At a recent workshop, Franki Sibberson asked us to recall our experiences with nonfiction texts as children. I shuddered. My memories of childhood nonfiction are not good ones. I remember piles of purple mimeographed worksheets about science topics. I recall sitting miserably at the library thumbing through encyclopedias, copying facts onto notecards and then transferring them onto notebook paper for an assigned report. I can still see myself slogging through textbooks with out-of-date pictures and dreadfully dry texts. At times, the only fun part of reading these textbooks was when the margins were marked up with cusswords from students past.
I hated nonfiction reading and writing.
Thankfully, in most classrooms the use of nonfiction has vastly improved. Many teachers know the value of finding and using current quality nonfiction. They know how to use online resources. They understand that previous methods of nonfiction instruction can be soul-crushing to students, and have found better ways for students to research and write about what they learn.
Yet there are still some teachers desperately hanging on to the old ways of doing things. They are assigning the same activities and units they’ve had for years, and are restricting student work in the same way. They haven’t evolved with their students, new available resources, or the countless fabulous technology advances that have bolstered nonfiction instruction.
I call these teachers the "Pumpkin Project" teachers. Years ago as a classroom teacher I experienced the Pumpkin Project mentality first hand. Every year around Halloween, the social studies teachers in our group made each student buy a pumpkin and asked them to dress it up as a character from American History. When they were finished, the students walked around the school, carrying their Abraham Lincolns and George Washingtons and Franklin Douglases, telling the younger kids about their characters. But then things changed — American History was no longer part of the curriculum for our grade level. One would have expected the Pumpkin Project to disappear, but it did not. Why? Because it was fun, easy, and both kids and teachers liked it. It had absolutely no connection to the work students were doing — and should have been doing — in social studies.
As literacy leaders, our responsibility is to encourage our reluctant teachers to embrace innovative ways to use nonfiction. Here are some strategies that have worked for me:
- Model. Read great nonfiction and talk about it with anyone who will listen.
- Research. Find some great student nonfiction to share and ask your strongest literacy teachers to do the same.
- Connect in classrooms. Offer to go into classrooms to work with groups of students on nonfiction. Model having rich, interesting conversations with them.
- Allocate resources. Teachers love getting new stuff — buy them some really good nonfiction with whatever you can manage from your literacy budget.
- Give time. At a staff meeting or professional development session, give teachers time to look through these new resources. Without time, new resources are often ignored. Group teachers mindfully with colleagues who naturally think quickly and creatively about how nonfiction can be used in the classroom.
- Give space. Arrange for class coverage for reluctant teachers and challenge them to go on a “nonfiction scavenger hunt.” At the school library or the local library, have them search for books they enjoy and work with their curriculum. If possible, tell them that you will purchase some if they can explain how they will be used in class.
- Question gently. When you observe instruction, use non-threatening questions as a way to lead to suggestions. Why did you choose this book? Why do you like it for your instruction on this topic? Did you know there is another author who has published something recently that would fit right into your unit?
- Offer to help. I ask questions like these: Would you like me to search for some new resources for you? What topics do you feel need some refreshment? Can I show you some great web-based sites your students might love?
As a principal, I sometimes forget that some teachers struggle to stay motivated and contemporary in their thinking. It is my job to forgive them for their struggle, and to inspire them to stretch and develop into strong nonfiction teachers.