UNCHARTED TERRITORY: Working with Nonfiction 

Jim Burke, an English teacher at Middle College at the College of San Mateo, has been teaching for more than twenty-five years, and has written more than twenty-five books about teaching and literacy. He has received numerous awards, including the Exemplary Leadership Award from the National Council of Teachers of English and the Distinguished Service Award from the California Association of Teachers of English. In addition to his commitment to his own classroom, he has served as an advisor for the College Board’s Advanced Placement® English Language and Literature Courses and Exams Review Commission. This post also appears on the  Uncharted Territory blog.

Jim Burke
Image Credit: Jim Burke

When it comes to college, one’s career, and our civic responsibilities, we speak much more than we write and we read nonfiction far more often than fiction. This emphasis on nonfiction and its relevance outside the classroom was evident in the Common Core State Standards, a document that established a new emphasis on what it calls “informational texts.”  

The nonfiction texts we teach and the ways we teach them in our classes have evolved in recent years in exciting and diverse ways. Consider the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Position Statement on the Role of Nonfiction Literature (2023), which emphasizes not only informational texts but such variant forms as “nonfiction literature,” visual texts such as photographs and infographics, and narrative nonfiction such as memoir and biography. In recent years, other forms of narrative or literary nonfiction have emerged, often referred to as the “lyric essay” or “braided essay,” along with more mixed media versions such as the visual essay. These forms of nonfiction—informational, lyric, narrative, and visual—are included in Uncharted Territory; exploring a common question within one or across multiple texts (and types of texts) has allowed me to treat my curriculum as a conversation (Applebee, 1996) that students want to enter but need the skills to do so. 

Indeed, the NCTE position statement, with its range of approaches and ideas, serves as an invitation to treat one’s curriculum as a conversation between different nonfiction texts and perspectives. It was this goal of engaging and substantive conversations through nonfiction texts, in fact, that initially drove me to increase the amount of nonfiction students read in my classes and ultimately led to the creation of Uncharted Territory. As NCTE argues, contemporary nonfiction provides an important and useful way to “address historical silences, [explore] historic and contemporary events rooted in racism, oppression, and violence,” while creating important opportunities to highlight and learn about “courageous trailblazers…working toward societal transformation and liberation” (2023). The position statement goes on to assert that nonfiction is more “vibrant [and] vital” than ever, for it “empowers young people in the face of current and emerging challenges locally and globally, such as racial, cultural, social, and economic injustice, censorship and disinformation, and the climate crisis.” Yet students often assume nonfiction is dry, boring, mere information, which it certainly can be if we do not create and help them to enter conversations worth having as I outline below.  

Before I continue, let’s pause and consider our options as they apply to reading in general at this juncture. Keeping in mind the aspects of nonfiction mentioned above, we have to think about the text(s) (what) we want students to read; the topic(s) we want them to explore through the text(s) we assign; the task(s) we assign them while reading the text(s); and the technique(s) we will use to teach them how to read, write about, and discuss those texts. For example, if I am designing an assignment or a unit using Uncharted Territory, I am likely to begin with the topic we are going to investigate through these texts, which is to say the conversation I want them to enter. Choosing the topic of power, for example, I need to decide which of those aspects—racial, cultural, social, economic injustice, censorship, disinformation, or the climate crisis—I want to address through the texts I select for this unit.  

Depending on what I was trying to accomplish and felt my students needed at that time in the year, I could approach the selection of these texts several ways in Uncharted Territory. For example, if I were choosing these nonfiction texts to complement a major nonfiction work such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot, 2011), I would choose from the following texts in Uncharted Territory: 

“The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
“Leadership and Power,” Thomas Gilovich, et al. 
from Our Time Is Now, Stacey Abrams 
“For the Love of Pretty Things,” Robert R. Johnson 
“Dominic: Body of Evidence,” Michele Harper 
from China Men, Maxine Hong Kingston 
The Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson 
from My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor 

To this collection, I would hope to add documentary videos about Henrietta Lacks and her struggles, as well as those of her family and the book’s author, with institutional powers such as Johns Hopkins and various medical companies.  

If time were tight, we could treat the list of texts above as a text-set to divide up and treat as one might a literature circle or what Daniels and Harvey later called “inquiry circles” (Harvey and Daniels, 2015). Regardless, the class would be engaged in this collective inquiry into power, thus creating a context for students to read a broad range of nonfiction texts as a simulated research project. The NCTE document argues this type of project will “ignite the curiosity of students, help them develop the critical thinking skills required to evaluate sources, and offer access to a multiplicity of voices and perspectives.” What students write—how they respond to or discuss these different texts and their connection to power — depends on many factors. When my students have done some version of this assignment in my classes, they wrote everything from a simulated research paper or AP®-like synthesis essay to a more mixed media piece such as a SlideDoc, which you could compare to a digital essay. 

One additional approach to teaching students to be critical readers of nonfiction warrants attention. In their book Diving Deep into Nonfiction: Transferable Tools for Reading ANY Nonfiction Text, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Michael William Smith offer a profoundly useful list of “Reader’s Rules of Notice for Nonfiction,” which serve as guides to direct readers’ attention to the many features of nonfiction specifically that contribute to its meaning or otherwise help the author (and teachers) to achieve their intended outcomes. 

We are teaching (and living!) in the golden age of nonfiction. Over the last 30 years, nonfiction has flourished, bringing into our classrooms more than a full chorus of voices, each with its own style and purpose and point. The NCTE position statement about the role of nonfiction sums up much of what is best and most urgent about nonfiction, calling it a “literature of questions, [that] diversifies the curriculum and helps students to develop critical perspectives…[while it serves] as a vehicle for recognizing patterns of systemic silencing and oppression, makes visible biases and injustices, and ignites the urgency for taking justice-oriented action” (Sanders, 2018). I could not agree more after years of doing my best to bring these topics and texts to my classroom. 

Works Cited 

Applebee, Arthur N. Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Harvey, Stephanie, and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles for Curiosity, Engagement, and Understanding. 2nd ed., Heinemann Educational Books, 2015.

Position Statement on the Role of Nonfiction Literature (K–12),” National Council of Teachers of English, accessed January 19, 2023, https://ncte.org/statement/role-of-nonfiction-literature-k-12 

Sanders, Joe Sutliff. A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child. University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishers, 2011.

For a more detailed version of the Common Core State Standards, see my book The Common Core Companion, published by Corwin, and my book The Academic Moves, which examines the specific “academic moves” in all of the Common Core State Standards and offers ideas about how to teach and understand them in more depth. 

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