson’s TED talk about game design and classroom design, and his experiment about setting up Angry Birds on his computer with a sign that said “play” and nothing else, I got interested in what would happen if I did the same thing in my classroom. So, yesterday, for morning work, I put Angry Birds Space on the interactive board, and pinned a huge “PLAY” sign on it, and just watched as my sixth graders came in. I purposely gave them minimal directions and very little input.

Here’s what I was expecting: a mad rush to play the video game first thing in the morning, particularly when they were expecting some math morning work. I figured we would have a crowd of kids up in the front of the room, all clamoring to play (I also hoped that the interactive pen would work for pulling back the birds, but it didn’t, so they had to use my computer.) I even had my camera ready, to capture the scene as it unfolded.

I was, therefore, surprised by what did happen. Not at all.

Only three or four of my students sat down to play. A few watched, but then milled about to chat with friends. They sort of kept the game in view out of the corner of their eyes. But mostly, it was a small handful that played. And they weren’t dominating the game. They would play, walk away, see no one else playing, go back, play, etc.

I did notice some teaching going on, as the more experienced Angry Birders showed another student how to play the Space version (which uses physics and gravity), and there was some interesting cheering going on.

But I was surprised it wasn’t much of a hit. Certainly not like Paul Anderson showed in his video. (Maybe they are already bored with Angry Birds? Maybe the social interaction with friends was more important? Maybe they didn’t know what to make of my “PLAY” sign? Maybe they need explicit instruction from the teacher? Or maybe they were tired on a Monday morning.)

Peace (in the experiment),