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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Step Into History!

It seems that in elementary school we focus a majority of our time and efforts on fiction. Although I moved up to sixth grade this year, I've noticed that the fiction focus remains. Is it any wonder, then, that the same students who excel at reading, discussing, and writing about characters, plots, and themes struggle with social studies, science, and math texts?

I think a great way to hook students on nonfiction is to offer them well written, well illustrated picture books that compliment their self-selected reading (often chapter books) and at the same time their content areas of study. One student, for example, became really intrigued by Ancient Greece while studying that unit in social studies. So when I requested topics for a nonfiction book report, he naturally gravitated toward that topic and the dozen nonfiction texts on Ancient Greece in my classroom.

So what's the big deal? The big deal is that the nonfiction picture books (let's call them nonfiction mentor texts), while colorful and inviting, use all the standard conventions of harder nonfiction trade books and textbooks: table of contents, section headings and subheadings, bold vocabulary, text sidebars, diagrams, cutaways and cross-sections, question-answer format, captions, timelines, glossary, and index. In other words, all the critical yet often confusing attributes of a textbook!

Two perfect examples of such texts come from Enslow Publishers: Siege! Can You Capture a Castle? and Conquest! Can You Build a Roman City? Both are illustrated with wide and close views of the historical eras and people they describe, and both contain all of the nonfiction picture book/textbook conventions I listed above. Other titles in the Step Into History series include Hunt! Can You Survive the Stone Age? and Sail! Can You Command a Sea Voyage?

So how can nonfiction picture books be used in the classroom? Let me quote some reviews of the Enslow titles and take it from there.

In reviewing Siege! Can You Capture a Castle? Booklist commented: "This second-person narrative approach creates immediacy and a dramatic context, while never overwhelming the information presented. Readers will learn a good deal about the design of castles, their strengths, and their vulnerability to various weapons and strategies . . . An appealing, informative book for browsing or research."

With this in mind, these texts can be used as "gateway" books which will entice readers to explore concepts in greater detail. While I do have nearly a dozen books on snakes, they vary greatly in their format, depth, and reading levels. An unsuspecting student will get hooked on one of the easier titles, and with a new found interest (and confidence) in the topic, she'll more likely tackle a more difficult text upon completing the first one.

School Library Journal reviewed Hunt! Can You Survive the Stone Age? by saying: "The vibrant color illustrations are exquisitely detailed but never gruesome . . . the texts are reliable and will be useful for report writers."

Nonfiction picture books make great reference tools for research! And these were exactly the texts I had in mind when I assigned my sixth graders a Fabulous Fact Folder project this month. The project was in no way difficult, and that left students free to explore a nonfiction topic which might have been totally new to them. You can download the report format; the three pages pictured get stapled into a manila file folder which in turn is decorated and serves as the report cover.

In reviewing Conquest! Can You Build a Roman City? Library Media Collection stated: "The text and diagrams convey details . . . which could be a means for integrating science or math concepts into a history unit, making the books even more valuable."

Couldn't have said it better myself! I love using historical contexts to integrate math, science, and language. Students really get into the "stories" of history, which makes the related learning extensions not only painless but enjoyable! When recently learning about the Panama Canal, for example, one student asked, "Is this a real story?" He thought I had created the story context just to teach him ten vocabulary words! In the past I've also created math problems using the configurations of Roman legions. Kind of cool when kids realize that a lot of those "math words" such as decades and century have their origins in Latin.

I'll admit I didn't really do the topic justice here; there is so much more that can be done with these texts! I highly recommend the Stenhouse title Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing through Children's Literature, K-8. Tons of great ideas for making the most of nonfiction.

Enslow Publishers is a school publishing company; its success and reputation depend upon delivering quality, factually accurate titles. In addition to the titles I've named they have several hundred more, running a huge range of topics. I'd recommend requesting a catalog and getting some of their books on your next school order.


Theresa Milstein said...

My son is eleven, and has inhaled nonfiction for years. In fact, I'd have to argue with him just to get him to read a novel. But by wanting to know the facts, he learned difficult words, and his reading level jumped years in months. Now he's way above where he's expected to be.

My seven-year-old daughter is the opposite. I can see how they types of books would be more appealing to her. Thanks for the information. This is a great post!

Terry Doherty said...

I love your characterization "mentor texts" ... much more meaningful for parents. My 8YO daughter often picks out nonfiction picture books when something grabs her attention. She saw a movie poster for Jaws, asked us lots of questions about the movie, then brought home a nonfiction PB on great whites! This week it was mummies!

Sarah N. said...

I couldn't agree more on the importance of making good non-fiction available to kids. My 6yo daughter loves to browse the non-fiction shelves. She can go straight to the books on dinosaurs and sea animals and even my 2yo is now asking for non-fiction picture books when we go to the library. All of us have learned a lot about science, art, music and history from the excellent non-fiction we've read together.

Arlene said...

Since you moved up to 6th grade do you have any book recommendations for that grade? I have 2 all boy and 1 all girl math classes....I'm using a few books in my teaching but would LOVE LOVE LOVE to use more :o)