Yes, we are all aware of how important reading nonfiction has become. You can’t pick up a journal, read an article online, or look at the Common Core State Standards and not be made aware of this.
I love to read nonfiction. There are so many fascinating books that fit that category. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand was one of my favorites a few years ago. It was a great read about an amazing horse. Recently I read The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby. The story about this horrible disease drew me in. I found it a real page-turner. In my book group I’m the one known for choosing nonfiction books. But–and there is always a “but” isn’t there–here’s my concern. Are we already letting that perpetual pendulum swing too far from fiction when it comes to the classroom?
Will kids take any joy out of reading if all they read is nonfiction? You won’t get any argument from me that the skills that one uses in nonfiction reading carry over to everyday life. Recipes, directions, street signs, nutrition labels, and the list of what we read daily goes on. But how much joy is there in that? Yes, the books I mentioned were wonderful, but they were narrative nonfiction and told a story. They read like novels. That’s not the case for much of the nonfiction reading that kids do.
I think we need to be careful with kids and allow them to read lots and lots of fiction. Otherwise what happens to their imaginations and their capacity for dreaming? Where will inspiration from fictional characters such as spunky girls and adventurous boys be found? What about those who like, or even need, to escape into a book find their routes into them? As good as nonfiction can be, it’s rather difficult to use it as escapism.
Can we find the right balance? Can we teach the skills but give children the opportunity to be immersed in the world of fiction? Can we not do what we so often do in education, throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?
When I first started teaching, how each day went depended a lot on how benevolent my students were feeling. It is embarrassing to admit that. It’s not as though I didn’t know a lot about classroom management; I just didn’t know how to make it work yet. The weeks went on and I learned every day, but I still had a few students who just had a lot of energy. You know, the ones who hate sitting down at all, who you check in with before class starts so when they need them, they will have that pencil and paper ready, rather than lurking at the bottom of their backpacks under missed assignments that are slowly being turned into pulp with the help of an old banana.
Often these kids had really great attitudes, and most days I was able to keep everyone on task using my limited mental toolbox of classroom management strategies. But there were days, usually days when something different was happening, like rain or a modified bell schedule, when my class was straining at the seams, led by these special, energetic students. I could feel the moment when things started to go downhill, when productive energy got that wild note and I knew it was going to be a long day.
Then one day, a student came into my classroom asking if I had the red toolbox.
“What?” I asked in utter confusion.
“The red toolbox. Mr. V said you might have it,” the kid answered helpfully.
I knew I didn’t have any red toolbox, but since the kid was already there, I looked through any closet or drawer where a toolbox could be hiding. Had there been after-hours repairs on my classroom? Finally, I had to turn him away.
“That’s okay, he said it might be Mrs. L who has it. He couldn’t remember.”
At lunch, I got the scoop. The red toolbox is the trick that drains that little bit of extra energy while you get the rest of your class back on track. You simply write a hall pass for a student, before anything negative happens but after you see what direction things are heading, and your very energetic student rushes off to do you an important favor. Teachers in the know will look for the box, then suddenly remember that a certain teacher on the other side of the school might have borrowed it. This has to be done carefully, or students can spend forty-five minutes wandering around looking for the red toolbox. It is important to find out where students have already looked, and if you think they’ve been out of class for more than a few minutes, it might be time to say, “Sorry. I just can’t remember who has it. You’d better get back to class.”
In this age of bell-to-bell teaching, I imagine this isn’t a popular strategy for everyone. The idea is that you keep the students exposed to content whether they’re able to participate meaningfully right then or not, right? I say, let them stretch their legs for five minutes and come back feeling good about themselves for helping and ready to learn.
So here I am doing some research for a new project. I turn on my computer; start typing various key words into Google: and in just a very few minutes I have a raft of articles, video clips, and images ready to use. It all seems so simple, but is it? Collecting the information is, but knowing what to do with it, not so much.
