February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Excellent Narrative Nonfiction Mentor Texts | Nonfiction Notions

In elementary school, students shift from mastering the mechanics of reading to reading for information. In middle school, there is yet another shift when they begin to move from collecting and comprehending information to organizing, restating, and creating their own content; in other words, the research paper. While there are many great sources on the mechanics of writing and many more that review and recommend research sources, I’d like to look at something that’s neither one nor the other: narrative nonfiction that models good writing and researching as well as offers research topics and discussion starters.

Start with Structure

An easy way to explain the research paper model is to frame it as a mystery, and that’s exactly what brown-batsSandra Markle does in her science books, specifically The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats. Readers will easily be able to pick out the starting question or mystery—what is happening to little brown bats? The clues—disturbed hibernation and white fungus around the nose—serve as starting points for deeper investigation. Eventually, the scientists arrive at a conclusion through research and observation. Markle’s books, in addition to clearly laying out the steps of both scientific research and science writing, have the added bonus of being both readable and accessible, especially for students who struggle with fluency. Some gentle guidance in analyzing the structure of Markle’s books will give students their own simple structure for a research paper: question, content, conclusion.

Spark an Idea

Once students have mastered the form, they can concentrate on the content. Here we return to the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series and, in particular, two of the newest titles: The Great White Shark Scientist by Sy Montgomery and Crow Smarts by Pamela S. Turner. Both narratives of scientific investigation start with an interest in local phenomena. While Turner’s book focuses on scientific sharkstudies being done on crows in New Caledonia, her interest in crows was sparked by her volunteer work with the birds at Lindsay Wildlife Hospital in her own hometown in California. The primary scientist, Dr. Gavin Hunt, was originally interested in a completely different species of bird but observation of everything, not just the kagu, brought the crows’ behavior to his attention. Patient observation is key to the discoveries made in Crow Smarts and can translate to inspiring young readers to observe the world around them for research topics, not just in nature, but also in the history of their hometown, the policies of their local school, or even the behavior of their fellow students. Patience and keen observation skills are also key to gathering the information students will need to expand their topic or prove their hypothesis. Turner’s explanation of the behavioral experiments with the crows and the impact they have on how scientists categorize tool-use and animal intelligence show how the basic facts of research can be translated into a conclusion and wider context than just a collection of information.

Just as Turner’s local interest in crows grew into a piece of fascinating writing about scientific research on crow behavior, so the interests of the great white shark scientist himself, Greg Skomal, grew into something bigger. Middle school students will relate to his eighth-grade interest in sharks that led to acrow career as a marine biologist. In addition to scientific research, the stories of other shark scientists, and the author’s own interactions with sharks, this book also contains many examples of persuasive writing. There are several issues facing sharks tackled in this book; cultural fear, endangerment from fishing practices, insufficient funding for research, and girls facing bias for being interested in sharks and science. Each subject is tackled with facts, true stories of the people involved, and research-backed solutions to the problems presented. This is a great starting point to get students thinking about what causes they are passionate about, anything from helping wildlife to conservation to changing dress codes or persuading their parents to change a rule at home. This book shows how to not only use scientific fact and research to back your hypothesis, but also gives ideas for getting involved and making a difference, something that will add a real-life dimension to students’ research papers.

Think Below the Surface

Once students have mastered the form of their paper and are inspired with great ideas, sarah-rector they will eventually be ready to tackle more complex research projects and think in-depth about their chosen topic. Although there are instructional texts for these skills, reading narrative nonfiction is the perfect “show, don’t tell” method to demonstrate critical thinking to students. Tonya Bolden demonstrates techniques for tackling difficult research projects in Searching for Sarah Rector. Bolden set out to tell the story of Sarah Rector, who was the richest black girl in the United States for a short period in the early 1900s. Her search for information met many blocks. Instead of a firsthand account of Sarah’s life, the book is an exploration of the time period and history that shaped Sarah’s circumstances and Bolden’s own journey of discovery. For students accustomed to assuming all information exists at their fingertips, this is an eye-opening account of the research process.

Even when you have all the material, it’s still not always easy to reach a conclusion. This is the message of Sarah Miller’s The Borden Murders, a painstaking but not overly gory account of the famous murder trial of Lizzie Borden. More mature students who are ready to deal with information that isn’t cut and dried will want to read and discuss this book. Miller carefully presents the events of the fateful day, the trial, and Lizzie Borden’s life afterward by combing through interviews, firsthand accounts, primary source material, and scholarly research. But was Lizzie Borden guilty? We still don’t bordenknow. Miller offers contradictory information; facts brought to light after the fact; offers historical context, including the treatment and views of women; then lets readers draw their own conclusion. After reading and discussing, students should have the tools to view their own research in a different light: Are there different interpretations of their facts, other sides of the question they haven’t examined, and are they confident of their conclusion?

Narrative nonfiction offers ideal opportunities to teach and prepare students to tackle their own research topics. They will come away with a better understanding of the structure of research papers, sharper writing skills, and an appreciation for how information is investigated and conclusions are reached. They may even see the impact of the research process in their daily lives and, potentially, in a future career.

The Great White Shark Scientist by Sy Montgomery. HMH. 2016. ISBN 9780544352988.

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle. Lerner. 2014. ISBN 9781467714631.

Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird. by Pamela S. Turner. HMH. 2016. ISBN 9780544416192.

Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America. by Tonya Bolden. Abrams. 2014. ISBN 9781419708466.

The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century by Sarah Miller. Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2016. ISBN 9780553498080.


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Jennifer Wharton About Jennifer Wharton

Jennifer Wharton is the youth services librarian at the Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. You can follow more of her library adventures at jeanlittlelibrary.blogspot.com.

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