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From the Classroom: Nonfiction Reading and Research with Choice

Lauren Heimlich Foley

8th Grade English

While I prepared for our nonfiction and research unit, I wrestled with how to balance choice and a required text. Students must read at least one long nonfiction piece by the end of eighth grade. We have four nonfiction titles on our curriculum: Tuesdays with Morrie, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, Phineas Gage, and To Be a Slave. Possibilities emerged: a whole class reading of one text or book clubs grouped by each title. Or, book club options selected by my students, me, or a combination of both? Did I want to launch independent nonfiction reading books?

In the end, I offered these titles but also invited students to choose any nonfiction or narrative nonfiction book. I enlisted the help of our librarian to collect books that met the requirements in our school library, and students browsed at our community library, local bookstores, and Amazon. Sending home a letter to parents and guardians helped students obtain books outside of school.

Students’ nonfiction independent reading book selections revealed a wide range of interests: a variety of historical time periods, true adventures, biographies, autobiographies, self-help books, and current social issues. While most students chose different books, one group of eighth graders decided to read Undefeated and two other groups read I Will Always Write Back as book clubs. Ultimately, choice created engaged students and supported differentiation. The majority of students selected narrative nonfiction texts.

For the first week of the unit, we increased our regular ten to fifteen minutes of daily reading time to twenty to twenty-five minutes. While students read, I conferenced with them as usual, but our discussions focused on the new genre, the facts they were learning, and how authors developed true narratives. By the end of the week, I had spoken with every student at least once. During our whole- class mini-lessons, we further explored craft moves, style, voice, presentation, and messages. Students noticed how their authors implemented a variety of modes to share their content: letters, journal entries, pictures, emails, poetry, crime reports, medical files, text messages, a combination of narrative and informational writing, etc. As students shared exemplar texts, I posted their findings on our learning management system (Canvas) for everyone to see. Students’ independent reading books would later become our mentor texts.

To foster the reading-writing-research connection, I combined our nonfiction genre study with our research study. During the second week, we resumed our ten to fifteen minutes of reading as students brainstormed what they wanted to research and what information they wanted to share. To help guide them, I suggested that their research might relate to their future, a current interest, our community, or their personal life. As with most of the authors and texts they were reading, I wanted students to feel connected to their topics in a way that would ultimately help them to create meaningful and original final products. Additional mini-lessons during the writing process guided students to narrow their topics, select reliable sources, compile notes in a way that worked for them, complete a works cited, include MLA in-text citations or end notes, and present information in an authentic manner.

The final products ranged from historical fiction, narrative nonfiction, biographies, graphic novels, comics, sci-fi stories, newspapers, crime reports, magazine articles, scholarly journal articles, web pages, and multi genre pieces. Offering these options helped students and supported them in making decisions beyond text. They considered where their writing might be published, who might read their work, and who they wanted to reach. Their focus on content and mode created a wonderful symbiotic relationship. By fostering creative thinking that occurred outside of the typical research assignment box, students bought into the writing process and were motivated to complete their research and final pieces.

This assignment also prompted me to reflect on my teaching practice. Originally, I imagined students writing narrative nonfiction pieces to align with their books. However, as I listened to my students’ ideas, I had to rethink my initial plan. Joe wanted to write historical fiction that explored the origins of Halloween. CJ hoped to write a sci-fi story about dark matter. Sara voiced her interest in writing letters from a mom to her future daughter during the mom’s pregnancy. Dara, inspired by her grandma’s immigration story, wanted to transcribe an interview and create a magazine article. And, Luke wanted to develop a book chapter on space and time. More and more creative ideas poured in as students became closer to selecting their final genre, and I began to realize that I was limiting and stunting my students’ potential by choosing the genre for them. When I reflected on the purpose of the assignment, I realized that I wanted students to take part in the research process. I wanted them to understand how messy research can be and should be. I wanted them to question their sources and determine what specific information they needed and wanted to share with an audience. I also wanted them to think about how technology could help them as readers, writers, and learners.  Finally, I wanted to help my iGen students explore PowerPoint, Canva, and We Video and learn more about Word: how to change the page orientation, add columns, switch the text wrap on pictures, add background color, etc. The genre did not make or break the standards or curriculum. Students would meet the requirements whether they wrote in a genre of their choice or mine—but this choice made the difference in their work ethic and overall products.

Finally, I asked my students about the length of this unit since it was my first time implementing it. Based on their feedback and my own observations, I extended the writing portion and final submission date to accommodate their needs. Being flexible helped to support their process and quality of work.

I am excited to see how this reading and writing genre study will impact their future choices. Since finishing their narrative nonfiction books, six students have selected another narrative nonfiction book to read and many students are interested in conducting research for their Self-Selected Writing (SSW) Pieces. Two students are even continuing their research and writing as their next SSW.

