March 24, 2017

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On Common Core | Talking about Nonfiction

here is never enough time in a single class session, the school day, or even across the school year to pack in all that teachers and librarians want their students to learn. The Common Core State Standards ask teachers and librarians to consider deep content over coverage. When one considers the goals of the CCSS along with the standards for science, social studies, and integrated arts, it’s clear that the only way for teachers and librarians to cover all the standards authentically is to collaborate on units that include both print and digital texts. But what do students do with those texts?

How can teachers and librarians work together to model for students how we talk about texts, how we explore topics of study, and what initiates our inquiry into a topic of interest? Educators have long understood that speaking and listening are essential components of literacy.  But all too often, talking is left out of the curriculum, because talking takes time. With the recent emphasis on testing, we have witnessed too many quiet classrooms, with students silently reading, independent of one another.

To fully access what they are reading, students need time to process it, and that processing is often most effective when done out loud. We need to give students time to dig in and explore, to talk with one another and with adults about what they are reading, to grapple with multiple perspectives, to pose questions, and to examine the writer’s craft.

Fortunately, the Common Core State Standards require that teachers at all grade levels focus on the role of speaking and listening within the language arts and the content areas. Teams of teachers working with librarians can therefore look at their grade span standards and use the Speaking and Listening standards as a tool for meeting the Reading and Writing standards. Each informs the other. Students who talk about what they have read, who use conversation, modeled by their teachers, as a tool to access their reading, are better prepared to do the critical thinking around texts that the CCSS asks of them.

Promote Formal and Informal Conversations

What are some of the ways that school librarians can support student efforts to talk about the nonfiction texts they read? The first step is the recognition that nonfiction texts are not simply fill-in-the-blank resources useful for writing reports or studying for tests. Indeed, the best nonfiction reflects the questing and questioning that the author engaged in while crafting it. Nonfiction is not answers, it is exploration–which readers or listeners are invited to join, whether through swiftly moving, page-turning narrative, or the swell of insights, or vistas of new possibility that it opens. The more go-to favorite nonfiction books that engage, stimulate, and challenge in these ways that you have, the better.

Start your preparation by looking closely at your nonfiction and making subcategories for yourself–this one is an I-couldn’t-put-it-down thriller, that one made me see the world a new way, this one invites readers to join the quest by giving them an expert to identify with, this title is filled with the unforgettable facts my kids will want to share with one another. Then plan a nonfiction story time like a meal: an appetizer of the weird and wacky, a first course of adventure, a hearty main meal of intellectual quest, and a fine dessert of websites and games students can explore on their own. That splendid feast should whet students’ appetites for nonfiction and get them started on the kinds of thinking the Common Core requires of them.

In elementary and middle school, where library is often an integrated arts class, librarian and teacher teams can coordinate the exploration of nonfiction and informational text so that it is aligned with topics, themes, or the types of writing that students are studying in their core class(es). Having a school-wide strategy for implementing the Speaking and Listening standards is as important as having a school-wide strategy for the Reading and Writing standards that often get more attention. Grade level teams can decide which Speaking and Listening standards will be introduced in core classes, and which in the library.  At the high school level, where the library is often a place used by classes for particular academic purposes, librarians can plan with the content area departments on how best to support students in speaking and listening about nonfiction texts.

The following are some general strategies to bring more speaking and listening activities into the school library to support students as they read increasing numbers of nonfiction texts.

Nonfiction Conversation Podcasts

We often ask students to write original book reviews. But what about recording a conversation about a book as a form of book review? Pairs, trios, or even groups of students who have read the same nonfiction book can be recorded, in audio or video, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Students would first have to prepare their own reactions to the text, and then compare and contrast with one another to establish an outline for their recorded discussion.

Younger students will need more support than older students in this activity, and could create shorter podcasts. Upload the recording to a “Book Conversation” section of your school library webpage, and it is ready to be accessed by other students in the school. Such podcasts are also a way to bring community members into the school. Adults from your community can read the same book as a group of students, and their conversation can be recorded and uploaded.

Service Learning Projects

Coordinate with faculty who conduct service learning projects within the classroom, or in a volunteer or service club that meets before or after school, or at lunch. Students can start by reading nonfiction books and articles to learn more about the issues that they are working on. For example, if students are trying to fight hunger in your community, they can read a title or two on hunger and nutrition. Next, they can look at digital newspaper and magazine articles. Subscription databases have magazine articles for even the youngest of readers. Finally, students can read and discuss the information contained on the websites for various organizations that work to ameliorate the effects of hunger. Students will then synthesize their reading, consider what strategies may work best for organizing a food drive or fundraiser, and write and record a public service announcement that can be played on a community radio station, local cable access station, or both, sharing their knowledge as well as details about their project.

Creating Content for Younger Students

We know that in general, children can understand more complex information if they hear it or have it read aloud to them. Primary grade teachers often lament not having enough material that is developmentally appropriate for children, at a level that their students can read independently. Have the older students in your school research and record content that can be used by the younger children in your school. This can occur during library class or in conjunction with classroom research projects at the different grade levels.

Individually, in pairs, or small groups, students can research a topic, and create their own multimodal digital text to share. A project like this asks students to read and take notes on a topic and to compare and contrast the information and source material through careful discussion and deliberation. They will then have to outline and plan what the text will look like visually, negotiating details and differences, and finally, record their piece.

If posted on the library webpage, younger students will have access to the information. This is a wonderful project for Book Buddies. Of course, careful attention has to be paid to the accuracy of the student work. While doing all of this reading, writing, speaking, and listening, the older researchers will be enacting many of the Common Core State Standards.

Oral Histories

Turn your school library into an Oral History Center. By working with grade level teams, see if there are one or two willing to conduct oral histories as part of language arts/English class and/or in conjunction with social studies or science. Primary grade students can interview close family members or neighbors, while older elementary, middle, and high school students can interview community members in conjunction with specific units of study.

For instance, a high school chemistry class might interview scientists in the area if you have a local research center, university or manufacturing plant. Middle school students studying World War II might interview senior citizens in your area who were children at the time. For resources, go to StoryCorps or the Columbia Center for Oral History.

From left to rt: Myra Zarnowski, Marc Aronson, Mary Ann Cappiello

Eds. note: In last month’s column, “Deconstructing Nonfiction,” the authors considered the types of nonfiction texts, their purposes, and their use in the classroom.

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