Nonfiction Confessions

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OK – I admit it, I’m not a real fan of nonfiction.  I know, intellectually, how important it is for our students to have loads of experience with it but given a choice on any given day to teach fiction, I’ll go with THAT! Now I do like a well-written biography (two I’ve read this summer are excellent – Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie) and I’ll read anything Tony Horwitz puts out, but aside from that, I’m just not that into nonfiction.  Magical realism is my favorite genre – can you get any further away from nonfiction than that?

I have to change this attitude.  The importance of reading and understanding nonfiction increases exponentially each and every day for our students.  They have to know how to dissect an informational piece and gain understanding of the content.  They have to know when to skim and when to focus.  They have to know text features that will help them with comprehension.  They have to move beyond their teacher’s comfort level and not be intimidated by any type of writing!

Faced with this need for change, I’ve spent some time this summer figuring out how to include much more nonfiction reading in my classroom this school year.  Luckily for all of us, there is a tremendous wealth of resources available for anyone with a computer and a mouse.  Three I added to my favorites bar are:

The subheading on this blog is ‘Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children’ and it is a gem for anyone searching for nonfiction books on a wide variety of topics. The Nonfiction Detectives are Cathy Potter, School Librarian and Louise Capizzo, Youth Services Librarian.  They will review from 8-12 books a month but you can always look in the archives or do a search if you are looking for a particular topic.
The search feature is fabulous. I put in ‘World War II’ and got 8 pages of book reviews! They also provide the grade levels suggested for each book.

Sponsored by the National Center for Family Literacy, this site posts a fun fact every day.  (As of today, there are 658 facts to choose from)  Think how much fun your trivia obsessed students would have with this one! I can see starting class off with this a day or two each week.  How cool would it be to tie it into what the students are studying in history (# 536 – Who were the Tuskegee Airmen?) or science (#621 – How many flowers can a bee pollinate?) and then use it as a starter for writing? Or – ask the students what they wonder about and then find a match on this site and post it?

I’m not supposed to have favorites, I suppose, but this one is it.  The National Council for Social Studies has an annual committee that takes all the hard work out of reviewing childrens’ books for us.  They do the reading and reviewing and then compile a lovely and colorful pdf for us to use.  There are 10 strands and each book review includes grade levels, number of pages, and even the price.  The lists are available from 2000 – 2011 with the 2012 list available if you are an NCSS member. 

I spent yesterday morning in the library, going through the many suggestions they gave me for U.S. History after 1865. My commitment to nonfiction this year is centered around tying in content to what my students are learning in history so this was my starting point.  I learned so much! In Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan I learned that Martha Graham had the first integrated dance company in the United States.  In The Hallelujah Flight by Phil Bildner, I learned the names of the first African American aviators to make a transcontinental flight – in 1932 – James Banning and Thomas Allen. I learned the name of the first Seminole Tribe Leader, Betty Mae Jumper from a beautiful picture book, She Sang Promise, by Jan Godown Annino.

While grateful to learn about these fascinating people, I’m left wondering why am I only learning about them now?  Why were they not part of my instruction in elementary, secondary, or graduate studies?  I don’t want my students to miss knowing about these courageous and visionary people from our past and if I don’t teach it to them, they may end up like me.  Nonfiction is important.  I’m a believer now.