Defining nonfiction

Think back to when you were in school.  We all learned the difference between fiction and nonfiction, but take a moment to think about how you would define that term for your students.  I specifically remember one of my teachers reminding us that NF stood for nonfiction and not fake.  Last week I asked you to share your own definition of nonfiction in 5 words or less.  Here’s a word cloud I created based on the definitions you all shared:


You’ll notice as you look at this that the terms that appeared most in our definitions were informational, factual, facts, and real.

As we all know, when reading a nonfiction text, we cannot always accept everything at 100% factual.  Think of just about any controversial topic.  You can find nonfiction pieces written in support of and against global warming, evolution, or the risks of tobacco use.  Does that mean that both sides of the story are true?  Or are they both lying to us?  Most of the time, it’s much more nuanced than that.

For a variety of reasons, authors may omit information, tell us little white lies, or manipulate their research and data.  The reality is that nonfiction can be so challenging because it forces us to interact with the text in ways that fiction never expect us to do.  As Beers and Probst say, we must understand when reading nonfiction that “the author is not offering the truth, but one vision of the truth.”  Sometimes a nonfiction author will go so far as to explicitly tell us the inference they want us to make.  The author wants us to accept their version as the truth without questioning, but we must think about the purpose the author has for writing.

This brings us to the question, how do we really define nonfiction?  I love the definition that Beers and Probst put forth, and is much deeper than the definition I was given of “not fake”:

Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.

To me, the key word here is purports.  Every author has a purpose in their writing, and depending on that purpose they may lead us to conclusions that we wouldn’t generally make if we were in possession of all the facts.  This definition reminds us of the importance of reading with a questioning stance.

By seeking the author’s purpose while we are reading, we will be better able to look at nonfiction and understand why an author made the choices they did.  If you want to see a great example of an article that can be used to look at author’s purpose, take a look at “Vampires Prey on Panama” found on page 261 of Reading Nonfiction.  As you read the article, pay close attention to the words that are used to describe the farmer compared to the words that are used to describe the scientist.  Who’s the antagonist?  Who’s the hero?  Why does the author choose to write in this way?  If our students learn to have that questioning stance as they read nonfiction, they will be better at identifying the author’s purpose.

The nonfiction signposts will also help our students to get the author’s purpose.  During our PD with Beers and Probst last week, they identified 2 signposts in particular that help us better understand the author’s purpose.  I’ll share with you a little about each of those signposts next week.

In the past week it’s been great seeing so many of the teachers in our building working to integrate the 3 main questions that were the basis of my post last week.  So I’m curious, how do you define nonfiction for your students?  I’d also love to hear more about how you have been implementing the questions into subject areas other than reading, or what you’ve noticed about the thinking that your students are doing as a result of these questions.  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

How do we take them further?

Reading NonfictionOn Monday I was able to attend a PD session that was led by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, and one of the things they said early in our day struck a chord with me:

“Some teachers don’t realize that if they just stay out of the way, the kids who do well will keep doing well.  How do we take them further?”

This is such a challenge in our district.  Most of our classes are filled with compliant students who generally do what we ask them to do, they show gains in the normal way, and then they move on to the next grade.  But is that what we want for our students?  Show gains in the normal way?  Don’t we want them to gain spectacularly in the time we have them?  For most of these students, they will hit a wall sometime.  It might be a high school AP class, it might not be until college, and there may be some who can get by until they are out in the “real world” in their job/career.  But eventually their act of going through the motions won’t be enough because they won’t be able to truly think deeply and problem solve.

I think we can all agree that nonfiction reading skills are important.  But research shows us that strong nonfiction reading skills are one of the highest indicators of success.  Unless you’re a literary critic, a novelist, or a teacher (I know, we’re teachers), you probably only read fiction as an escape, but you read nonfiction every day.  That means our kids need the tools to be able to dig deep in the text, think through the text, and figure it out.

And here’s one of the amazing things – if you teach the kids the tools, and you give them the time to read a text, think deeply about it, and talk with each other, they will start asking themselves the same questions (or possibly even better questions) than the ones you would be asking.  During the PD, Probst said “Our goal should be to get our students to be able to have deep conversations about their reading without needing our help.”  Don’t you love the idea of students walking out of the building at the end of the day so tired because of all the deep thinking they have been doing, and you walk out with a smile on your face?  Our students should be doing the hard work, not us.

Too often as teachers we spend our time filling in the blanks for our students, and that is hard work!  We give them the background knowledge, we ask the questions, and then what do we get back?  Low level answers without much deep thinking.  When you ask the question, that leads our students to believe that there is one answer, and if they’re lucky they can find it in the back of the book – that’s how school works, and we all know our students can play school.  But if students were to ask those same questions, on their own, the conversations will be so much deeper.

Sound good?  I think so, but where do we start?  Beers and Probst suggested that the initial starting point would be with their 3 main questions:

  1. What surprised me?
  2. What did the author think I already knew?
  3. What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I knew?

As your students are reading, have them code what they read (this means you need something that they can write on, some post its, or a digital format that they can annotate).  Beers recommended using an exclamation point for question 1, a question mark for question 2, and the letter c for question 3.  Then, after they have read, have them talk in small groups about their thinking.

