Friday, May 31, 2013

International Reading Association 2013: nonfiction lives!

That “lives” could be a verb or a noun; we discussed both.

Me, two other cowboys, and two fine cowgirls (AKA Brian Floca, Chris Barton, Meghan McCarthy, and Shana Corey) moseyed on down old San Antonio way for IRA, where we did a panel called “‘But Kids Haven’t Heard of That!’: Why Teaching Unconventional Nonfiction Is Important.”

Moderated by the tireless Susannah Richards, Associate Professor of Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, each of the five authors did a fifteen-minute presentation, then collectively took questions from Susannah and the audience. (Duration of session: 2 hours, 45 minutes. You read that right.)

I was as much an avid audience member as a participant. Adding to my excitement was the fact that I’d proposed the panel—twice actually (it was rejected for 2012)—stocking it with four of my favorite nonfiction picture book writers, not to mention friends.

 Brian Floca, Meghan McCarthy, me, Shana Corey, Chris Barton

Here is feedback on the proposal from IRA decision-makers:

  • The panel of authors should draw a big audience.
  • Appropriate subject matter for this symposia. The panelists are authors and have significant information to share with the audience.
  • This proposal presents a clear evidence base and also is convincing and motivating. The content was detailed and gives a clear idea of what will transpire in the session. The objectives align with the content. This is an excellent proposal.

Here is feedback on the panel from an attendee:

I attended a panel meeting of nonfiction authors. One author in particular, Marc Tyler Nobleman, stuck out to me. … Mr. Nobleman’s book [Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman] is a must read. [He] is an excellent storyteller; it’s just, he’s not telling you a story—he’s telling you facts. I have never seen nonfiction this cool and interesting before now.

Panel’s-eye views:

After, as we unwound at the River Walk, another author ally, Erica Perl, joined us. I, however, was the only one who wanted homemade ice cream.

For diehards and readhards, here is the meat of the proposal:

Educational Significance

For some students, nonfiction has a stigma: boring. This is perplexing: why would a true story inherently be less intriguing than something made up? In years past, nonfiction was often written in a dry manner. In addition, there was less risk in subject matter and style.

Today, however, the authors writing nonfiction for young people recognize the dual responsibility they have. First, they must continue to present accurate (and, when possible, new) information. And now, they must do so in an engaging fashion. The marked shift from “textbook” to narrative nonfiction is a considerable benefit for young readers.

In exercising creative freedom with respect to tone, chronology, perspective, and subject matter, contemporary nonfiction writers are boosting the excitement of teachers and kids alike. Such fresh material lures reluctant readers and further stimulates active readers.

We’ve seen an increase in nonfiction picture books described as a “first of its kind.” We’ve seen an increase in picture books subjects that have never been the focus of even a book for adults (The Day-Glo Brothers, Strong Man, Surfer of the Century, Boys of Steel). We’ve seen a rise in the level of sophistication of—and the amount of pages devoted to – back matter. The reason: there is an audience and an educational missive to support it.

Yet with library budgets in crisis, it can be difficult to get unconventional nonfiction into schools—and with test preparation time increasing, educators may struggle to make time to introduce it. In our increasingly blended world, however, it is critical to re-emphasize a diversity of subject matter. (No slight to Benjamin Franklin, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, or the Obamas’ dog, each of whom has starred in multiple picture books.)

This panel may include but is not solely about multicultural subjects. Rather it focuses more broadly on subjects generally not taught in curriculum.

2012 IRA attendee feedback:

  • Very appropriate subject matter! Nonfiction needs to be addressed, especially with Common Core being the focus!
  • Informational text deserves greater attention, especially unconventional informational text. The panel format will be appealing to the audience. The panelists have valuable information to share. The topic is grounded in literature that is relevant and substantial. I believe this session will be of interest to a broad cross-section of IRA members.

Evidence Base

Forty-five states have adopted the Common Core Standards.

Publishers Weekly (7/18/12): “By the 2014-15 academic year, the initiative calls for 50% informational text (including…nonfiction trade books) in elementary school and 70% in high school-on average, across all curricula. … [A]ccording to the Core: dull-looking nonfiction is out. … ‘Visual elements are particularly important in texts for the youngest students and in many informational texts for readers of all ages.’”

New York Times (3/11/12): “Children in New York City who learned to read using an experimental curriculum that emphasized nonfiction texts outperformed those at other schools.”

School Library Journal (4/1/12): “‘The advent of Common Core presents school librarians with both a great opportunity and a great challenge,’ says kids’ book editor and author Marc Aronson. ‘The emphasis on nonfiction from elementary school on puts them front and center, since few current homeroom teachers know nonfiction in their grades as read-alouds, as pleasure reads, or as opportunities to compare different narrative approaches.”

Horn Book (March-April 2011): Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti writes that in her teaching experience, fiction-reading kids would hold up a favorite book and ask for another like it. But nonfiction readers “wanted to read [books] about things they didn’t already know.”

Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, stated that an unconventional nonfiction “panel is a super idea and one that will draw a top audience.”

Increasingly, picture book nonfiction includes an author’s note about the author’s research process—a process that every student must learn in English class. And the best of these authors’ notes read like detective novels.

Sites such as promote picture books in the classroom—even in middle and high school. Neither “short” nor “illustrated” automatically makes a book only for young people.

Reading nonfiction capitalizes on existing interests and generates motivation. Reading unconventional nonfiction challenges perspectives and brings fuller, often cross-disciplinary understanding to any historical period.

Reading nonfiction helps to build schema and vocabulary knowledge. Reading
unconventional nonfiction empowers students to experiment with topics they may not presume to like or understand, and often enlightens them when they can make a connection between that material and curriculum.

- end of proposal excerpt -

Oh, and circling back to the cowboy theme: the last morning, I was almost trampled by a stampede…of teachers and librarians…headed to a booth for a free bag featuring Superman on one side and (for them) the bigger draw, Wonder Woman, on the other.

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