From the Classroom: Sustaining Independent Reading Throughout the School Year


Colleague, Rita DiCarne recently posted the above image on her Facebook feed. While my students are already familiar with these stats as well as many of the other researched benefits of reading daily, they still tend to hit a lull in their reading motivations at about this time of year. This is why, when I saw Rita’s post, I took the opportunity to copy the infograph and invited my students to tape them into their reading notebooks and write in reflection. Reminders like the one above, when combined with continuous opportunities to explore and discuss new books, help us sustain that energy for daily reading in and out of our classrooms.

Reading reflection prompts: Throughout the year I invite students to pause and think not just about what they are reading, but why they are reading. Some of the prompts below have lead to thoughtful reflection and meaningful conversations:

  • Teacher and writer Kelly Gallagher said, “Reading books helps us to enter the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others. We temporarily leave our world for theirs, and when we return, we hope our thinking will be expanded and strengthened. We hope to be enlarged intellectually and/or emotionally.” How has your reading expanded and strengthened your thinking? How have you been enlarged intellectually and/or emotionally by what you’ve been reading?reading trends over time.JPG
  • Study the infograph on Children who read for fun every day. What do you learn about reading habits as children age? Why do you think this happens? How can we fight against these stats?
  • “‘Fiction is a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world…based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures,,” cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley is quoted as saying. Literary fiction, in other words, works like a flight simulator, only it trains you to avoid crashing and burning as a human rather than as a pilot.” With this in mind, what training have you gained from your fiction reading so far this year? (Source: New Study: Reading Fiction Really Will Make You Nicer and More Empathetic)
  • After listening to an interview with Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, reflect on the comparison they make – “these books are used as fantasy, these books are used as ways that kids can make road maps for their own lives, and if we don’t give them proper road maps, where are they going to end up?” Create a visual of the ways your reading this year has created a road map for you.

Book Flood Activities: I combine these moments of reflection with numerous opportunities to look at and discuss new books throughout the course of the school year. I have discovered it is not enough to merely surround students with lots of varied and engaging reading materials. You have to also give them lots of opportunities to engage with these materials. Below is a brief list of some of the ways I actively immerse students in wading through the classroom book flood:

  • Judge a book by its cover – I enlarge several book covers and give students time to walk around the room and evaluate the books based just on their covers. As you can see from the pictures, many students express a desire to actually read the books based on their assumptions. I keep these covers on display for several weeks so students have visual reminders of books they want to read.


  • Judge a book by its first page – I photocopy the first page of several books and invite students to react to how these books begin. They do not get to see the covers or know the titles or authors until after they have made their judgements. Therefore, their assumptions are based solely on the writing. For each of the first pages pictured below, I had students listen to the audiobook versions, so they were also judging by the voice narration as well.


  • Book displays – I use every surface of my classroom to display books and I regularly change displays based on student interest, reading assignment or activities, new book arrivals, etc. I do this to keep the displays fresh, but also because the books on display do not last long. I also have a rotating display of student recommended reads. I throw a few points towards students for crafting a short write-up and adding to the display. Again, books are rotated in and out of this display, but I keep a running list of all the titles that have been recommended below it.


  • Make my reading visible – Not only do I regularly read and discuss books with my students, but I also keep a running visual of the reading I’m currently doing, the reading I’ve done, and welcome suggestions for the reading I should do next. IMG_20200220_150132.jpg
  • Make their reading visible – we begin all of our class reading time with a reading minute. Borrowed from Kelly Gallagher, students lead these reading minutes by briefly telling us the title of a book they’re reading and describing it in one sentence. Then they read for a minute. No more, no less.

An integral part of each of these book flood activities is I always invite students to take the time to add any interesting titles to their running to-read lists in their reader notebooks. The key to sustaining an independent reading habit is to maintain a healthy list of backup and next reads.

How do you fight the mid-year lull in independent reading motivation? What activities spark your students to want to keep picking up book after book?

Bulletin Board Battles and Black History Month

by Renee Jacobs

Happy Black History Month! Although we know that good practice is to teach accurate history every day of the academic year, Black History Month is a wonderful time of year to highlight the contributions that Black people have given to the United States and the world. This year, during your school’s preparation, I would advise you to gauge the degree of crazy behavior or avoidance that could ensue.

Every year as February approaches, I see very caring teachers become crazy with trying to get Black history month bulletin boards up in the school. In some cases, the precision and focus involved with making sure things are colored, cut, and mini-lessoned is unmatched. Sadly, we feel accomplished, but the level of understanding that the students have about the importance of such contributions as the pacemaker (invented by Otis Boykin) is dependent upon if the students paid attention during the thirty second speech on the morning announcements or if they noticed the facts on those strategically placed bulletin boards. We don’t teach any other aspects of history with such disregard. I would like to recommend that you take some time to think through your presentation of our shared history because there is actually no Black history, only history. However, our curriculums don’t reflect this fact so we need to continue celebrating the month for now so our students can see and celebrate heroes of every race.

