Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.19.23Daniel Buck on Embedding Nonfiction in Writing Tasks


Useful for marriage; useful for essay writing


I’m reading Daniel Buck’s excellent “What is Wrong with Our Schools” and want to share an idea that’s really useful. In chapter 3, Buck discusses the power of supplemental texts in reading.

This is something my colleagues and I refer to as ’embedded nonfiction.” Erica Woolway, Colleen Driggs and I have a chapter on it in Reading Reconsidered and we use it extensively in designing our curriculum by that name. The idea is that adding short nonfiction texts throughout a primary text can infuse it with just the right background knowledge at just the right time so that students learn more and find the book more interesting–more accessible and with far more rich and interesting connections.

Buck gives the example of reading an article on surveillance of citizens in current day China, say, while reading The Giver or an article on narcissistic personalities while reading The Magician’s Nephew. Or you might read an article on how subjective and manipulable memory is while reading Animal Farm as Emily DiMatteo does in this great video example.

Buck’s discussion of the topic–and how satisfying the “need for knowledge” brings the book to life for readers–is excellent. But then he goes on to a new topic–embedding supplemental texts in extended writing prompts.

“The same need for knowledge applies to writing… With Romeo and Juliet, my final essay tasks them with answering the simple question: is this a love story? Before asking them to do that, however, we read various passages and theories of love so they needn’t rely on whatever philosophy of love they happen to have picked up from popular media. I read with them the famous wedding passage from Corinthians (“Love is patient; love is kind…”); excerpts from Lewis describing how love cannot simply be an emotion but requires action; a scientific explanation of the chemicals that pass through our brain as we fall in love; and a short reading about the different words the ancient Greeks used for love… [phila, eros, storge and so on]. Only having read these pieces do I feel comfortable asking my students to answer [the question] in long form.”

Reading that passage was a bit of an epiphany for me, honestly. First it invoked a brief memory of my least favorite class in college: Philosophy. We were continually asked to write on broad and seemingly intractable questions about which I had a few general notions and a lot of uncertainty. What I didn’t have was the vocabulary to lock down the vague beginnings of ideas I had in specific concepts I could come back to or other people’s previous reflections that narrowed the issues to manageable points. It was broad, sweeping, and every question felt like a party trick. I hated it and never took another course or read another book in philosophy for the rest of my life.

What do you think? What is the nature of freedom? Answer from your soul. Nothing you say is wrong. 

You could call this intellectual “freedom” I guess–that’s what we often call it with students, the freedom to write about whatever you want–but actually it’s much less freeing than being asked to discuss something you have the technical terms and foundational ideas to make sense of.

Saying: here are some words that will be useful to you. Here are some key ideas from history you can draw on as you write is a bit like memorizing math facts. And I mean that in a good way-in an, it’s central to critical thinking but many educators overlook it and misunderstand this kind of way.

If you are automatic with your math facts it enhances your critical thinking and the depth of your analysis. Factual fluency and deep understanding go together. If (and only if) you are automatic with your math facts, you can think about easier ways to solve a problem or understand the similarities of two problems. But if you are just trying to work it through on the most basic algorithmic level your working memory is stuck on the more mundane tasks. 

So too in writing. If you have to frame and name of a core idea you seek to discuss it’s exhausting, not that enjoyable, and you spend your time on mundane tasks not richer deeper analysis. If you can quickly draw on Lewis’s conception of action or the Greeks’ parsing of different names, you get beyond the surface much more quickly.

Anyway, in our Reading Reconsidered curriculum we often ask–what else do students need to know to get the most out of reading this book?  And now, thanks to Daniel Buck, we will being asking–what else do students need to know to get the most our of the experience of writing this essay?

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