Once upon a time (as it were), my middle school students were kindergarteners, who sat in a circle listening raptly, while their teacher read stories of dragons and giants and magic. They didn't say, "Whadda you mean, the guy's twenty feet tall? That's impossible." The took a leap of faith into the story--as readers do.
Fast forward to 8th grade, and we're reading Kurt Vonnegut's short story, "Harrison Bergeron." The title character is a larger-than-life fourteen-year-old revolutionary. "Whadda you mean, he's seven feet tall? That's impossible." Or. We're reading Audre Lorde's poem, "Hanging Fire." I am fourteen//and my skin has betrayed me. And it's, "I think she has that skin disease... you know, where your skin is, like, falling off..."
What happened between kindergarten and now, that many of my students are unable to ride a piece of literature and feel what's inside it? And why has this inability gotten so much more profound in the decades since I started teaching?
The answer is hugely complex. But after reading the intro and Chapter One of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas' The Dark Fantastic, I'd like to use this week's reader response assignment to reflect on one reason--the education world's increased insistence on nonfiction texts, which means less space for fiction, poetry and other kinds of reading and writing. The common core standards preference nonfiction reading, and expository writing. (And many schools that don't have to use these standards have, in my experience, been carried along on the current wave.) These kids need Skills, capital 'S', Facts (yup capital F), practical things. Teachers are trained to teach children to find the main idea, separating it from the details, as if separating an egg, to write five-paragraph essays (a form not found in the real world) that prove a thesis. And standardized tests preference this kind of learning. What's lost is time for imagination, dreaming, voice on the page, form following function, in all its glorious possibilities. And how can we help children become flexible, joyous readers and writers without that? How can we support the development of abstract thinking? How can we set students on their own paths, when we offer them only one path?
I was reminded of this--it's never far from my mind--when Thomas opens her book by quoting Vernon Dursley--and her mother. "There is no magic." Describing her childhood as an African-American in Detroit in the 70s, Thomas writes, "The existential concerns of our family, neighbors and the city left little room for Neverlands, Middle Earths or Fantasias. In order to survive, I had to face reality" (1).
But without dreams of an alternate reality, how can we change the world? Without abstract thinking, without imagination, without developing our own voice on the page and off it, how can we reinvent society, construct our identities, share our different realities--lived and imagined. I count fiction--reading it and writing it--as one powerful tool.
I want to add that our "Just the Facts, Ma'am" reading and writing curricula tend to go hand-in-hand with standard English and highly proscribed forms of writing. Far too much social justice curriculum still happens nearly exclusively in dominant and colonial language and forms. While publishers have begun to bring more diversity to their author lists and titles (begun is the operative word, here), our discussion on reading and especially writing pedagogy needs to catch up.
Thomas writes that "among children and young adults, storytelling and play are humming right along as always..." (6). I don't disagree that this may be true outside of school, and in digital spaces. But when it's in short supply in the classroom, there's a problem.
Of note, my transition from adolescent to adult reading took the form of loads of speculative fiction (a term decades away from being coined). My students devour it. Perhaps adolescence, when abstract thinking is just beginning to develop, and what's fair and just and right--and what's not--are powerful drivers, is a particularly keen time of life for speculative fiction. It's been a very long time since I've read a lot of it. I look forward to diving back in, in this class, and seeing how I like it.
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As a kind of P.S. to this post, a few notes and bits and pieces, as I read Toliver and Miller, listen to Eric Molinsky's podcast on Octavia Butler, and plow through as much of Seveneves as I can manage, before Monday:
Molinsky opens his podcast by mentioning how he has trouble "suspending disbelief" when reading Science Fiction with so much world building, that he spends way too much time trying to figure out what's going on, and how things got this way. He uses the phrase suspend disbelief somewhat differently than I used it at the beginning of this post. I meant that my students are so busy searching for facts and the right answer, that they can't think abstractly, metaphorically, fantastically, magically. I think what Molinsky means, is that the set-up of too much science fiction that he's read gets bogged down with techno-minutae and slows down the reader from getting into the book. Molinsky cites Butler's work for avoiding this trap. It's been nearly forty years since I read Kindred, but Molinsky makes it clear that Butler gets you right into her work with very human emotions and high-stakes drama, that are the medium for strong social commentary.
The beginning of Seveneves, in my opinion, tries to have it both ways--a lot of fairly routine techno-world-building and astrono-geeking, mixed with a high-stakes doomsday scenario (also kinda routine) and a few characters who are developed enough to care about, like Doob and Dinah. The last time I read Stephenson was also decades ago, and I was compelled by his vision of a cyberspace that has turned out to be prescient, but I don't remember any of his characters. So perhaps the world-building is his forte. It helps that his prose is so lucid and strong, and that he has an understated, edgy sense of humor. Those things may keep me reading... and I'm curious to see if the doomsday scenario offers a chance to explore the human condition.
The Toliver and Miller made me happy. The writing project they describe is a case-in-point about how broadening our parameters for teaching writing will serve our students' growth as critical, creative thinkers, readers, researchers and writers, while honoring who they are and what is important to them. (They also quoted my hero, Ursula LeGuin. 😊)
Image: Basquiat, Untitled, 1981
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