Textbooks have been shoved in front of my face for a good chunk of my life, but do I remember any of it? Nope. Well, maybe some. Like the stuff they told us over and over again, such as Abraham Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation or the water cycle or how to figure out 48 + 57.
Most of what I do remember from my many years of education I learned from reading fiction.
When I was young, my sister played club soccer, so she had a game or tournament all the time. To pass the time at games, I would read. I loved mysteries like Nancy Drew, coming-of-age stories like the Alice series, historical fiction like The Magic Tree House. I loved fantasy like Harry Potter and Graveyard Book, science fiction like Ender’s Game, and romance like the If I Stay duology.
Anything that seemed remotely interesting to me, I read. As I read, I learned more about the world around me, different cultures, history, politics, science, technology, geography, grammar and so much more than I ever got from the textbooks we read in school.
I remember how excited I was to learn more about the Titanic after reading Distant Waves by Suzanne Weyn. But when we got to the year of the Titanic, our textbook had a paragraph about the unsinkable ship. A paragraph! Here we are in a history class, and I learned more about the Titanic from a novel than the textbook … I was amazed.
As I read more historical fiction, I noticed how it taught me more about the people and the actual experience of certain eras. This not only made me more empathetic, but it also helped me remember the details of events that teachers were trying to teach using textbooks.
I love learning about different cultures, ideas, and beliefs, but I hated learning about all of that while reading it from a textbook. I took a couple religion classes and an anthropology class in college. Don’t get me wrong, the classes were interesting. I enjoyed the discussion part of Anthropology as we had many engaging conversations about our experiences, gender, and different cultures. But I hated the textbooks for all of it. They were so dry and only taught the surface-level information. When I read fiction about different cultures, I begin to fall in love with a group of people. I want to visit these places and people so I can learn more. I fell in love with learning when I started reading fiction.
Gene Luen Yang is an American cartoonist who has written Avatar: The Last Airbender, American Born Chinese, and Boxers and Saints. Yang was also a high school teacher, and talks about his experience in his Ted Talk, Comics Belong in the Classroom. At one point during his teaching career, Yang was a long-term substitute for an Algebra Two class.
In the Ted Talk, Yang goes on to explain how he would have to miss a couple classes a week to perform his normal duties at the school, so he would have to find ways to teach the Algebra Two students when he was not there. That is when Yang began to create comics that were four to six pages long to teach math lessons to the Algebra Two students.
As time went on these students began asking for the comic strips even when Yang was in the classroom because it taught them more visually and it was more permanent as it put the past, present, and future all next to each other.
Students were able to reread the comic as fast or slow as they needed to, it was “like giving them a remote control over the information,” Yang said in his Ted Talk.
I don’t remember the number of times I reread the math textbook for just one problem and the time it would take me to figure out where I was and determine how the information in the book was going to help me. With the comics, the student could just go to the part of the problem that looks like their own and follow it.
Yang used a form of fiction to help teach his students how to work out a math problem and it worked! His students started to better understand how to complete different math problems and he inspired other teachers in different departments to use comics for teaching as well.
Fiction not only helps students while in the classroom; it helps real people in the real world. Fiction aids our creativity, builds our vocabulary, and makes us more empathetic.
Reading fiction also teaches us to focus. Do you realize how hard it is to focus on one thing when your friend won’t stop texting you, there’s a lot going on in the news, and you’re drowning at work? Reading helps teach children how to focus on one thing. Why not practice focusing by spending some of your time with a good book?
Reading fiction is one of the top ways to alleviate stress. So, take a breather and read a bit.
Lastly, fiction helps people socialize. Similar to what I mentioned before, fiction teaches you about life and the way societies and communities work.
I learned a lot about growing up by reading coming-of-age stories in my preteens and early teens. I was awkward, I had no idea what I was doing just like the characters in my books, but I was able to learn from their mistakes. I believe that’s true for me now even in my twenties. I can read fiction books on racism, dystopian novels about screwed up politics and worlds burning, and meet fiction characters contemplating suicide, then take that and learn from those experiences.
Learning from fiction is not perfect, but for me, it’s a hundred times better than reading a textbook.