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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Courtesy of Mr. Dewey: Poetry

Of course poetry is not generally seen as NF — by patrons (and unless it is poetry about nature or an event — Joyce Sidman for example) — but in Dewey-land it is. Last night in my Materials for YA class we reached poetry, and that lead to an interesting discussion of Out of the Dust. For many of my students, all in the masters program so somewhere from their mid-20s up in age, this was a book they had known about since being a child. A number could remember when it won the Newbery in 1998 and was featured in posters and displays in their schools. But, strangely, few of them — active readers all — had read it. Because it was assigned in my class they finally did open it, and many loved it. It was clearly the favorite book pick of the week.

My first impulse — and one a few repeated — was to suggest the obvious pairings: book and Dorothea Lange photos, book and Woody Guthrie songs, book and link to poverty today. One woman who already works in a school library suggested it to a 10th grade teacher who is teaching the Dust Bowl and wanted something shorter than Grapes of Wrath for his kids to read. But another students objected — she was moved by it as poetry, and did not want the book to be weighted down by what you could learn from it. Indeed she thought she had avoided it precisely because from the cover on, she expected it to be a history lesson disguised as a reading experience.

Different strokes — for me, getting a history lesson in a book is a plus not a minus, but still I see her point. And it is an interesting question why so many of my good readers, who have been reading books like this all their lives, as kids and adults, never cracked this particular cover. Has Out of the Dust so sold itself as the answer to a Social Studies teacher’s needs that people don’t recognize it as a pure poetic reading experience? I suggested a library contest to invent a different cover for the book — one that “sold” the voice not just the setting. But if there is a danger in our obvious impulse to pair poetry, fiction, image, song with teaching content is that the art becomes tool rather than aesthetic. Now maybe that is because we use art as the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of history go down — if we loved history as history art would be its own experience. But that is a discussion for another day.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Having used OUT OF THE DUST to teach the Dust Bowl, I understand the dilemma of “using” a book to teach history. However, this can be averted if we keep in mind that readers can switch stances when they read. The students I worked read first to savor the book–to enjoy the language, to connect with the story, and find out what happened to the main character. Secondly, they read to sort fact from fiction. This process is referred to as “dances between stances,” an apt description, I think. What I discovered from this experience of using OUT OF THE DUST is that students had many questions about what was fact and what was fiction. We then used these questions as the basis for further research. OUT OF THE DUST was paired with CHILDREN OF THE DUST BOWL by Jerry Stanley, a book that also has considerable emotional impact. This is a great pair. Of course, other books were available too…

  2. Myra, I agree with you that perhaps what is most important is a consideration all of the multiple reads/responses/stances possible with a book not just before you teach it with children, but with them as well. Literacy stations are ideal for providing students with opportunities to consider a text with multiple response modes. As students move from station to station, they change their stance towards the text through the activities. So they move from exploring the content (historic, scientific, social etc.) to considering how they might “do” something with content in the “real world” through as series of critical literacy explorations, and then they consider the text from a structuralist mode, and explore writer’s craft and genre. In another station, they may start using the text as a mentor text for some element of their own writing development. In the case of historical fiction and nonfiction, I think it is quite powerful when you can have the students exploring the art and the history simultaneously, as you describe Myra, whether it’s the language arts teacher talking about the art and the social studies teacher talking about the history, or the same teacher doing both in an integrated exploration.

    Some books that fuse content and poetry beg to be explored for their content because the book seems so perfectly constructed for it, such as SWIRL BY SWIRL or LADY LIBERTY: A BIOGRAPHY. But others, such as A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL prompt us to consider the content through the impact of the artistry. I can’t imagine reading that book in class to mine it for content first and foremost. The experience of the content, and its import, seems to come through the emotional response of the reader and exploration of the artistry. This seems to be, in and of itself, an act that honors Emmett Till, rather than “teaches” Emmett Till.

    I love that we are talking about the multifaceted ways to explore the content and art of literature. These are the discussions that we need to have around all the genres to capture the fullness of their potential in the classroom, taking us beyond the discussion of basic skills that has so dominated the discussion of books and the context of reading them in school over the past decade.