Posted by: Tom Triumph | November 24, 2012

What Nonfiction Pieces Do You Give Middle School Students?

Not poetry. With the Common Core coming, the topic of non-fiction writing is bubbling up.  Sure, everyone is a literacy teacher, but the crux of success in non-fiction will come down on Language Arts teachers, because narrative fiction is where communication becomes inspiration.  In offering thoughtful pieces, students will engage with their other subjects.

I’m thinking of another site–Middle School Non-fiction 180–as a source of good non-fiction.  Read the article and please make suggestions.

Middle School Non-fiction 180

In my first year of teaching middle school we spent a cold November inservice day listening to a woman tell us how to teach nonfiction.

“People don’t like reading nonfiction” she said with authority.

“What?” my science teaching teammate exclaimed.

“I like reading nonfiction,” I added.

Others muttered in agreement, and a conversation started breaking out on this or that book someone had just read.

At this point, the presenter could have conceded that her statement was a bit overreaching. She could have dismissed us as an usual group; we were, after all, teachers and had degrees in science, history and the like. All of us were readers. Instead, she dismissed us and stood by her statement.

“People don’t like to read nonfiction.”

She might have just stopped the inservice right there, because no one in the room could take her seriously after that. Everything that came out of her mouth was challenged, to the point where our vice principal had to talk to us during the break because we had unnerved the speaker.

In the end, the speaker was talking about textbooks (I still challenger her statement, as I enjoy a good textbook, too). Yet, there is a general assumption that what students like to read are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Summer I Turned Pretty titles, not Into the Wild. In this, I have a dual response.

First, kids do love non-fiction. In fact, many students told me they prefer non-fiction to fiction. After a lengthy discussion, I believe it comes down to usefulness. While fiction allows a certain fantasy and escape (and a large degree of vicarious living), non-fiction teaches them about the world.

And they want to learn!

My favorite books were biographies. In fifth grade I was not “a reader” but I swallowed biographies of Henry Ford and the Wright brothers. I also liked to read books about aliens and the Loch Ness monster (it was the age of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Leonard Nemoy narrated show In Search Of and all of those Sun Classic “documentaries” on life after death and Noah’s Ark). Later, I carried about reference books: Book of Lists, Guinness Book of World Records and (briefly) a friend’s Dungeon Master guide. They weren’t narrative, but completely engaging.

I wonder about the nature of the narrative and non-fiction.  Having recently facilitated an in-service about the Common Core and non-fiction text, there was a lot of talk about graphs, directions, recipes and video being “non-fiction” text.  Yet, I weep at this.  True, my students struggle with simple step-by-step directions, but a sustained narrative is (to me) the gold standard of reading.

Good narratives are life.

Which leads to my second point: There are few engaging young adult narrative non-fiction books or stories.  Cue the responses.  No, really, if you have suggestions, please put them (and links!) in the comment section.  But let’s explore what I’m saying a bit.

For example, look at sports.  I have a group of boys (always boys) who read Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side.  Why?  They like football and they saw the movie.  It is a compelling story, but it is also an adult story, and even with motivation is often falls flat.  Into Thin Air and Friday Night Lights also make the rounds, are carried around for a few weeks, but rarely are finished.

One reason is that they are adult books.  Their reading level is pretty advanced, as is the need for cultural literacy.  Read the first chapter of Friday Night Lights and see how much knowledge you need to have going in even before you look at vocabulary and text complexity.

Every article I hold dear is like this.  There are two Sports Illustrated articles I’ve kept for decades because I think they epitomize the larger American culture: George Plimpton’s “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” and  Frank Deford’s “BD“.  To give them to a middle school student is ridiculous, I know, but they illustrate what adults take for granted when it comes to “common knowledge.”

Take Deford’s “BD”, about Yale quarterback Brian Dowling, the late 1960s in America and college football.  First up: What’s Yale?  I explain.  They don’t really understand what college is.  More to the point, they don’t really understand social class and diversity, other than in an academic sense.  Add the history–both of Harvard and Yale, the Vietnam War, SNCC and student protests, Doonesbury and more–and the article is a baffling slog.  In the end, it’s also a tad elitist.

I have collected plenty of those “Best” series for my classroom: Sports, Spiritual, Nonfiction…  I’ve even collected David Eggers’ “The Best Non-Required Reading”, which is a mix of fiction, non-fiction and even cartoons.  To find pieces that are both thought provoking and accessible is difficult.

As a social science teacher, I’ve tried to use NPR updates and longer pieces for current events (and to work on listening skills).  They require a high degree of background knowledge, which never becomes apparent until I’m listening in front of students.  This American Life does offer a number of good pieces, easily searchable by topic, though.  Still, there are plenty that are adult in cultural currency and the subject matter.

Certainly, the library must be full of great non-fiction books?  Many of the non-fiction are uninspiring biographies written way below grade level.  When we buy one with a kid in mind, it gets read (once) and sits there.  Book by book.  There has got to be a better way.

In short, there seems to be dearth of good, young adult non-fiction.

I was inspired to take this topic on when I read this article: What Should Children Read by Sara Mosle.  She had a few links at the end, which are good, but they are more adult oriented (sigh).  I put them in my iPad bookmarks because I like them, but for middle school students….

And looking down my bookmarks, I find many sources, all too adult.  Those that are accessible, like the sports site Deadspin, are infused with profanity and inappropriate language.  Political sites tend to be more polemic, even when the topics seem.  We live in a world of rich non-fiction, but not for middle schoolers.

To follow up Ms. Mosle, I would love to know which non-fiction works you give middle school students.

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