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.