Chapter 3: Finding The Balance: Pairing NonFiction and Realistic Fiction
I have always felt that teaching young children to write content rich informative pieces is hard work—hard work for the students and hard work for the teacher.
As a veteran teacher who has solved daily classroom challenges for almost three decades, I often grapple with the many nuances of teaching nonfiction writing. Children are naturally curious and wonder about the world they live in. They ask questions: Why are the hamster’s teeth so long? What makes a rainbow? Can a tornado pick up the school? It is my task as a writing teacher to tap into this sense of wonder and support children’s efforts to communicate what they discover through nonfiction writing experiences.
Children are naturally curious and wonder about the world they live in. They ask questions: Why are the hamster’s teeth so long? What makes a rainbow? Can a tornado pick up the school? It is my task as a writing teacher to tap into this sense of wonder and support children’s efforts to communicate what they discover through nonfiction writing experiences.
Over the course of my career, I have seen many shifts and pendulum swings in education that have affected the way I think about this task, however. I entered the teaching profession at the height of the Whole Language pedagogy. As time passed, my knowledge and expertise grew as I learned more about Vygotsky’s theory of learning and how to apply the theory to my practice. I supported my emerging readers and writers in order to shift their learning. I raised my expectations for what they could do independently and what they could accomplish with support. In subsequent years, state and national standards were introduced, revised, and tested. But in spite of all of these changes, my work with the students in my room has always been based on observation and reflection – what they can do and what they need to learn next.
In the early years of my career, I taught curriculum and planned lessons drawn from high-quality children’s literature. I began with a web and planned thematic units that were activity based. We made the little red hen’s bread, painted large colorful pictures of the mouse, the dog, and the cat, and compared versions of the story examining illustrations, refrains, settings and characters. These units always began with a pile of books, both fiction and nonfiction, on a specific topic or theme. Typical themes included folk and fairy tales, insects, journeys, bedtime, and magic. I culled the shelves at the public library pulling up to 50 books or more to use for my planning. I selected the best books to read aloud, and introduced other titles for children to browse. I reveled in the beauty of these books, the language and the visual images. I learned about authors, illustrators, the power of the language, and the author’s message. I immersed children in these books as we worked our way through the thematic study. I integrated various curricula within each theme – math, science, social studies; and, of course, I provided many opportunities for reading, writing, talking, thinking, and sharing. We graphed responses to child-generated questions (How many teeth have you lost?), sketched and recorded science observations (What has changed in the incubator?), and read and reread our favorite titles. Children wrote stories in blank wallpaper books, created paintings and diagrams, and compared similar books on large colorful sheets of mural paper, all based on favorite read alouds. The learning was joyful and messy, no high stakes attached.