There are also schools that are so uncomfortable with discussions about race that they choose to avoid any story related to Black History that isn’t sweet or does not have an ending that ties a pretty bow on the way we “should” remember the past. It’s predictable that the same story of Dr. King’s dream, Harriet Tubman’s railroad trip, and Rosa Park’s seat will be on repeat in classrooms all over the country throughout the month of February. Many versions of these stories lack depth and in many cases are not shared accurately at all so that the teacher and our organizations can remain comfortable. Another form of avoidance is the “family heritage” approach. In these schools, teachers assign all students a project that requires them to research their family heritage in celebration of “Heritage Month” or “International Food Day”. This way, we can say that we looked at Black history as we looked at the family history of all our students. 

In case no one else told you, I will be your Black teacher friend that is going to tell you a bit of truth that will improve relationships and the authenticity of your practice. Crazy last-minute bulletin board frenzies and avoidance are not respectful. Your Black families are often inferring their significance to your school community based on many interactions, and this is one of them. This opportunity is important to connect with families. We need to approach Black History using professional reflection and excellence. For example, do educators ever discuss with students the fact that Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony lived during the same time period? Black history is American history; it must be intentionally integrated. If teachers understood the importance of taking the time to find meaningful resources to engage students in rich conversations about the contributions of Black people throughout the year and also highlight this learning during the month of February with students and families in mind rather than remaining in the personal comfort of the repeating last year’s lesson, it would be so impactful. Our relationships can be strengthened by the amount of effort that we put into community building work such as respectfully and authentically celebrating people. This will be a process, but in the meantime try to remember… it’s not about the bulletin board.

Professional Learning: What Makes it Sticky and Sustainable? By Janice Ewing

            Here’s something to try: divide a page in your notebook in half. Write the term “professional development” in one column or section and “professional learning” in the other. Then, draw a quick sketch or jot down some words or phrases that you associate with each term. Look at your responses; are they the same, different, or is there overlap? There’s no right answer, of course. Reflect on your responses in each column and overall. You might ask yourself:

            Are your associations more positive or negative?

            Are people seated a particular way?

            Who is speaking?

            Is it a one-time event?

            What else do you notice; does anything surprise you or suggest a pattern?

            Of course, what’s important is the quality and relevance of the experience, not how it’s categorized, but I find the terms to have different connotations. To me, “development,” similar to “training,” suggests a more passive stance. I envision a pre-determined set of skills or capacities that an educator is meant to acquire, usually in a specific sequence of steps.  On the other hand, “professional learning,” to me, suggests a more active, agentive experience, in which the educator brings his or her needs, interests, and background knowledge and incorporates new perspectives and insight. Again, it’s not about the name – you may have participated in ‘professional development” initiatives that were extremely valuable, and events labeled “professional learning” that did not fit that description.

            So, moving beyond the terminology, what do educators need to facilitate learning and growth? There’s clearly no one answer, and maybe that’s the point. I think that the best professional learning reflects and respects the needs of the adult learner.  As educators, we live in a state of change. The needs of our students, our relationships with colleagues, parents, administrators, and countless other groups shift, sometimes gradually and sometimes minute by minute. That’s the nature of our work. In spite of that, and also because of that, there are constants. We need authentic, realistic experiences that we can integrate into our already overstuffed lives. We want to engage in professional learning that we can build upon and will not disappear as quickly as the donuts are packed up

             Think about what professional development or professional learning looks like for you. Here’s another set of questions for reflection:

            Do you attend conferences? If so, do you have a choice as to which conferences and which sessions to attend?

            After attending a conference, how do you hold on to your new learning or thinking? How do you share it and/or integrate it into your practice?

            What professional learning experiences does your school or district offer or require?

            How aligned are these programs or events to the needs of your students as well as your needs and professional interests or questions? What happens after the program? Is there follow-up coaching or opportunities for collegial problem-solving? Do you have the materials and supports you need to implement whatever was presented?

             If it is a new requirement, has something been removed from your plate, or does this feel like one more obligation? Do you know and believe in why you are doing this?

            What types of professional learning do you and/or your colleagues

 organize or initiate?

            Is it face-to-face, digital, or a combination?

            How did you get started?

            If it didn’t last, why do you think that was (maybe it was meant to be short-term?)?

            If it lasted and/or is still ongoing, what conditions allowed for that to happen?

            Do you engage in action research? How does that enrich your experience as a teacher and a learner? How does it help your students?

            Professional learning is the fuel that we need to grow and flourish as educators, at all stages of our careers. I invite you to reflect once again, and share your thinking in the comments.

            What are the conditions that make it stick, so it’s not just a one-time event that may or may not have been enjoyable?

             What are the conditions that make it sustainable, so teachers don’t jump in with enthusiasm or a sense of obligation, but burn out before long?

             If your professional learning opportunities have not been sticky and sustainable, what might you do? Are there colleagues you can connect with? Professional organizations to get involved with? Action research projects to embark on?

            What are your next steps on your professional learning journey?

Janice Ewing is an adjunct instructor in the Reading Specialist Program at Cabrini University and a member of the Advisory Board of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. She is a long-term member of ILA, KSLA, NCTE and a new member of CEL. She and her colleague, Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).