Often, I am confronted with teachers who are tasked with teaching children to read but who do not read children's books. However, more often, I see teachers who may have some understanding of fictional texts but limited to no real understanding of nonfiction books. I was that teacher at one point, I did not understand children's nonfiction and didn't really see a need to grow in that area.
My reading life started when I was in third grade. I loved historical fiction, mysteries, and fantasy. As a child, I read very little nonfiction. It seemed boring and uninteresting. In my teens, I started reading biographies and some fact books on things I was curious about. In college, when I wasn't reading textbooks for classes, I returned to mysteries, and historical fiction, and fantasies. After college, I started reading more nonfiction, but it was driven by things I was interested in. Books on leadership, or cooking manuals, or photography, or other interests and hobbies. Nonfiction was a means to an end and not something I read for relaxation and enjoyment.
In 2010, I discovered some wonderful children's nonfiction and I began flirting with it. A little here and a little there. Mostly picture books, and mostly the books that read like fiction, which meant mostly biographies and books about historical events.
In 2012, I started the nonfiction picture book challenge to try and fill in an obvious book gap that I had. As I look through my GoodReads Shelf for that challenge, I still read a lot of biographies, and historical events, but now there were books about animals and poetry that had a very evident nonfiction focus.
In 2013, it was pretty much the same as the previous year. However, in 2014, through conversations with other teachers and nonfiction authors on Twitter, I truly stretched myself and started reading more widely to fill in my book gaps within nonfiction. It was also at that time that I was trying to tackle a few challenges with reading comprehension and the classrooms that I was working with. Could I combine my love for nonfiction books that I was reading with lessons that I was doing? Could I use these books to help support learning for students who were English Language Learners? More about that later in this post.
What started out as a curiosity has turned into a full blown love affair over the past five years. It didn't start because of some Federal legislation said that children needed to read more nonfiction or complex texts. Instead, I simply found that I was enjoying what I was reading. Sure, it was also nice that nonfiction was enjoying it's own little renaissance as a result of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This only meant that there would be more books published and in turn the quality of children's nonfiction seems to be evolving as well. Certainly, not a bad thing for readers or writers.
Additionally, as I grew in my love for nonfiction, it spilled out. My excitement propelled me to share what I was reading with other teachers and with students. Isn't that what we do with books? Share what we love?
Another discovery, as I shared my love for nonfiction books with students, they loved them as well. These books naturally encourage discussion, thinking, and collaboration. As students learn some new fact, they want to tell someone else. The illustrations or photographs elicit responses and draw in others. Before you know small clusters of students are discussing what they are reading and seeing in a book and comparing with other students what they have learned from their book. Isn't this what we want children to do?
Nonfiction exposes children to new vocabulary and concepts that they may not have heard at home or in class or even in a novel. For English Language Learners, this opportunity to increase vocabulary and do it in a meaningful and fun way is another definite plus of nonfiction.
I am still working to understand nonfiction. I am learning more and more about writing styles and how author's purpose influence writing style. How might I help students read nonfiction in a way that will provide them with greater understanding of the book that they are reading so that they can enjoy it even more? How can I help them engage with the text and apply it to other areas of learning?
Though I still am a big fan of novels, I have learned to make room in my reading life for nonfiction for both enjoyment and knowledge. Hopefully, as I continue on my reading journey others will continue to come along and we can learn from each other. I want to thank Carrie Gelson for teaching me more and more about how to best use nonfiction in the classroom as she shares what she does with her students, and to Melissa Stewart for the many times that she has gone back and forth with questions and thoughts that I have about nonfiction text as I work out new understandings and how to apply them to teaching. Without the two of them, I know I would not have grown as much as I have this year. I also want to thank everyone who participates weekly in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge (#nfpb2015). I learn from each of you as I look at your book selections and hear how you are using these books with your students.