This morning I got up early to write. At about 6:30 I wandered into the living room to find that my daughter was downstairs already, sitting quietly over the heat vent- it was negative five degrees Fahrenheit here this morning. I needed to get some work done, but my rule is, I work until my kids get up and then I give my morning to them so I sat down next to her and noticed her book on the floor. It was one I didn’t recognize, Behind Enemy Lines, historical fiction about a woman who disguises herself to spy behind confederate lines during the Civil War.
“Want me to read aloud to you for a bit?” I asked. She nodded. I poured myself some coffee and then came and picked up the book.
The chapter I read was about Emma, the protagonist, disguising herself as an itinerant peddler and being dropped near Cold Harbor battlefield and setting off on a “mission.” The plot was a bit flimsy. She enters an abandoned house to seek shelter during a rainstorm and finds a dying confederate soldier. He has Typhoid Fever, she realizes. She stays for a day or so to comfort him until he dies. She takes the gold watch he asked her to take to a general and sets out to meet him.
The book was good but not great. Engaging idea, some nice moments, but the plot was a bit contrived and some implausible actions and events made it less than truly historical as “historical fiction.” I found myself thinking about how I might teach it to get the most out of it, and in particular how I might apply an idea I’d been wrestling with for some time. My colleague Erica sends her son to a school that’s more committed to developing background knowledge than most schools. Their results are amazing and she described how her son, a kindergartener, came home with a book they’d read in class. Instead of asking her to have him read it to her and practice his decoding, as most schools would, her school asked her to have him re-tell what he remembered without reading the actual text. (The book was about frogs, I think) They were emphasizing knowledge development—retell the facts—over skill development—practice decoding- very unconventional, but just maybe very powerful. I’d been thinking about what this might look like inside the reading classroom where we often ask skill-based questions exclusively, and at the expense of fact-based questions. Just possibly we then find that the lack of factual knowledge keeps our kids from being able to use their skills.
I thought about Behind Enemy Lines. As a teacher I’d been trained to ask questions like this:
- What motivates Emma to aid the confederate soldier? [Answer: her sense of duty and humanity].
- What does she learn about herself? [That her loyalty to the human race is stronger than her loyalty to the Union].
- Who else feels a strong sense of duty to someone else in the book?
Indeed those questions would have made for an interesting and worthwhile discussion, I hope. But if I was really committed to addressing the knowledge deficit, and if I’d chosen this book for my class (or child) because it was historical fiction, I might have thought about some additional–and different–questions:
- “What does Emma tell us about what soldiers died of during the Civil War. Is it surprising in any way?” [Answer: Emma notes that far more soldiers died from disease than battle and typhoid fever was a leading killer. Most people think more about more dramatic combat deaths but this is true about almost every war].
- “Is there anything in the text that tells us why so many soldiers might have died from disease during the Civil War? [Alan, the soldier, recalls how when he started to get weak and could not keep up with his regiment, he was left behind with no food or shelter to care for himself. He wasn’t able. Students might also note that Emma knows there’s nothing she can do but comfort Alan–there’s no medicinal cure as we might hope there would be today.]
Think of how powerful these facts are, both in understanding the Civil War but also events throughout history: some deaths get more attention than others because they are dramatic; in every war soldiers have died mostly of sickness; nursing used to mean comforting in death as much as bringing back to life etc)
But I think many of us are trained to think of such questions as “second rate” or “not my job” as English teachers. I KNOW I did, and I am not suggesting that teachers ask them only. But if I didn’t ask any such questions I would be leaving to chance whether my kids learned any history from the historical fiction and I’d be socializing them not to seek to unlock bits of knowledge from what they read. If I did ask these questions, a couple a day, every day, I would slog away at the knowledge deficit and teach my students how to attend to important facts and reflect on them as they read. This might cause them to absorb more. So in an ideal world, perhaps I should be asking both types of questions.
I’ve been writing a chapter for the forthcoming book Reading Reconsidered about reading more non-fiction and getting more out of it, specifically to make headway against the knowledge deficit. But this morning it finally crystallized for me that perhaps we struggle so much to build the knowledge that turns our students into readers not only because of what we choose to read but because of our habits of questioning, which often don’t value building knowledge or teach students how to do it.
Just a thought. Love to hear yours in response.