Reading Fiction Helps Make Us Human

Parent and TM contributor Jinnie Spiegler argues that literature should stay at the center of the ELA curriculum.

It's finally happened: The axe has fallen on fiction at school. Leafing through the English Language Arts (ELA) syllabus at my daughter's middle school this fall, I saw lots of non-fiction:  issues and controversies, historical fiction, research and organization, comparative essays, argumentative essays.  But there wasn't much literature on the list. And that's when I realized: fiction is shrinking. 

I saw the first hints of this evolution last year, when my daughter was in the fifth grade. While there had always been one or two non-fiction units in ELA (persuasive essays, biography), nonfiction was beginning to cut into the poetry, short stories, chapter books, fables, myths, author study, book series, and mysteries that had always been the mainstay of elementary school ELA.
There's no mystery about why: The new Common Core Learning Standards say that the elementary school ELA curriculum should be 50% fiction and 50% non-fiction. By high school, Common Core calls for a 30% fiction/70% non-fiction balance. What students should be reading and writing, according to the Common Core, is "instructional text." Supposedly, this focus on nonfiction will help  insure that children are "college and career ready."
While I like some elements of the Common Core, I think slicing fiction instruction is a very bad idea. 
Reading fiction helps make us human.  Literature connects us to and deepens our understanding of other people—their needs, desires, and motivations.  It helps us get in touch with our own feelings. It introduces us to people and places we would not otherwise know. It helps us communicate better. It exposes us to the many ways a problem or conflict can be solved. It helps us get into the hearts and minds of characters we meet, it helps us see their world through their eyes.  
It's no accident that Morningside Center's 4Rs curriculum (Reading, Writing, Respect & Resolution) uses fiction to help young people develop essential social and emotional skills like assertiveness, appreciating differences, and resolving conflicts. How better to understand ourselves and others than by identifying with characters on the page who face and overcome conflicts and challenges?
All through her elementary years, my daughter devoured fiction that touched her heart, exposed her to ideas or people she might never meet in life, and taught her moral lessons. Her favorites included two books that are used in The 4Rs: The Big Orange Splot showed her the value of being a non-conformist. Chrysanthemum taught her that she can embrace her unusual name and love who she is despite being different.
Grace for President  inspired her to believe girls can and should reach for the White House.  A Chair for My Mother emphasized the power of community and kindness. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie taught her to connect actions with consequences. Sometimes I'm Bombaloo helped her understand how to deal with strong feelings that are bubbling over and hard to manage. I know my daughter learned a lot about the intricacies of friendship when she read The Babysitters Club series and I know it strengthened her friendships. Color Dance showed the beauty of color, movement, and working together. When she read The Hunger Games, she reflected on important issues like fairness, loyalty, injustice, and the morality of war. Because of Mr. Terupt  had her grappling with complex moral issues. 
If she hadn't read all of these books and hundreds more, she would be a different person—less caring, less daring, less ready for the world.   
Recently more than 120 authors and illustrators of books for children, including Maya Angelou and Judy Blume, wrote a public letter to President Obama expressing their alarm about the impact of his policies on "children's love of reading and literature.  They said:   

"We the undersigned children's book authors and illustrators write to express our concern for our readers, their parents and teachers. We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your Administration's own initiatives, on children's love of reading and literature. Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations. As Michael Morpurgo, author of the Tony Award Winner War Horse, put it, "It's not about testing and reading schemes, but about loving stories and passing on that passion to our children."

Of course non-fiction reading and writing is important.  But it doesn't need to be at the core of ELA.  Kids read and write non-fiction in almost every other area of the curriculum, including science and social studies.  We should not be skimping on literature in ELA class so we can cram in even more essays and articles. 
Yes, we need to prepare children for college and career. But employers say what they need most are workers with "21st century skills" such as problem-solving, teamwork, communication, and getting along with different types of people—exactly the qualities good fiction can help children develop.  But education shouldn't just prepare children for jobs. It should prepare them for active citizenship, for engagement with the world. They need to develop their social and emotional skills and their sense of social responsibility.  Fiction helps them do that.
In school children get to explore what it means to be human through the lens of beautiful and poignant prose. It  may be their only chance in life to do this. And it's the perfect time to do it, because it's when they are developing as human beings, questioning who they are, what they believe, and trying to understand others.
We need schools where children get to read lots of good fiction - and can develop a love for it, for themselves and for the world. Our humanity depends on it.