No Fiction? Grant Wiggins, What Were You Thinking?

Because of reading fiction with 5th graders, I had a student write this after reading Grandpa’s Mountain:grandpadrop

The Park did something wrong to do something right. It wasn’t black or white, right or wrong. It was shades of gray. ThinkQuest has made me think for myself. Now I don’t think what other people want me to think, I sort it out myself.

(from “Our Stories” on What Price This Mountain?)

About a dozen years ago I was teaching 4th grade and had to teach about the Civil War. The kids had to know some specific battles and the basic issues for the state test, but that wasn’t what worried me about teaching it–it was how to teach it to 9 and 10 year olds without the blood, guts and gore of teaching about war. I think about that a lot because I’m a softie who cries at anything, and I also have nightmares easily when I hear about cruelty–and I didn’t want to cause my students either nightmares or tears!

When studying the Civil War, I decided to teach the idea of conflict through the book, Across the Lines , which is a point/counterpoint between two young boys.  One is a slave who chooses to escape in the craziness of the master’s plantation being overrun by the “Yanks” and the other is the master’s son, who has always considered the slave his friend, without realizing the condescending attitude he held toward his “friend.”


Because of reading the  fictional Across the Lines with students, I had a young Jewish student state in class that he, too, was nervous about learning about the Civil War and all the blood and horror it might include, but he really liked the way we had studied it, through books.  He went on to say something like, “When we began, I thought I knew what the Civil War was about–it was about slavery and I knew that was wrong.  But now that we’ve studied it, I know it was about more than that–it was about state’s rights and the federal government’s right to tell states what to do, and it was about more than slavery. I understand now that slavery was complicated, and it wasn’t just black or white. It really is shades of grey.”  (He is currently in college studying politics, fully intending to go to Washington and make a difference.)

(Both classes had been reading historical fiction novels by Carolyn Reeder, and one of her books is called Shades of Grey.) These are NOT isolated responses–read the other students’ thoughts on “Our Stories.”

The other day my Superintendent, Pam Moran, tweeted : “U of Mich study shows today’s college students: 40% less empathy than 20-30 yrs ago.”

Would you say my students had no empathy?  These groups are currently in college or freshly out.

Come on, Grant Wiggins–admit there’s a place for both fiction and non-fiction, and realize great teachers can do great things with a great piece of fiction.  We teach WAY beyond the fiction in the book.

One thought on “No Fiction? Grant Wiggins, What Were You Thinking?

  1. So true. There is definitely room for any reading in the hands of a skilled teacher and a curious child. Hope to touch base with you at Educon.

    Love this response, Karen!

    Skilled teacher–sometimes we have to skill ourselves. I had spent the summer before that year going to Civil War sites in VA, reading books, and studying to be able to have those deep conversations without highlighting the horrors.

    Looking forward to seeing you at Educon, too!

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