Don’t Teach in a Vacuum: How Literary Nonfiction Prepares Us for Major Works

Kate Hoffman has taught for 25 years across public and private schools and at many levels—middle school, high school, and college. For many years she taught AP® Literature and Composition, and she currently teaches in Central Pennsylvania. In her spare time, she enjoys going to thrift stores, antique stores, and independent bookstores. She writes regularly and has tried her hand at poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

Kate Hoffman
Kate Hoffman
Image Credit: Katherine Ann Hoffman

One of my college professors long ago chided me that we cannot read in a vacuum, as authors do not write in a vacuum, and the longer I have taught, the more I realize how right that professor was. If we encourage our students to read fiction as social commentary of the world, it can open up our classroom conversations to invite discussions of identity, culture, and representation, among other topics. All novels are social commentary, regardless of the intentionality of the author, and I would argue if we carefully curate literary nonfiction readings to pair with the novels we teach, we can help our students create deeper understandings of the novels themselves and the world.

Placing a novel in the context of the issues of the times it was written in and in the context of our own time offers richer connections for our students and more ways to examine a text. For example, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God uses the language of the time, and therefore the n-word appears in the book. When I teach this book in Central Pennsylvania, in a predominantly white school, I begin by having students read the short article by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “In Defense of a Loaded Word,” a 2013 New York Times op-ed piece. There have been a few videos and other articles since where he and others discuss this topic, but I like this piece in particular because it allows my students to understand why I will teach a book with the word in it. That said, I, as a white woman, will never read that word aloud from the book.

Throughout Hurston’s book, there are a number of times when Janie’s hair is the center of discussion—and of desire.  And to that end, I teach a chapter from Me, My Hair, and I by Marita Golden titled “My Black Hair” so that my students (once again, mostly white, mostly from Central Pennsylvania) can understand the subtext and the significance surrounding Janie’s hair in the book. I also pair that reading with a poem from Morgan Parker, called “Afro.” By considering the history and politics of hair and reading and discussing the article and poem, students could return to the novel and consider the behavior toward Janie and how it was influenced by systemic racism and how things may or may not have changed in the 86 years since it was published.

These nonfiction articles, essays, and even poems linked to the topics and themes allows my students to look beyond the typical plotlines and conflict and characters to consider how the novel exists in the world of complex human existence. This isn’t just a story of a woman and her three major relationships with men. This is the story of the world we live in and how race, gender, and identity impact your ability to make choices in the world.

Students also often engage more in class discussions when I bring in a secondary source to pair with the novel we are reading. I sometimes create an activity where students identify themes in the book and then they seek out related resources. This is how I learned about the poet Warsan Shire, who was sampled in a Beyoncé song. A student brought in her poem “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love,” and we ended up reading it as a whole class and discussing how it related to Janie. This then led to me finding Janet Mock’s essay “‘Lemonade’ Is Beyoncé’s Testimony of Being Black, Beautiful & Burdened.” When I had students read Mock’s essay once they finished the book, it redefined for them what a literary analysis essay could look like.

One of the best results of my bringing in literary nonfiction was the way my students began to see what their own analysis of literature could look like and sound like. They could place the novel into the context of their own lives and make arguments that incorporated nonfiction essays, music, videos, and even other fiction into their work. Using Norton’s “They Say / I Say” with my students helped them learn to seamlessly weave their arguments about the novel with various other texts in a thoughtful way—addressing what one text says, what another text says, and what they personally think about those texts. Most students and teachers find it far more interesting when we read an essay about a novel that ties it in to our world, our context, and our identities.

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