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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Second Guest Blog on Nonfiction and the New Standards

In the literacy program at my university, we have two required courses that
focus on content literacy and the ways in which we approach texts in the
disciplines. One is our course, Content Area Literacy. The other is a course
called Exploring Nonfiction in the Elementary and Middle School Classroom. I
have yet to meet a teacher who enrolls in the nonfiction course who, at the
start, feels comfortable in his/her ability to locate, evaluate, and select
nonfiction literature for the classroom. For most, the course represents a
paradigm shift, a series of “ah ha” moments as we study the different subgenres
of nonfiction: survey books, photoessays, biographies, specialized nonfiction,
etc. When the finish the course, teachers often lament that their colleagues in
school don’t have the same opportunity to learn about the genre. They see the
ways in which nonfiction in the classroom library and throughout the curriculum
can transform readers, differentiate instruction to meet both the needs and
interests of reluctant and struggling readers, support English Language Learners
with the consistency of text structures and organization, and provide essential
content information. Virtually all lament that an engagement with content has
fallen by the wayside due to school responses to No Child Left Behind.
The Common Core Standards, which 48 states have agreed to follow, reflect a
parallel paradigm shift. Not only does it embrace integrated literacy and an
equal role for “Literature” and “Informational Text,” in the elementary school,
but it has established content literacy standards for History/Social Studies and
Science in grades 6-12, articulating and in fact, codifying, the necessary
collaborative work across disciplines and the ways in which nonfiction
literature must play a role in both elementary and secondary content area study.

What the literacy community must now do, in a joint effort with our library
colleagues, is to help schools provide teachers with rich professional
development that introduces them to the field of nonfiction literature for
children and young adults, and provides them with the tools to locate, evaluate,
and select books that meet their students’ needs as well as the needs of the
curriculum. Colleges and universities are going to have to provide more specific
coursework in nonfiction literature for pre-service teachers, and content
literacy must become an even stronger part of secondary content teacher
preparation. School delivery standards are also going to have to change. Schools
pay millions of dollars for cumbersome text books that don’t mirror the kind of
real-world reading of literary nonfiction and informational text that the new
standards demand. Funding for classroom libraries and multigenre text sets on
content topics of study should now take precedence, and as a nation, we must
figure out how to ensure that all students, regardless of where they go to
school, have access to books.

Mary Ann Cappiello, Ed.D.
Assistant Professor, Language and Literacy Division
School of Education
Lesley University


  1. Lynn Rutan says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the power of nonfiction and think instruction in nonfiction and its use for teachers is important. I would add an equally critical component though. Pre-service teacher training should include discussion on the role and importance of the school librarian, what skills they bring to the instructional and literacy equations and the power of collaborative planning and delivery of instructional content. It couldn’t be more important to have teachers on board with literary nonfiction but it is my experience that it is the rare teacher, no matter how passionate, who has the time or the resources to keep up with the amazing and dynamic range of youth publishing. One of the key roles of school librarians, along with their instructional roles, is to survey new publications, select and purchase materials that fit school curricula, and bring those books to the attention of the teachers.

    When a passionate non-fiction savvy teacher and a passionate dynamic school librarian collaborate, the result is an instructional power that moves mountains and inspires students. Too few teacher-training institutions even acknowledge this power or include it in systematic instruction. Is it any wonder that whenever a budget crises hits, librarians are first on the hit list?

    Revamping pre-service teacher training is long overdue to include the study of nonfiction and its use in the classroom. There is tremendous instructional and literacy-enhancing power there. But while we’re at it, let’s include instruction in the power of school librarian/teacher collaboration. Kids deserve it.

  2. Mary Ann Cappiello says:

    Lynn, I couldn’t agree with you more. In the past, I’ve included a public library visit as part of my nonfiction course, to encourage teachers to cultivate relationships with their local public librarians as well as their school librarians. I begin all of my graduate courses encouraging teachers, both preservice and inservice, to get to know their school librarian, as s/he is their best ally in developing curriculum and creating a literacy-rich environment for their students. However, too many school administrators and school boards, as you well know, have allowed school libraries to be staffed with well-meaning aides, who don’t have the expertise to keep up with the industry, select texts, and support teachers. We need a Sputnik-era type of investment in school libraries and skilled librarians, not just library gatekeepers, if we are to meet the challenge of the Common Core Standards. I wonder what the possibilities are of a joint effort, via NCTE, IRA, and ALA to envision a model framework for collaboration?

  3. why don’t the two of you, Mary Ann and Lyn, write a book on the teacher-school librarian partnership in the age of the new standards? Start with a couple of panels — at teaching and library conferences — and then build to a book. We authors have felt the lack of this alliance for decades, and you two could lead the way in rebuilding it.

  4. Lynn Rutan says:

    Teachers and librarians LOVE books with practical examples and lesson plans Mark, so I’m sure something like this would be very welcome. Sadly I think school libraries are in such a state of crisis now that it is going to take a large and dramatically different effort soon to alter the trend.

    Mary Ann – your idea is really exciting to me because I think it is going to take the combined efforts of many influential groups to make a difference – both for school libraries and for schools. I’m excited about the new standards and the promise these hold for change. Somehow all of us who are passionate about learning and literacy need to find a way to work together better.