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The Common Core: Showing Nonfiction the Love

by Kathleen Krull
October 6, 2011
I first heard about the Common Core State Standards at the North Carolina Reading Association conference. Then an editor said that it behooved me, as a nonfiction writer, to pay attention. Ever since, I’ve been trying to grasp them.

As you probably know, the Common Core Standards are a rigorous set of skills for grades K-12 in language arts and math, with additional subject areas possibly to come. Instead of a state-by-state hodgepodge of standards, the CC unifies all students—”no matter where they live”—to prepare them “for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.” It’s fascinating stuff; a fifth-grade unit on Exploration: Real and Imagined, for example, looked like a lot of fun. And CC puts a much firmer focus on nonfiction than we’ve ever had before.

But I’m far from expert in this area, so I have questions, big and small—and I’m guessing you do, too.

One thing I’m not going to question is the Common Core’s whole new emphasis on using nonfiction trade books, with literary nonfiction to include essays, speeches, opinion pieces, biographies, journalism, historical and scientific documents.

Get this: By the fourth grade, according to the Common Core, students should be reading equal amounts from “literary” and “informational” texts. In the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational. And by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70.

This is huge news for advocates of more nonfiction in the classroom, and much more realistic about what kids will encounter in real life. Previous fiction/nonfiction splits were vague. According to the IRA/NCTE English Language Arts Standards, “Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts.... Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.” The generally accepted ratio was 80% literature and 20% informational texts. I would bet, though, that in reality, the ratio has been even less.

As Marc Aronson, prominent nonfiction author and blogger at School Library Journal’s Nonfiction Matters puts it, “The slant of the children’s book reviewing and library world is towards fiction.” Or as I would put it, nonfiction doesn’t get enough love. Even educational consultant Donna Knoell, a passionate advocate for nonfiction, titled her October 5 SLJ webinar Nonfiction Can Be Fun. Fun Can Be Informative, having to do a hard sell: “Who says nonfiction has to be boring?”

Too many are unaware of or uninterested in the wealth of interesting nonfiction texts that read like literature. According to Marc, “Many language arts teachers don't have an emotional connection to nonfiction as pleasure reading. They associate NF with textbooks, a passive absorption of facts, and their only criteria is factual accuracy. They need to seek out librarians, who actually have the experience with exciting, inquiry-based NF trade books.”

For his Washington Post column, Jay Mathews wrote a helpful piece called “Help pick non-fiction for schools.” In it, he laments the fiction bias of high school teachers, with just two NF titles showing up much (A CHILD CALLED ‘IT,’ by Dave Pelzer, NIGHT by Elie Wiesel). Mathews points out that nonfiction requires skills students don’t have, creating a vicious cycle: “Students don’t know enough about the real world because they don’t read non-fiction and they can’t read non-fiction because they don’t know enough about the real world.” But scroll down to the comments for tons of excellent NF recommendations.

[Need more recommendations? A kingdom of nonfiction authors awaits you at Interesting Nonfiction for Kids, and there are many other outstanding authors who may have too many deadlines to be blogging.]

Over at Nonfiction Matters, a search for “Common Core” will unveil considerable wisdom, from three experts in particular. The way to develop skill with nonfiction? According to Marc Aronson, it’s for “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.”

According to Mary Ann Cappiello, professor at Lesley University and part of the team that created state standards in Massachusetts: “The implications for the new balance between nonfiction and literature is a paradigm shift that many schools have yet to face.... 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.”

Myra Zarnowski, Queens College professor and author of an excellent and most relevant book, HISTORY MAKERS: A QUESTIONING APPROACH TO READING & WRITING BIOGRAPHIES (Heinemann), points out, “It seems that the CC standards are calling for what many of us have known (and practiced) for many years: In depth learning with authentic materials promotes learning and develops interest in further learning....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?”

Marc, Mary Ann, and Myra are making it their business to help. With a series of YouTube videos about current nonfiction books, they will be trying to bridge that gap between language arts teachers and librarians. The videos are being filmed and edited right this minute, and will be announced on a new blog, The Uncommon Corps, which will be seeking as many comments from teachers as possible.

Just as I seek comments now: What are your thoughts on informational texts and the Common Core? What things have I got right? What did I get wrong?

Kathleen Krull and is the winner of the 2011 Children's Book Guild Nonfiction Award for her body of work. Her many nonfiction books include the "Lives of" series (Harcourt). You can find more about her and her books on her website, www.kathleenkrull.com.

© 2012 Kathleen Krull. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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