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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nurturing a Sense of Wonder with Nonfiction Books

When I picked up A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, I really intended to just skim it over. After all, I now teach only sixth grade (this book is aimed at teachers of lower elementary grades) and I teach only reading and language arts (whereas this book, at first glance, seemed to be pretty much about science). Well, I read the introduction, and about two hours later discovered that I had read the whole thing from cover to cover. Not just read it, but thoroughly enjoyed it, and couldn’t wait to pass it on to a teacher of those grade levels so that they could put its ideas into action in their classroom.

First, know this: Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough don’t write in the world of the hypotheticals. Every idea they share for helping children make nonfiction discoveries comes from their real-life experiences with kindergartners and first graders. Every lesson plan has been implemented in “real time,” and it shows through the anecdotal stories, the authentic and very funny student dialogues, and their suggestions for practitioners based upon their experiences.

This isn’t another book of themes or centers; this is an easy-to-implement series of lessons which will assist any teacher, in any school environment, in opening the eyes of curiosity. And while some will argue that children are naturally curious, I would point out that schools have a way of stifling that curiosity. Not purposely, not systemically, but simply through neglect. A Place for Wonder shows how to take that natural curiosity and channel it toward authentic and purposeful explorations of nonfiction topics. What particularly impressed me was the plans for children to write their own nonfiction books, complete with table of contents and glossary!

My wife is a kindergarten teacher so she’s already laid claim to my copy. Looks like I’ll be getting another for my daughter’s teacher. It’s that good! I recommend you check it out online at Stenhouse, and get a copy for yourself, for a colleague in the lower grades, or for your own child’s teacher.

And now a small leap. Houghton Mifflin and author Pamela S. Turner have been kind enough to share copies of The Frog Scientist and Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators, two upper elementary level nonfiction science books. Know that these are not picture books, but lavishly illustrated chapter books, filled with photos from the scientific field.

I know a number of colleagues who love to focus their energies on readability levels and "age-appropriate" texts. I find their arguments a waste of time. The practice of limiting children to certain books flies in the face of both research and the way that I personally came to love reading. As Jo Worthy points out in “A Matter of Interest: Literature that Hooks Reluctant Readers and Keeps Them Reading”:

Far more important than readability is interest. When students have strong
interest in what they read, they can frequently transcend their so-called
reading level. Indeed, many educators and researchers consider interest to be a
paramount factor in all learning.
My own breakthrough experience came at age seven when my father handed me a field guide about snakes. He knew from my daily excursions turning over rocks and logs that I had an interest in such creatures. A confident graduate of first grade, I did my best to make sense of the task of reading the detailed descriptions of each snake type; I would have been less likely, by comparison, to struggle as doggedly with a fiction novel. At one point I came across this line: “Due to their coloring, these snakes are often inconspicuous in lower hanging trees branches.” Unable to parse out the meaning, I asked my older brother what “in con spish us” meant. He asked me to spell it. He then asked to see the book. I saw him read the sentences before and after the sentence containing my troublesome word. He returned the book and said, “It means not easily seen. The color helps it to camouflage itself.” And on that day I learned not just the value of context, but also the value of collaboration.

So what’s the point? The point is, younger children can benefit in many ways from nonfiction texts that are above their reading levels. Like me, they can piece together, sort out, and through collaborative efforts. make some sense of what they’re reading, especially if they’re reading with self-determined purposes.

A book like The Frog Scientist, then, which illustrates its points with clear, objective photographs, is perfect for young readers seeking information on a topic of chosen interest. In addition to providing facts about our amphibious friends, Pamela S. Turner captures the scientific attitudes and habits required to conduct meaningful work. Such life and vocational skills are a huge part of the much-touted 21st Century Skills, which makes this book even more important.

The Frog Scientist was recently awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)/Subaru SB&F middle-grade science writing prize. The book trailer below features biologist Tyrone Hayes (aka The Frog Scientist).

Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators is another well researched yet totally accessible book for children which focuses again on not just the creatures, but the scientists who work among them. Like The Frog Scientist, this book features amazing original photographs and accompanying detailed captions. Why are captions important? Watch your average reluctant reader (especially the boys) and they’ll page through books, simply looking at the illustrations. Occasionally, however, they’ll come upon an illustration so compelling that their internal sense of wonder will fire off multiple questions. This curiosity, in turn, drives them to read the captions in order to seek more information. Then their eyes may slide into the text itself, as they wonder what else there is to know about the illustration. Turner’s books do that: they sneak up and pull the reader into another world, and a whole new schema of understanding.

(A quick congratulations to Line of Alabama, and Wendy of Michigan, the winners of the Barefoot Books giveaway A Calendar Of Festivals: Celebrations From Around The World)