Chapter 3: Finding The Balance: Pairing NonFiction and Realistic Fiction
With the introduction of state and national standards, my planning changed. I studied these new directives detailing what children should know and be able to do and agonized about how to combine these discrete items of knowledge into meaningful, connected learning. I began that process by sitting at my dining room table and cutting the documents apart in order to group the standards in a way that would make sense for my students. Using scotch tape and large pieces of constructions paper, I continued to plan themes but now thought of them more as units of study—and not just a group of engaging activities. I slowly gave up the cooking experiences, the large messy art projects, and the student-designed puppet shows. I was too busy to grieve the loss of these experiences for my students; I was determined to plan and implement even better, more meaningful units of study. I often worked with colleagues, pushing ourselves to think more critically about the learning that would take place in our classrooms and how we would document it.
Years later, I was introduced to Project Based Learning (PBL), drawn from the constructivist theory that students are more highly engaged and gain a deeper understanding when working with and using ideas, and collaborating with others. Students are asked to solve real-world problems that they have ownership of and that call for them to do the real work of scientists, mathematicians and writers. With this new planning process in mind, I once again sat at my dining room table but this time with a blank calendar, my laptop and the revised standards. Instead of scissors and scotch tape, I used the electronic tools on my desktop. Still a messy process, I planned a sequence of lessons which included hands-on experiments, field trips, speakers, real materials, mini-lessons, final projects, rubrics, and assessments. I posed questions that gave my students a meaningful reason to dig deep, work collaboratively, and design their own questions. Again, I collaborated with colleagues, both those in my building and those made through professional learning experiences. I consulted the books of my published mentors including Tony Stead, Katie Wood Ray, and Samantha Bennett. And I collected books, lots and lots of books.
As I tackled this new way to plan, I framed each project with a meaningful problem to solve that offered the appropriate level of challenge for my second graders. It was the kind of problem that I hoped would provide for the sustained inquiry of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information. I included student choice and an end product that could be shared with others. Once again, fiction and nonfiction books remained at the heart of this process. I upped the ante, though. I included more nonfiction texts in my planning and more opportunities for children to engage with nonfiction content as readers and writers. In addition, my Project Based Learning units were now designed around nonfiction topics. Instead of a bedtime unit, we studied the earth, moon, and sun. Instead of a folk and fairy tale unit, we studied how others lived, worked, and learned in places different than our own. Gone were the units full of experience-based activities, and book extensions. But in their place, I added more meaningful, connected, and information-based studies that supported children’s learning of language arts, science, and social studies standards.