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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Exploring the Common Core Standards

The other night Marina and I visited our local middle school, as our older son enters sixth grade in the fall. We were thrilled at first as we visited the lively Social Studies classrooms, saw the great student projects in the Science rooms, and met the dynamic Math teachers. But then came Language Arts. It broke my heart — but not one single 6th, 7th, or 8th grade class even allowed — much less featured — nonfiction — not in assigned reading, not in author study, not in independent reading. So I decided to look at the CC standards to see what they say.

Go to this site, then scroll down to page 39. This is what middle students students are expected to learn — as Language Arts skills: how to find key ideas and supportive details; how decode a text — that is, figure out ideas and words in context, and, beyond that, determine the author’s point of view and see how s/he hands opposing views; how to evaluate a presentation — including not only text but visuals or other media. In other words literacy includes both developing the skills of making sense of what is going on in NF — what the words and phrases means — and both comprehending and evaluating what the NF piece is trying to do — the case it is making, how it makes it, and whether that argument is valid.

Now I am certain that textbooks will, or perhaps already do, offer very mapped out ways to accomplish these tasks — with arrows, sidebars, and lists of questions. But, in reality, in the real world, the way to develop these skills is for middle school students to read real NF by real authors who have real arguments and views. That is the simple slam dunk answer. And it means that authors, editors, reviewers, librarians, teachers, parents need to recognize that opening books up to point of view, opinion, speculation, judgment, argument is precisely what young people need from us. The world is complex, and insights change on the fly — we have to bring young people into that world of change and debate — and the CC approach is our ally.

Now we just need to get that message to our local schools.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I have similarly found that the Core Standards are remarkably supportive of my efforts to teach about nonfiction. More importantly, principals of schools are now more open to these ideas as well. The challenge remaining is for us to show how nonfiction literature fits within school programs and how it should be read, thought about, and discussed. This is not a simple matter, for as many educational researchers have noted, it’s hard to teach in a way you were never taught. Where are teachers supposed to learn about how to respond and critique nonfiction and how to encourage children to do so? What I would like to see is more discussion of nonfiction books among educators, authors, teachers, and children. And, as I have said before, I am concerned about how to make nonfiction titles more available to students and teachers.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    The TAH grants were exactly what you describe — history lessons for teachers. But they have been axed in the latest round of Congressional cuts. So, Myra, how about creating a little module for NYC Language Arts teachers — how to read, teach, and think about History for Language Arts Teachers — we can create a PD workshop — youtube it — share it, take it around the school system? An educator (you) an author (me) a librarian (whom?) and we talk books, history, classrooms, strategies, etc. As to making the books more available, that is another issue.

  3. I was at a middle school school in Boston yesterday, doing pd on the Common Core standards. Most of the teachers were really excited about the “synergy” of the standards, and the dynamics between texts, task, and reader. But it was clear to me that this discussion of the Common Core and what it really means for schools is at the very beginning, and the implications for the new balance between nonfiction and literature is a paradigm shift that many schools have yet to face. If, in 2012-2013, your son’s 7th grade ELA curriculum parallels this year, then there’s a real disconnect. I don’t think teachers necessarily realize what they don’t know about nonfiction, nor do their principals, and that’s my deeper worry, that well-intentioned revisions to curriculum will still bypass nonfiction literature for children and young adults and fall short of the goals.

    New teachers will need to be educated in nonfiction in a way they haven’t been before, and perhaps they, too, can create the change.But in a climate when Race to the Top funds reward states and cities that provide “faster” entry points into the field and “remove barriers,” will states who have received funds be limited in their ability to revise teacher preparation programs in light of the new expectations and demands of the Common Core Standards? Too often, programs blend courses in children’s and ya lit with methods courses; what teachers need is the survey course in literature and another course in nonfiction, to really be prepared to teach developmentally appropriate nonfiction literature K-12.

    Inservice teachers need professional development that includes reading a lot of children’s and young adult nonfiction. Nothing else matches the internal paradigm shift within adult learners. It is so exciting to watch the discovery unfold, to witness teachers, armed with new knowledge of the genre, new understandings of how books can serve both children and the curriculum, carry that excitement back to their classrooms, where they plant the seeds to transform their practice.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    your post, like Myra’s, is sobering yet in its way inspiring; clearly the mix of CC standards and Race to the Top funding creates a need that we see, even if schools and teachers do not yet. Once again I think of that Youtube model we discussed — short, simple, downloadable, show and tell lessons in how to select, read, share, use nonfiction trade books in schools.