I’m an adult who has been trained in how to use information that I find. I scan it, and if it’s something that I might need to use at all I save it and reread it in depth. I also need to be able to find creditable sources and cite them. In school, this meant reading articles and books, taking notes on note cards and keeping a detailed bibliography. It raises the question for me, do kids still do this? Or has the Internet so changed things that they don’t’?
I know that people often say to me “the kids know more than me when it comes to technology.” As far as using devices, I would tend to agree. They can choose apps and download photos before I’ve pushed the “on” button. However, I don’t think that they necessarily have the skills needed to make decisions about the material they’ll find on the Internet. This is where I think teachers will always be necessary. They need to guide young minds and help them learn how to think and make informed decisions.
We have a few books that I think really help teachers with this phenomenon. Our Internet Literacy books address this directly with a section called “Researching Reliably.” There are several lessons about determining the accuracy of the information found online. You can help students by reminding them to use common sense and ask questions. Students need to check evidence and find three sources that will back up what they have found.
Much like you might model how to set up your paper or how to work out a math problem, you need to model some of this researching for students. While the kids might be able to fire up the computer, if all the information they collect is incorrect, it really won’t be much use to them further down the road in life.
Project-based learning is a daunting concept to many, and it can be a lot of work to get started, but boy is it fun! Take a look at these young learners at the Auburn Early Education Center in Auburn, Alabama and see what I mean.
Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project-Based Learning
Wasn’t that video great! The students were so engaged and enthusiastic—and so busy DOING! There is no doubt that many, many teacher hours went in to setting up the activities and guiding students toward learning, but the teachers too, were enthusiastic. What teacher wouldn’t want to go to work every day if they could blend all subject areas into exciting student-driven projects? And think of all the standards being met across the curriculum!
Back to the video example of PBL. Where is the “learning” you say? Both the cruise ship to Africa and the trip to Brazil by plane required research in the classroom as well as participation in teacher-directed group discussions. These lucky students also got to go on a field trip—a rare hands-on, authentic experience.
The projects and reenactments required students to put what they had learned into practice, and to collaborate to build what they had seen and learned about. The creativity was there in every thing they constructed. Critical thinking was evident in their use of their creations and as play continued, in communicating to revamp the ways they used the materials, and in the “scripts” they developed.
The more students buy into this type of hands-on learning, the more they add. Those that have traveled bring their experiences and share it, mimicking the various workers they came into contact with. Did you see them checking passports? What about the captain at the beginning of the flight discussing turbulence? You can bet they spent time discussing what that word meant, and perhaps even acting it out. These experiences and activity-specific vocabulary build knowledge. I bet every kid in that classroom can explain the how and why of security checks, and the purpose of a passport. They also spent time counting passengers, writing, reading…the list goes on!
In real-world situations and in business, there is often more than one right answer or solution to a problem or situation. This is certainly noticeable in the STEM subject professions—science, technology, engineering, and math. The reality is that these subjects demand a great deal of creativity. The high achievers in these fields, often thought of as “geeks” or “nerds,” are actually some of the world’s most creative thinkers. They are the ones who wonder “what if….” and come up with new approaches and solutions to problems, and new inventions.
So what do we do to help our students be more prepared, creative, and yes, competitive, in the real world? Where are the new ideas and products going to come from? How can we help students be globally competitive in STEM subject areas as well as in real-world experiences? Project-based learning of course!
PBL may look or feel chaotic at first, but with proper planning, these cross-curricular, group-centered activities meet a myriad of standards while allowing students time to hone 21st century skills including the all important 4Cs—Critical Thinking, Creativity and Innovation, Collaboration, and Communication. What’s more, many teachers find that when students’ increased engagement in meaningful (to them), hands-on PBL tasks there are fewer discipline issues—now who doesn’t want a focused classroom filled with enthusiastic learners!
Project-based Learning—Where to start?
(www.edutopia.org) offers many insights into PBL in the form of articles, discussions, blogs, and shared ideas from educators. The video you just watched can be found on their site too!
Ted ED-Lessons Worth Sharing
(www.ed.ted.com) offers an array of lessons that be customized to suit individual classroom needs. Use the videos for ideas or present them directly to students.