Incorporating Non-Fictional Texts into the Classroom

By Jennifer Lortie (PED 3177 C: Wednesday, 8AM-12PM)

"It's so easy to get excited about a twisting plot line or an intriguing antagonist that infuriates and riles the hero. It's not so easy for most of us to be just as enthusiastic about an article on coal mines... It doesn't feel quite the same to hug a book of essays as it does a picture book. Have we somehow transmitted these feelings of less-than-equal love for non-fiction to our students?"
- Thomasina Mann, "A Love Affair with Non-Fiction"[1]

Introduction

Ontario's Ministry of Education highlights the importance of incorporating a variety of texts into the English classroom. This appears in all language curriculum documents (Grades 1-12)[2] . This poses a challenge for teachers who are more interested in engaging their students with fictional texts and who have trouble incorporating non-fictional texts into the classroom. Teachers sometimes feel that students are more likely to think creatively and critically if facts are not "laid out" in front of them. This does not have to be the case if unit and lesson plans are designed appropriately. Reading and producing non-fictional texts are important skills for students to acquire, considering they apply directly to post-secondary education and to the workplace. Let's face it, unless most students in your class plan to pursue a career in fiction-writing, working with non-fictional texts may be a more practical experience for your students. That being said, recent studies show that students do in fact enjoy working with fictional texts more than non-fictional texts.[3] Surprisingly, they feel the characters in fiction are easier to relate to and more interesting than the characters in non-fictional texts. It is our responsibility as teachers to increase levels of interest and engagement with non-fiction in order for our students to develop strong and diverse literacy skills.

What is the best way to approach non-fiction when teaching English at the Intermediate or Senior levels? It is difficult to say, but since there is a good chance that non-fiction has been presented negatively by past teachers, as a sort of "chore" that needed to be covered, I would suggest to incorporate elements of non-fiction into the classroom throughout the year. In other words, creating a unit entitled "Non-Fiction" and covering all aspects of non-fiction within a single unit may not be the best way to go. Instead, create units based on topics that are not directly related to the English classroom (political, historical, or global topics, for example) and have students approach these topics through the use of non-fictional texts and fictional texts alike. This way, students will not get bored and will be required to approach topics in different ways, using different parts of their brains, throughout the term.

"Creative" Non-Fiction

external image BookStack.jpg One of the many myths associated with non-fiction is that it is not creative in how it communicates ideas and/or information. By considering how we interact with various texts in every day life, it is made clear that there are elements of creativity embedded within non-fictional texts. They may just be more difficult to recognize than the creative elements of a fictional novel or poem. *
H.F. Dowling, Jr. discusses in "Teaching 'Creative' Non-Fiction Writing" four elements of creativity that reading and producing non-fictional texts provides.[4] These elements should also be applied when creating lesson plans and discussion questions surrounding a non-fictional text. Non-fiction teaches students to:
- 1. develop their perception of reality and form opinions- 2. open their minds to the possibilities of literature- 3. develop critical thinking skills- 4. be imaginative in their approach to new concepts and discoveries*
All four of these points clearly require creativity and demonstrate that non-fictional texts are important tools in the development of the minds of today's children and adolescents.

Etymology


The term "non-fiction" is problematic in some ways because in its hyphenated form it often refers to anything "other than fiction." This often infers that it is "non-creative" or "non-literary," which is certainly not the case as discussed above. According to Robert L. Root, "definitions of nonfiction are on the one end so staggeringly encompassing as to give a potential practitioner no sense of practical proportion and on the other and so idiosyncratically circumscribed as to give only a limited group of practitioners the possibility of generating its texts."[5] For the purpose of this assignment, although it is problematic, I will use the hyphenated form, "non-fiction".


Lesson Plans

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As previously mentioned, non-fiction can be incorporated into many different types of larger unit plans. The Media Studies strand of the English curriculum opens doors for integrating non-fictional texts, as many forms of media are also non-fiction. It is important to mention that at the intermediate and senior levels, students should already know the difference between fiction and non-fiction so lesson plans should probably not be focused on distinguishing between the two. It may be helpful to avoid using the term "non-fiction" all together, or at least when introducing a text, so students are not immediately turned off. When a particular text is "iffy" as to what category it falls into, it is often interesting and insightful to incorporate this into discussion.* Overall, when designing lesson plans, it is important to cater to students' interest. The quote at the top of this Wikipage refers to the disinterest students may have in reading about "coal mines." Try to choose texts and writing assignments that are particularly of interest to the students' day-to-day lives, or if not, make them as relate-able as you can. I have provided sample lesson plans below for four main types of non-fiction. Although there are infinite types of documents that fall into the category of non-fiction, I will focus on: autobiography/biography, letters/emails, journals/blogs, and informative texts.

