“There is no way I’m publishing this fantasy!” argued my editor.
“What do you mean fantasy? Every word is based on a real life situation, a true story. You go to the movies based on true stories, watch documentaries on Netflix, don’t you?” Gene spoke quietly. The vein in his forehead began to throb slowly. This guy wouldn’t know non-fiction if it slapped him.
“You either rewrite this text as a boring, uninformative informational piece, or your writing won’t be welcome here!”
Ever had fun describing real life with fiction? While that dramatic dialogue echoes real life, it remains fiction. Even though I learned most of my American history from Dana Fuller Ross’ Wagons West series, I knew to critically check the facts. While informational texts can be boring tracts that make you long for paradise, they don’t have to be. Imagine information as an alligator to be “wrestled,” grappled with, avoiding drowning.
AN EVOLVING UNDERSTANDING OF NON-FICTION
Education Rethink, fellow blogger John Spencer points out that his beliefs about informational texts have evolved. Instead of “boring” documents that should be “avoided” because they were so hated by students, he sees them as “inherently engaging.”
As a creative non-fiction weaver, I find informational texts that are poorly written to be boring, worthy of indifference, and deserving of complete revision. And, it is that last that makes creative non-fiction so much fun…oh, and having an audience to share it with.
Also known as narrative non-fiction, this type of writing has been characterized as “True stories well-told.” Lee Gutkind (Creative Nonfiction.org) defines it in this way:
Creative nonﬁction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.
The words “creative” and “nonﬁction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.
When I work with professional educators, there is a certain reluctance to craft a non-fiction narrative that reads like fiction. In fact, they see it as lying, being dishonest. For them, through decades of school system indoctrination, exciting fantasy-simulating non-fiction should be avoided. I liken the experience to the experience your nose has upon stumbling upon a malodorous gift your dog has left where you must walk.
REDEFINING ENGAGEMENT FOR YOUNG LEARNERS AND WRITERS
“Will these ideas and information fit with each other? In doing this, can I reconfigure old information to suggest new ideas?” Every act of writing can be a playful experiment at blending disparate ideas and information.
John Spencer suggests we take various steps to keep informational text engaging. I’d like to focus on a few of these and share my own reflections:
1) Personalize the process.
If you have to read informational texts that are boring, why not give the experience a 1-2 punch? Create a problem-based learning (PBL) situation where there is a problem to be solved. This provides an over-arching organization, a motivation that stimulates students to seek out
Punch #1 – Using the Evernote Clearly or EverClip on Android or iOS clip only the content that’s relevant to solving the problem. [here’s an example of content highlighted and clipped using Clearly]. The purpose of clipping and sharing relevant content—a process many of us know as content curation—is a lifelong skill that must be nurtured. Every day, my children ask real life questions and they have to “look it up,” then synthesize a response that works for their situation. Life, for adults, is a continuous process of embracing unknown information, wrestling it like an alligator, and, if you don’t drown, making it relevant and useful in your life. Information has a purpose, and that’s to get us moving.
Punch #2 – Use a tool like Postach.io to shine a light on the information wrestling process. As I wrestle information into usable form that can change my work, my life, I do it with the knowledge that others will see it. If using Evernote for Schools, Evernote Freemium or Evernote Premium, the point is that I make transparent this information process. A few benefits to that:
- When you share your thinking transparently with others, you invite collaborative dialogue that will help you improve your work (whether to show how wrong you are, whether you are on track, or whether you are blazing a path, all of which are helpful).
- You inspire others to learn, whether it’s to follow your own path or a new path they imagine in their minds.
- New paths of the mind that others follow may inspire you, a benefit that is often missed by students so eager to escape the confines of an assignment into the next.
When you draw connections between the information others are sharing online via blogs and tweets, you build a bridge between your ideas and their’s, inviting them to dialogue.
2) Read more, work less.
Today, like countless yesterdays, many of us have a choice that we make every day—will we simply consume ideas for our own entertainment, or allow our entertainment to flow from our creativity as it finds expression in daily life’s problems and possibilities?
Many encounter problems with managing content available online. With Evernote you are able to pick out what you want to keep, highlight it on the screen (e.g. Evernote WebClipper, Clearly add on) so you can focus on the essence without all the advertising and junk, then save that. This enables you to engage in acts of information selection then, later, make it searchable.
One of my own workflows involves clipping content that looks promising after a quick skim, then pore through it later, asking myself it can be useful in a particular situation. Or, if that’s obvious, find a way to save it.
3) Push Critical Thinking
“Point of view is worth 80 IQ points,” says Alan Kay. For writers, taking an oppositional perspective can be worth tomes of information. That’s why you may find certain journalists, authors, newscasters espousing a particular perspective. Critical thinking, then, involves what I like to characterize as the way of disinterest. It means taking yourself out of the equation, setting aside your emotional baggage, and instead, playing with ideas while putting information first.
Inviting students to be open, focused on exploring, curious, not committed to a particular outcome has benefits. Rather than being limited by the information being gathered, ask questions and challenge the status quo. Many of us want to find solutions that fit into convenient containers, but when we encounter a real problem, we have to play with ideas and information, putting them together in ways that don’t seem to work, but sometimes, surprisingly, do.
Critical thinking allows us to adopt a point of view that isn’t beholden to one perspective over another, but to step outside the situation, and in a disinterested way, play in a way that’s friendly. Asking students to play with the information they have gathered relevant to a problem, juxtapose it in the context of their Evernote Notebooks, then share that online enables them to see old and new patterns. And, in the new patterns, find ways to solve ideas.
Information wrestling doesn’t have to be a boring, hateful process done in isolation and irrelevance. Rather, through new technologies like Evernote and Postach.io (and you’re not limited to just these), you can create narrative non-fiction that captivates and enchants us as individuals, connecting us through social media in ways that celebrate distinct points of view.