Monday, March 26, 2012

An Invitation to Use Nonfiction in the Classroom

Good morning!  Last week was busy with school visits, and everyone was hyped up because of the gloriously warm weather.  Spring sprung so fiercely it jumped right into summer, and the kids' internal clocks jumped right along with it.  Even so, I had several great discussions about how to take a boring, assigned subject and make it exciting for them, and led some rowdy but imaginative storytelling to create new adventures of Joshua the Giant Frog. 

But I wonder when I leave a school if what I have said, or what we have done as a group has made an impact. Do teachers refer back to anything I said days or weeks later?  Do classes revisit the tall tales we wrote together to expand, revise or illustrate?  Do my books ever get pulled off the shelves again? 

In light of the new core curriculum's focus on 50% nonfiction, I would like to think that FOR THE BIRDS might be used to introduce lessons on scientific observation, a bird unit, or even an art lesson.  FARMER GEORGE PLANTS A NATION might have been read in February to celebrate President's Day, but it is even more appropriate to launch a spring project of planting seeds, experimenting with soil, light and moisture conditions.  Farmer George celebrates Earth Day!

I would love to know what librarians and teachers do with my books.  Are they useful?  Do they inspire lessons?  Or do writers have to help bridge the gap between the old standards and the new?  Teachers are way too busy with the everyday chaos of kids to keep up with new curriculum ideas, like finding ways to use nonfiction in the classroom, that are tossed out every few years.  I know many writers provide activity sheets on their websites, but should we do even more? 

If a teacher uses one of my books, I invite them to let me know.  I would be happy to answer questions kids might have. We could even Skype (I need the practice).  The point is, I want to make a connection between my books and your kids.  After all, that is why I write - to make a difference.  We are all in the same business of teaching kids.  Teachers do it in person, and writers do it in print.  I'd like to blur those lines and invite you  into my world just as teachers and librarians have so graciously done for me over the years.  I love visiting schools. Now I want to extend that visit to make a lasting impression. So I pledge to provide more help on my website and in person, when possible, so it will be easy to use nonfiction in your classroom.

Monday, March 12, 2012

More Thoughts on Poetry in Nonfiction

Since my last post – an interview with Laura Purdie Salas author of A Leaf Can Be -- I can’t stop thinking about poetry in nonfiction. Not that poetry is categorized as nonfiction, but that poetic language and verse are used to convey factual information. Salas does a wonderful job capturing the many occupations of a leaf in her rolling rhyming scheme, but many other writers use free verse and lyrical prose in much the same way. An Egg is Quiet comes to mind, and Nicola Davies’s Bat Loves the Night. On her website, Davies says, “Writing picture books is like doing very difficult yoga for your brain! Everything you want to say must be fitted into a small number of words, and those words have to sound lovely when they are read aloud. It’s more like writing a poem than a book; every word has to earn its keep and be put in exactly the right place.”

I like that – lovely words in exactly the right places.

As I was doing a little surfing about nonfiction and poetry I came across a couple of interesting sites. The first is an article called “Making Time for Nonfiction Read Alouds” by Franki Siberson.

As a writer I think it is important to know what librarians and teachers think about our work. Siberson noticed that she rarely read nonfiction out loud to the children, and made a concerted effort to pull in more nonfiction so kids would hear all sorts of writing and enjoy all sorts of writing. She gives a nice list of different kinds of nonfiction that she likes to read to her class.

The second site I came upon bothered me. It is at Studyzone, and is a test prep quiz. “Let’s practice deciding if what you hear is fiction or nonfiction.” This is the sentence that bugged me – “Remember, fiction is an entertaining, make-believe story that is not real; nonfiction is true information that gives you facts to explain something.” Huh!

So, nonfiction isn’t entertaining??? You can’t learn anything from fiction??? I know this is for small children, but do we really need to drive that wedge between pleasure and learning when it comes to reading and books?

The fiction example reads: “Sarah Jane is my cow. Last week she told me a story about how she got her blue spots…”

The nonfiction example is: “Cats make great pets and are easy to take care of. Cats need to be fed several times a day….”

But what if the passage read: Sarah Jane is my cat and I love to take care of her. Each morning when she hops on my bed, nuzzles my face and purrs in my ear, I know it’s time to feed her.

I thought the news about amazingly-written and enjoyable-to-read nonfiction was common knowledge, but I guess not. We still have more work to do.