Autobiography/Biography


Asking students to write autobiographies may serve as a great "getting-to-know-you" exercise for the first week of class. However, be sure to create specific topics. For example, asking students to write about how their family values influence their day to day life may be a more interesting assignment than asking students to simply describe their family. Try to have students communicate feelings, as opposed to facts, in their autobiographies whenever possible.
* Biographies are also great research assignments and provide opportunities to incorporate political and global issues into the English classroom.Autobiography/Biography - Sample Lesson Plans
"Write a Biography"
Grade: 7-10
Length: 3 Class Periods
Materials Needed: Computers with internet access, hand-out
Description: Ask students to pick an influential figure in history. Have them research facts about the person's life and write a short essay describing how they have influenced society. Make sure they include factual historical data and teach them about finding academic resources online. Use this as a guideline as to what information should be included.
Extension[6] : Ask students to create a "talk-show" where their historical figure is features as a guest. Have students pick a partner to read/present the interview with them.* "Graphic Timeline" Grade: 7-8Length: 3 Class PeriodsMaterials Needed: Long sheets of paper, Markers, Magazines, Photos, Pictures from home.Description: Have students create a timeline of their lives using photos from magazines and from home, and captions under each photo. Use examples of other timelines to demonstrate how a timeline works. Tell students that they do not need exact dates for all their entries, just for them to be in order.* "Write an Autobiography" Grade: 9-12Length: Homework assignment, 20-30 minutes to introduceMaterials Needed: Hand-out, including RubricDescription: Write five questions which relate to the assignment on the board or display them on a projector (ex. Where do you see yourself in 10 years? How has your past influenced the person you are today?). Ask students to respond to these prompts in their notebooks. Ask them to share their answers with a partner. Discuss some answers with the entire class. Introduce that they are going to be writing an autobiography and these are the sorts of questions they should consider when they write. Distribute hand-out and rubric.Extension: Life Map, Peer-Editing* Suggested Autobiographies/Biographies

Some autobiographical/biographical works that you may want to bring to your classroom or suggest to your students include:
external image 400000000000000045362_s4.jpg *- Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America by Michelle Kennedy- Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Afterlife of the Notorious B. I. G. by Cheo Hodari Coker- Devil in the Details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig- Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer* Try to steer clear of Go Ask Alice, even though it is commonly used in the Intermediate/Senior English program, as it has been said to create an interest in drug-use amongst youth.

Letters/Emails


Communicating through letters and emails can be challenging for students, especially if they are required to be professional in their approach. Always remind students to consider their audience and how they would like to be perceived by their audience through their writing. Instant messaging and communicating on Facebook or other social networking sites is much different than writing an email. Letter- and email- writing is an important skill for students to master, as it is something they will be required to do when entering the workplace. For a "warm-up" assignment, you could ask students to describe how they would convey a particular message (a feeling of loss, excitement, or any given situation) to different audiences through different media (in an instant message, on Facebook, in-person, etc.).


Letters/Emails - Sample Lesson Plans "The Persuasive Letter"Grade: 9-10Length:10 minutes explanation, homework assignmentMaterials Needed: Hand-out with sample and rubricDescription: Distribute the hand-out and explain to students the purpose of the letter (business, a political problem, related to a novel). Explain that they are going to be writing a letter in order to persuade someone to do something. The language must be persuade someone to do or feel something. Later, you can incorporate these concepts into reading and writing persuasive essays.* "Candy Bar Exercise"Grade: 9-12Length: 2 Class Periods Materials Needed: A variety of candy bars (one per student), hand-out with rubric, sample, and checklist Description: Distribute candy bars to each student before class. Allow them to eat the candy bars during the first few minutes of class. Afterward ask them what they liked/disliked about the candy bar. What would they change about it? Distribute hand-out and explain that they are going to be writing a persuasive business letter to the candy bar company. Allow them time to complete a rough draft. Collect the rough drafts and give feedback/corrections the following day. Bring students to computer lab to type their letters, and complete a final copy. Collect, correct and give feedback.

