FOLLOW THE PIPER:FICTION IN THE CLASSROOM
by Ray Ballantyne
I have walked on Mars.
I have paddled an outrigger canoe over the Pacific Ocean.
Al Capone has done my shirts.
And all without stirring from my chair.
For, you see, I read fiction.
Not only have I experienced all this through books, I have lived it. And I remember them.
Storytelling is a part of our nature. We are built to tell and remember stories. What we experience in fiction becomes a part of us. That is the “Piper” we must follow. Not the Pied Piper who took the children away, but one who satisfies the deep need for story we all share.
That alone is enough reason for fiction to a part of every language program at every level. However, you as a teacher may feel bound to justify that fiction should be included. Then know this—: all the language skills you are responsible for can be learned through fiction.
Vocabulary? In any good work of children’s literature, the child reader will find words they don’t know, but they will encounter them in context. Many times that is all the child will need to understand the word. Other times it will snap into place later in the story. In the hands of a good author, the story will continue to flow, and the meaning of individual words will take shape.
Children don’t learn vocabulary with worksheets and drills. They learn by being immersed in quality writing. That is what I mean by following the Piper.
Grammar and usage? Keep them reading fiction. It provides a sure model of the very best of the English language.
And read this from the Common Core: “Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.”
So there you have it. Fiction is in. It can be justified with many different learning objectives in your curriculum.
But the most important reasons for including fiction are the hardest to measure. Nonetheless, most are immeasurably more important. We educators have a frightening tendency to include in our curriculum those things that can be most easily measured.
So what counts?
Wonder. Wisdom. Empathy.
There is a quality of rehearsal, of practice inherent in fiction. We can experience problems and dilemmas through someone else—a character in a story— before we experience it ourselves. We watch fictional characters struggle, err and work through difficulties. We feel what they feel. We end up just a little more prepared for life.
How did Harriet extract herself from the social mess she finds herself in? How did Anna and Caleb cope with having this tall stranger named Sarah enter their lives as their stepmother? How did Juan de Pareja deal with being an art apprentice in a hostile place?
Every well-wrought protagonist has character flaws. Fiction demonstrates how a person survives these flaws and grows in the process. We live it with the character.
It is no magic bullet, no easy fix. It comes from years of immersion in the best fiction we can offer children.
Then there is imagination. Oh, how fiction stirs our imagination. Every fiction writer depends on that. With a few deft details, an author sketches a world and leaves the reader to fill in the rest of the details with our imaginations. And we do, and imagination blossoms.
To quote our dear Einstein one more time, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Finally, fiction allows us to see the world through another pair of eyes, to know life as someone different from us knows it. We can live another culture. The other gender. A different time in history. As it says at the beginning of Sharon Creech’s Newberry-winning book, Walk Two Moons, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.”
Fiction helps us not view the rest of the world as “others,” people to be avoided or even feared. When we “walk two moons,” it is very difficult to do that.
Finally, there’s the wisdom inherent in fiction, perhaps in children’s fiction most of all. I’m not talking about the “sermons” of those pedantic stories children must all-too-often endure. Wisdom is deeper, older; it is shared by of a great character in a great story. Wisdom, passed down through multiple folktales, through stories that have stood the test of time. Wisdom that is endemic in the best of children’s literature. And fiction gives children an opportunity to not just hear this wisdom, but see it lived out. To live it themselves. Following the Piper.