Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beyond Textbooks: (Re) Discovering Nonfiction

As I listened to Nonfiction Books for Teens, this month’s episode of the ReadWriteThink.org Text Messages podcast, I felt a definite connection to host Jennifer Buehler as she recounted her “discovery” of nonfiction. In her introduction to a compelling set of titles, she discusses her longstanding affinity for fiction, noting that there lingers with nonfiction a negative association with dry, fact-filled textbooks.

She acquired that negative view toward nonfiction—as so many readers have—from the academic reading required of her in school.

If textbooks are the primary source of nonfiction reading with which students engage, it’s little wonder that we find it difficult to build a culture of literacy in schools that involves sustained work with text other than fiction.

I’ve been inspired by a pair of mathematics teachers who, like Jennifer, see the value in exposing students to carefully selected, high quality nonfiction. I worked with them recently as they began shaping a plan to engage students in an investigation of the question “What is trigonometry?” through a variety of nonfiction texts.

I offered to do an assessment of available resources and made a trip to our local library to look for trade nonfiction about mathematics. I’m ashamed to admit my surprise at how many relevant, well-written books I was able to find right away. I’m not ashamed to admit that on the spot, I devoured a chapter on the mathematical archetype of “threeness” in nature, art, and science.

While it’s true that many of the texts I found didn’t match the goal these teachers had in mind, we were able to establish the foundation of a collection that those teachers can use to get students started in a meaningful mathematical investigation through text. And the added bonus, of course, is that students will get to see that people write real books about math!

As you reflect on the learning goals you have for students in the upcoming school year, consider the role authentic nonfiction text has in your instructional plan. And think about how you might support colleagues, especially those in content areas other than English, in an effort to share quality informational text with students. Jennifer's recommendations provide an excellent start, as she covers territory from American history to ecology to natural science to sociology.

As it turns out, the basis of the affinity many of us have for great fiction—compelling ideas and engaging writing—is right there for (re)discovery in nonfiction as well.


Nan said...

I have always enjoyed using nonfiction in my class, especially with our inquiry projects. I was pleased to find NCTE's Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children. The Orbis Pictus list is something I would refer to when looking for quality nonfiction texts for my classroom: http://www.ncte.org/awards/orbispictus.

Considerations2.0 said...

I love when teachers are excited about using other texts in their classrooms. It validates what I do as a school librarian. Please, please, please, if your district has not eliminated your school library, check out the collections, ask for help from the SLMS, and even suggest titles. We, and I know I speak for many librarians, want to support and engage the students learning as much as every classroom teacher.

kimberly said...

As both a writer and a teacher it is the world of nonfiction which inspires me - as writers and teachers of the Art of Language we draw our material from real life. It is undoubtedly the ownership of a mathematical or scientific concept which enables us to delve into it and create a powerful story.

As a teacher I have rediscovered the use of the basil as a way of teaching short, quality nonfiction stories, and my students have responded with enthusiasm and interest.