Journals/Blogs

Writing journals or blogs allows students to access their ability to communicate their feelings. By writing these feelings down, they become better at critically thinking and determining their values. Try to center topics for journals around global issues or personal experience, because these are the most interesting for students to write (and for you to read!). I have personally seen bad cases of students wanting to reveal "too" much about themselves if the journal topics are left open, so I would suggest you give suggested topics for students to role with. It may also be interesting if students post their responses on the Internet, in the form of blogs, if the resources and the responsibility are there.


Journals/Blogs - Sample Lesson Plan

"Introducing a Journal into the Classroom"
Grade: 7-9
Length: 1 class period the first day, 5-10 minutes per subsequent day, homework assignment
Materials Needed: Enough notebooks for your class, hand-out with rubric
ASK STUDENTS TO CREATE A WEB OF THEIR CORE VALUES
ASK STUDENTS TO CREATE A WEB OF THEIR CORE VALUES

Description: Hand out the notebooks to the students, ask them to write their name on the front of their journal. Introduce a topic to the class. It could be related to how they feel about writing in a journal, the novel they are studying, a global issue, or anything thatmakes the students think deeply. Then tell the students to bring their journals home to decorate them. Make sure you make clear your expectations about the journals and hand out a rubric to show how you will be marking them. Every day (or a couple times a week), introduce a new topic and ask the students to write in it. Collect the journals near the end of the term and give them a mark. This exercise is good because students will need to hand-write their journal entries, and so they will not have access to spell-check.

Informative Texts

The vast majority of texts that we read are "informative," so this is a very broad topic to approach. Textbooks, Internet resources, manuals, menus, pamphlets, posters, and advertisements in general are all forms of informative texts. Try to encourage students to think critically about these texts; just because a text is "non-fiction" does not mean it is factual. When teaching a research assignment, distinguish between academic resources (journals, etc.) and non-academic resources (Wikipedia, etc.). Working with informative texts ties in directly with the Media Studies strand of the English curriculum.

Informative Texts - Sample Lesson Plan(using the video below as a resource)













"An Inconvenient Truth - Fiction or Non-Fiction?"
Grade: 9-10Length: 30 minutesMaterials Needed: Youtube video (see above), projecting abilities.Description: Divide students into groups. Ask students to take notes on the film as it plays. After the film ends, ask students to discuss in their groups if they think the film is fiction or non-fiction. Ask each group what they think. Most students would say it is non-fiction, because it is largely opinion based. Then replay the cartoon section of the film (starts at 1:40). Ask the students to discuss within their groups if the cartoon is fiction or non-fiction. Discuss that a single text can have aspects of fiction and non-fiction. Then return to the rest of the film, because it is largely opinion based, it would be classified as non-fiction. End with a discussion about how "non-fiction" does not mean factual, and facts are always open to debate. The discussion should be improvised and guided by students for the most part.


Works Cited


  1. ^ Mann, Thomasina. "A love affair with non-fiction." Teaching PreK-8 32 no2 O. (2001). The H.W. Wilson Company: 2002. p.12
  2. ^ Ontario Ministry of Education. (2007). The Ontario Curriculum - Language Arts, Grades 1-8; The Ontario Curriculum - English, Grades 9 and 10 (Revised); The Ontario Curriculum - English, Grades 11 and 12. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.
  3. ^ Culp, Mary Beth and Jamee Osborn Sosa. "The Influence of Nonfiction on Attitudes, Values, and Behavior." The English Journal, Vol. 82, No. 8 (Dec., 1993). National Council of Teachers of English: 1993. pp. 60-64
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/819595
  4. ^ Dowling, Jr., H.F. "Imaginative Exposition: Teaching 'Creative' Non-Fiction Writing." College Composition and Communication, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Dec., 1985). National Council of Teachers of English: 1985. pp. 454-464
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/357864
  5. ^ Root, Jr. Robert L. "Naming Nonfiction (A Polyptych)" College English, Vol. 65, No. 3, Special Issue: Creative Nonfiction (Jan., 2003). National Council of Teachers of English: 2003. pp. 242-256
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/3594256
  6. ^ Mitchell, Diana. "A New Look at Nonfiction in the Classroom." The English Journal, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Feb., 1996). National Council of Teachers of English: 1996. pp. 74-78
    http://www.jstor.org/stable/820622