Teaching Nonfiction Books

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Authored by

  • Victor Caroscio
    Northwest High School
    Germantown, Maryland

Ending a Reliance on Fiction

When I first started teaching the AP English Language and Composition course 11 years ago, I added more nonfiction to my lesson plans. Still, during those first years, I persisted in teaching much of the fiction (and even some poetry) I had taught in the past, adapting my presentation of the works to suit the AP English Language course. It was a natural approach for me because fiction had been the focus of my academic life. In addition, the AP workshops I attended in those early years always offered suggestions about how teachers could use fiction in the AP English Language course. As I continued to teach the course, however, my reliance on fiction began to fade to the point where today almost all of the literature I teach in my course is nonfiction.

I began to realize that it was a good idea to focus more on nonfiction in my course because there were ample opportunities for students to study fiction in ninth, tenth, and twelfth grades, and especially in AP English Literature. (I teach my AP English Language course to juniors.) I also realized that nonfiction was the genre with which students—and teachers—had the least amount of experience. Every year when I reviewed the essay questions that were featured on the AP English Language and Composition Exam, and when I looked at past multiple-choice questions as they were released for classroom use, I became more convinced that nonfiction should indeed dominate the course, since nearly all material on those exams was nonfiction. The upcoming addition of a synthesis question in 2007 makes nonfiction, especially that which utilizes sources, even more important.

Where I Began

The first full-length work of nonfiction I turned to when I taught AP English Language was Henry David Thoreau's Walden. I had taught a few chapters of the book to my eleventh grade honors students, and when I began teaching the AP course, I simply expanded that unit. I think it's a good text to study for several reasons. For one thing, it's an example of pre-twentieth-century prose, and students always benefit from exposure to earlier writers in AP courses. Additionally, Thoreau is a fine prose stylist who challenges and stretches students' experiences as readers. Thoreau's sensibility, his way of looking at the world, is so thoroughly ironic that studying this text affords teachers a good opportunity to teach students about this sophisticated rhetorical technique. It also offers an avenue into argumentative writing, as many of the students I teach seem initially offended, even threatened, by Thoreau's advocacy of non-materialistic simplicity and his distrust of technological advancement.

Supplementing the Study of a Text

I can think of a number of examples of past AP Exam essay questions where students' abilities to recognize irony in an excerpt set them apart from their peers and propelled them to higher scores (e.g., the Lady Mary Wortley Montagu excerpt in 1996 and the Lord Chesterfield excerpt in 2004). While the brand of irony in these authors' writings isn't quite the same as Thoreau's, it's a good strategy to offer one of these questions for discussion after studying Thoreau to see if the students can recognize irony in another text. Then you might have students write an in-class essay in response to another AP Exam question in which the writer of the excerpt employs irony. A unit on Walden also enables teachers to include some of the past open questions on the exam for the purposes of teaching argumentative writing. The excerpt from Wendell Berry's What Are People For? (which was on one of the alternate exams), with its focus on the tendency of our culture to value progress and technological advancement rather than more spiritual concerns, is an excellent piece to have students consider and write about during or after a study of Walden.

Encouraging Independent Reading and Thinking

I have also supplemented my study of Walden by having my students read and keep a reading response log for Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek over the winter break. To insure their thorough reading I've devised a brief 30-question multiple-choice reading check quiz that they take upon their return to school. Their final assignment is to choose any passage from the text, of about the same length that might be found on an AP Exam rhetorical analysis question, and write an essay in which they analyze Dillard's rhetorical purpose in the passage. Coming at the end of the first semester of AP study, this assignment offers students an opportunity to become more independent analytical thinkers and writers—one of the primary goals of a college-level English class.

Choosing a Personal Favorite for Classroom Study

Over the years, I have taught Ivan Doig's memoir This House of Sky in my AP class. I first read it in my twenties and loved it, primarily because I could relate to Doig's experience of losing a parent while he was still a child, though the story of his young life centers on the unusual family that he, his father, and his grandmother formed. In addition to relating the story of his early years, Doig periodically ruminates on the meaning of his experiences and philosophizes about memory in italicized excerpts at the ends of major sections of the memoir. These excerpts are excellent pieces for rhetorical analysis since they display Doig's lively and creative use of language. Students could write analytically about individual excerpts or consider the rhetorical purpose of all of them over the course of the memoir.

Offering Students a Break from Analytical Writing

In This House of Sky, Doig relates how the idea for his book began as he went through family photo albums with his grandmother. At several points in the memoir, Doig's descriptions of photographs of his parents and grandmother blossom into short attempts to bring the moment of the snapshot to life so that he might better understand the people his parents and grandmother were. I have used Doig's approach as an assignment for students. They secure a favorite family photograph, preferably one of a parent or both parents taken before they were born, read the excerpts from the memoir where Doig describes his parents and grandmother in photographs, and then write their own short piece on their photograph, either in Doig's style or their own, or both. Students are almost always enthusiastic about this assignment. Many of them, teenagers though they are, are curious about their parents' and grandparents' pasts. The writing offers a break from the intense emphasis on analytical writing in an AP class but still offers students an opportunity to explore the concept of voice, another important aspect of understanding rhetorical analysis.

Preparing Students for 2006-2007

Recently I have assigned two nonfiction books to my AP students as summer reading that I am planning to use during the school year as well to prepare my students for the synthesis question. The first book is Alfred Lansing's Endurance, the story of the unsuccessful attempt by Ernest Shackleton to be the first to lead an expedition across the continent of Antarctica. Published in 1959, more than forty years after the expedition failed, it is a gripping adventure story from beginning to end, written in an engaging prose style. Because the story is based on diaries kept by the crew and on interviews conducted by Lansing, and because the expedition commanded considerable attention, there are a number of sources that students can consult to gain additional information on the expedition itself as well as the individuals involved in it.

Here are some Web resources related to Endurance:

Lansing develops the notion of Shackleton's extraordinary leadership skills—a topic, along with the notion of heroism, that is a possibility for an argumentative essay. AP Exam essay questions featuring passages by Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass would complement the study of this book.

The other book is more recent—Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend. This book is also compelling and dramatic, and as a writer, Hillenbrand can command the attention of readers who lack knowledge of horse racing and who have no prior interest in the sport. The book is thoroughly researched, as is evidenced by the more than 33 pages of notes from a variety of sources that Hillenbrand consulted to put her story together. Having students find and read some of these sources can give them an even fuller sense of the people who are prominent in her story and offer them opportunities to explore a pivotal time in American history and culture.

Web resources related to Seabiscuit:

As I have taught more nonfiction I have come to feel more comfortable with it, and as I continue to teach the English Language course, I find that more and more of the reading I do on my own is nonfiction. My experience as a teacher of this course has helped me develop an appreciation for the genre I had so long neglected. Every year I try to instill some of that enthusiasm and appreciation into my students.

Victor B. Caroscio, an English teacher since 1979, has taught AP English Language and Composition for the last 11 years in the Montgomery County, Maryland, public schools, where he proposed, introduced, and piloted the AP English Language course in 1994. He has served as a Reader for the AP English Language and Composition Examination since 2003. He has also been involved in curriculum development and revision for Montgomery County and has led both curriculum and new educator training sessions. He has been a teacher at Northwest High School in Germantown, Maryland, since 1998.