Academic journal article English Journal

Using Nonfiction to Enhance Our Teaching of Literature

Academic journal article English Journal

Using Nonfiction to Enhance Our Teaching of Literature

Article excerpt

Literary texts (any texts, really) presented without relevance to students will always be tough going. Why should a 17-year-old care about Huck Finn, Scout, or Walter Younger? Why does Atticus Finch's defense of Tom Robinson in 1930s Alabama matter to a young woman growing up in New Jersey? These are tough questions that we as teachers need to answer.

Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun captures this challenge perfectly.

National conversations, following recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, have focused on racial discrimination, structural inequality, and the failure of the American Dream. Clearly, A Raisin in the Sun is more relevant than ever.

Students, however, don't necessarily see those connections, even students who live with housing discrimination and de facto segregation deeply woven into their daily lives.

Informational text, we believe, is the solution. Rather than just a Common Core mandate crowding out the literary texts we love, informational text can serve as the on-ramp to meaningful learning and engagement with both literature and the world.

Filling in gaps through Discovery and Dialogue

In the past, we endeavored to foster a sense of relevance by delivering basic background information via lecture or assigning students research projects. However, even the most engaging PowerPoint leaves our students as passive participants, and research projects can be too time-consuming to undertake regularly.

Instead, we suggest teacher-l ed use of highquality informational texts. The teacher finds a relevant text; prepares it by identifying a brief, engaging selection; evokes student interest and confidence through multimedia clips and vocabulary activities; guides the students through a careful, close reading, with special attention to text features; and then uses the informational text to enhance discussion and writing about the literary text. This approach creates prime conditions for the students to make rewarding discoveries and insightful connections among the literary and informational texts and the world in which they live.

Below, we discuss how we implemented our model, using an excerpt of a 1955 Chicago Commission on Human Relations report about the violence associated with the desegregation of a South Side housing project to enhance the teaching of A Raisin in the Sun.

A raisin in the Sunand the Violence of Housing Desegregation

Susan's tenth-grade honors students, a racially diverse mix of young people from a high-poverty urban area, had just finished reading the play, so Audrey came in for two 45-minute periods to delve into the issue of the violence associated with housing desegregation.

We used a report that details a series of incidents of racial violence and intimidation in the South Deering neighborhood beginning in 1953, after the Howards, an African American family, moved into the previously all-white Trumbull Park Homes, adjacent to South Deering. The report documents the daily violence the Howards and other African American families encountered, despite the efforts of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and the Chicago Police Department.

The report is 63 pages, so we prepared an excerpt of about 2,400 words that features vivid examples of the violence and intimidation the Howards experienced. We also edited out any unnecessarily confusing or distracting moments in the original text.

Because complex vocabulary can be a stumbling block, particularly in informational texts, we created a range of vocabulary questions for some key terms. These questions serve several functions: they build vocabulary skills, provide familiarity with the most important words, and front-load key ideas that students will encounter in the informational text.

For example, we offered the following question:

The Chicago Commission on Human Relations decided "that the Howard residence would be kept under surveillance. …

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