Next week I plan to go a little deeper with some more of the information that Beers and Probst shared on Monday, but as you get your year rolling, start with the 3 questions.  These 3 simple questions will make the reading more personal and relevant.  It will push thinking and learning to a much deeper level! (If you want to see a great video of where these questions can push students, scan the QR code on page 88 of your copy of Reading Nonfiction – it’s a 3 minute video clip of 6th graders in a 1:1 classroom).

If you haven’t yet read the book Reading Nonfiction by Beers and Probst, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  There is so much there to take your reading instruction to a greater level, and this instruction can take place in ALL classrooms.  We all use nonfiction reading skills in our lives, no matter what subject we teach, to help ourselves increase our knowledge and understanding.  Let’s help our students develop the skills to be more successful nonfiction readers.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.  Have you used the 3 questions in your nonfiction instruction?  What changed for your students?  What things were great?  What struggles did you have?  As a community of teachers, we are also a community of learners, and we can learn most from one another!

Reading as a way of learning

ReadingWhen posting on the blog this year, I have mentioned several books that I have read in connection to my topics.  A few of you have asked me questions along the lines of “how do you find time to read that much?”  The reality is that I, much like any of you, have a pretty busy schedule with lots of things to do.  If I wanted to, I could work all day on things in my office and never truly feel done, however if I did that, I would be stressed, overworked, and unhappy.  Outside of school I have responsibilities too; my family, my friends, and my own fitness and health.  With all of these things, it would be easy to say that I don’t have time to read, but I’m not willing to do that!  I love reading!

Reading is one of the things I really really love!
Reading is one of the things I really really love!

So, with all those responsibilities, how do I find the time to read as much as I do?  There are a couple of ways.  First is at the beginning of the day.  Most days I arrive here at school, log into my computer, and before doing anything else, I pick up a book and read for 10-15 minutes.  I try to make sure that reading is professional in nature.  If you expand that over the course of a school year, 10-15 minutes a school day turns into 30-45 hours of reading in a school yer!  Give me that much time and I can knock out a ton of books and learn so much!  In addition to those 10-15 minutes, I always have a book in iBooks that I am reading.  That means I have it on my phone and I can pick it up anytime – waiting at the shop for them to finish my oil change?  I could waste my time on Facebook or Twitter, or I could read some of my book.  I also try to take a little bit of time at the end of the day before bed to read.  It helps me wind down my day and clears up any stress I may have previously felt.  I know a lot of people love to get on their favorite social media site at the end of the day, but that just doesn’t do it for me.  I’m intentional in my practice of finding time to read.  I could watch a random basketball game, or another episode of whatever I’ve been watching on Netflix, and sometimes I do, but often I end up feeling like I’m wasting my time.

I'd love to have a room that looks like this!
I’d love to have a room that looks like this!

So then the question comes, how do you pick a new book?  I’m always looking for book ideas.  One book I am currently reading was mentioned during a conference I was at.  Another book I saw on a colleague’s bookshelf, and a third book I’m reading because I heard an awesome interview of the author on the radio.  I get book ideas from people I follow on Twitter, blog posts I read, conversations with friends and colleagues, or just going to Amazon and looking at the “Customers who bought this item also bought” for books that I might like.

Ultimately I see my reading as my own best form of PD.  While many of the books I read are not tied directly to education, I can often find connections in my reading.  Below I’m going to list a few of the books that I am currently reading, as well as some of the ones I have finished reading recently.  Maybe it will inspire you to pick up a new book over Thanksgiving Break, or add it to your wish list.  The books I read are things that I am interested in, but also things that I feel help me grow as an educator.  And they help me keep my sanity!

My current reading list:

  1. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  In his research, Kahneman has studied how the human brain works, and he breaks it down into 2 systems.  System 1 is our fast, intuitive, and emotional part of the brain, while system 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.  Most of us would believe that the slower more deliberate part of the brain rules most of our choices, but based on the research, System 1 is much more in control than we might realize.  Understanding the 2 systems and how they interact can help us be more intentional in our thought processes.
  2. Great by Choice by Jim Collins & Morten T. Hansen.  In this follow up to Good to Great and Built to Last, Collins looks at why some companies are able to thrive in times of chaos and uncertainty when others are not.  In the book Collins compares companies that find the way to be successful in difficult times with comparison companies were not able to be as successful (think Intel vs. AMD, or Microsoft vs. Apple, or Progressive vs. Safeco).  While there are no direct ties to education, some of his theories on success could be used in creating the mission or vision for our schools.
  3. The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.  This book combines 2 of my personal passions: Science and Cooking; and it has proven to me that you can truly “read” a cookbook.  This book is much more than just a cookbook.  Each chapter or section talks first about the science of cooking – a couple of nights ago I read about the pros and cons of brining a turkey, and have decided that I am going to try a dry brine for our bird this year – and then it gets into the recipe.  I love understanding the science behind the steps I am taking, and seeing new ways to achieve some of my family’s favorite recipes!

And now for some of my recent reads (I included some fiction too, because sometimes you just have to read for fun!):

  1. Ditch that Textbook by Matt Miller
  2. Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess
  3. David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
  4. Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton
  5. Gray Mountain by John Grisham
  6. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
  7. King and Maxwell by David Baldacci
  8. Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly
  9. A Song of Ice and Fire (series) by George R. R. Martin

I’m curious!  What books are you reading?  What have you read?  What are you learning about from your reading?  Share in the comments below so that others can add your ideas to their reading list!