In February I wrote about ELA Shift 1 and text complexity, and in March I wrote about Shift 2 and text evidence. This month I will write about how I am adjusting for Shift 3 by including relevant nonfiction readings in my high school ELA courses.
Some students come to us knowing very little about the world beyond their homes and communities. As a whole, teachers have the important (and fun!) job of helping students build understanding and knowledge of a variety of topics spanning the arts, humanities, social sciences, earth sciences, physical sciences, and more. English teachers especially understand that literature is a powerful medium allowing readers to get to know other people and ways of life. We are often hesitant to give up curricular space for other kinds of readings, but I am now beginning to see the power of pairing relevant non-fiction offerings with the stories I know and love.
How do my students and I build knowledge with content-rich nonfiction?
I am an English teacher because I like literature and poetry. I read for fun because it is the most relaxing activity I can imagine, and one of my goals as a teacher is to inspire others to love reading. Before Core, my students primarily read fiction–novels, plays, short stories and poems. Occasionally, I would find a thematically related news article or essay and have students read it for additional background knowledge.
I have also always appreciated the amount of freedom I get when it comes to selecting the stories, novels and topics of study, and I’ve always tried to help students understand the social circumstances of what they are reading. I have used and continue to use documentaries about authors’ lives, webquests, and student-generated research questions to ensure students gain foundational understanding.
My best units strategically pair fiction and high-quality nonfiction options. Students read and analyze Macbeth’s leadership traits as well as those of world leaders from the past and present. They’re exposed to literary nonfiction, blogs, current news articles, infographics, TED Talks, and even academic research articles all related to a similar topic or theme.
My work in this arena is much more focused than it was before. I now compose both skill and knowledge targets for every unit. Each day, I strive to ensure students build on what they learned the day before. When studying Wiesel’s Night, for example, one topic of study is propaganda. It is introduced at the beginning of the unit when we look at examples. We define different methods and research the psychological thinking behind them. As we progress through the book, we loop back and continue to adding to our notes and understandings.
I have also started thinking more about the kind of knowledge my students need to be college and career ready when I select unit foci. I used to have students research well-known feuds when I taught Romeo and Juliet. I no longer teach 9th grade, but if I did I would lean toward nonfiction options that describe teenage brains and emotions because this kind of knowledge seems more relevant to students’ lives.
ELA teachers love to debate how this shift should affect our course content, and most of what I am hearing in recent professional development points toward a 70/30 or 80/20 split of nonfiction/fiction readings throughout the school day. In some upper grades, this may mean that ELA courses could only focus on literature because the nonfiction reading “quotas” are being met in content classrooms.
I would argue, however, that in many cases studying a relevant and interesting topic connected to the literature will increase student interest and engagement as well as performance. “Giving up” curricular space for deeper study of topics related to the literature will sometimes mean that adjustments are needed and we may not “get through” as many poems, stories, or novels. I certainly think there are books (or parts of books) that everybody should read or know about; a common literary experience is a cultural ideal. Equally important is developing meaningful connections between our world and those of our beloved stories, and deep knowledge of a variety of topics is also an ideal worth working toward.
Where do you stand in this debate? How are you grappling with shift and adjusting your curriculum to include more content-rich nonfiction?