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Teaching Nonfiction in the Secondary Classroom

    teaching nonfiction in the secondary classroom

    Teaching nonfiction can be a struggle for students and teachers, but it doesn’t have to be. Read on to learn activities, teaching tips, and student-approved titles that can make teaching nonfiction more engaging and effective all around.

    When it comes to teaching nonfiction, my students always seem to slip into instant boredom. The mere phrase “nonfiction” practically puts them right to sleep. I know I can’t be the only one… right?

    It’s hard enough sometimes to engage students with literature, period. On top of that, I’ve realized many students associate nonfiction with boring textbooks and dense academic articles. However, there’s much more to the genre. In fact, the right nonfiction titles can be just as alluring as a great work of fiction. We must help our students understand that nonfiction texts also include:

    • Memoirs
    • Biographies
    • Newspaper and magazine articles
    • Blog posts
    • Feature articles
    • Essays
    • Reviews

    …And more.

    So, how can we get our students to move beyond their hesitation to dive into (and enjoy) nonfiction? I’m glad you asked! Keep reading to learn some of my favorite tips and titles for teaching nonfiction in the secondary classroom.

    Why is Teaching Nonfiction in the Secondary Classroom Important?

    I’ll admit it. I’m a die-hard lover of fiction and encourage my students to dive into the magical and moving world of fiction whenever I can. However, we can’t forget to shine a light on nonfiction as well. Here’s why:

    First, students are expected to develop research and comprehension skills requiring nonfiction reading across nearly all grade levels and content areas. Embedding literary nonfiction into your classroom is an excellent way for students to bridge the gap between purely informational and purely narrative texts. This is also a great way to break the “nonfiction is boring” mentality.

    Additionally, teaching nonfiction has a lot of positive real-world implications. For starters, nonfiction books are rooted in facts and real-life people or events. Therefore, they open students up a whole new understanding of the world around them. These texts help build empathy, introduce new perspectives and experiences, and promote social and emotional learning—and I think we can all agree we need those now more than ever.

    Oh! And we can’t forget about those students who “don’t see the point” in reading fiction—because it’s “not real” so “who cares,” right? (Insert frustrated eyeroll here.) Introducing them to nonfiction is a great way to re-engage them in reading and build their comprehension and analysis skills.

    Engaging Activities for Teaching Nonfiction in the Secondary Classroom

    1. Two Facts and an Opinion.

    This twist on the classic “two truths and a lie” is a quick, engaging, and easy way to introduce the concept of nonfiction. While your students are already familiar with the difference in these two definitions, it’s important to show them it’s not always so concrete. There are a few ways you can play:

    • Present a topic to your students. Provide them each with a sticky note on which they will write one thing they know (or think they know) about said subject. Once all students place their notes on the board, begin to sort through them as a class, placing them in a fact or opinion column.
    • Present a topic to your students as well as two facts and an opinion about said subject. Have them work individually or in pairs to decide which of the three statements is an opinion and which two are facts. As students share their findings, hold a discussion regarding what makes something a fact versus an opinion.

    2. Book Tour.

    Pictures, maps, and letters, oh my! Some nonfiction books include elements and artifacts not often found in the novels they’re used to reading. For example, memoirs and biographies may include photographs, letters, or diary entries as additional artifacts. If you’re preparing to read a nonfiction book as class, take a “book tour” together, flipping through the pages and discussing the varying elements and formats found throughout.

    As for those nonfiction books that look nearly identical to the fiction novels they are used to? It’s a great opportunity to highlight the similarities (and differences) between fiction and nonfiction narrative works. It might be time to bring out the Venn Diagrams and get to work!

    3. Tweet It.

    Instead of always competing with social media for students’ attention, why not find fun ways to incorporate it into the classroom? Platforms like Twitter have grown to become forms of news in the modern world. You can take advantage of this and use the social media platform in two ways when teaching nonfiction:

    • Introduce a topic relevant to your book and have students conduct a search on Twitter to find appropriate Tweets. This is a unique, fun, and totally “cool” way to build student background knowledge around the text and its characters, settings, and conflicts, just to name a few.
    • During or after reading (or both), have students put their critical thinking skills to work by creating a class “Twitter thread” about the book. Dedicate a physical bulletin board or digital Padlet where students can “post” their thoughts about connections, people, places, or events relevant to the book. Feel free to provide a template and prompts if your students need more guidance.

    4. Connect Four.

    The opportunity for text-to-text, self, society, or world connections is one of the most powerful aspects of nonfiction books. This is a fun and highly engaging group activity that can be done as a pre, during, or after reading activity.

    Put students into small groups. Challenge them to find four informational resources (news or magazine article, Youtube clip, blog post, etc.) or artifacts (photographs, letters, drawings, short video clips, etc.) that connect to the setting, situation, or character of the nonfiction book. Amp it up by throwing in a little competitive edge. The first team to find four connections wins! Otherwise, have each group share their findings with the class or hold a gallery walk.

    If you’re looking for a simplified version of this activity, simply find and share a handful of resources with your students to help build background knowledge and foster connections. Additionally, if the story doesn’t take place in modern day, share a (relatively) current event with your students to help draw a connection between then (the story) and now. Let students explore the resources before discussing their reactions and responses.

    5. Dear Diary

    The more students connect to a text, the more they will stay engaged—and retain the information. (Talk about a win-win!) Therefore, when reading a nonfiction text, encourage students to keep track of those connections in a journal or diary. Be sure to give them time to freewrite or provide prompts to guide their connections and reflections to their lives and the world around them.  It’s up to you if you want to collect it for grading or not.

    6. Pair It Up. 

    While fiction and nonfiction might seem like opposites, they have a lot in common and make for a great pairing! So, if you don’t have time to fit in an entire nonfiction novel, no worries! Nonfiction texts make for great supplemental materials. In addition to finding fact-based articles to give students more context, excerpts from nonfiction books work well too! Find powerful excerpts to share with your students to build connections or learn about the inspiration behind fictional characters, settings, themes, and conflicts too.

    Alternatively, you can have literature groups where some are reading a fictional novel and others are reading nonfiction. Then, bring the groups together often to discuss similarities and differences in both style and the story itself.

    Here are some of my favorite pairings:

    • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy
    • Six Women of Salem by Marilynne K. Roach and Aurthor Miller’s The Crucible
    • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Elie Wiesel’s Night
    • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and Rex Ogle’s Free Lunch

    Need more ideas? Ask your fellow teachers or school librarian for suggestions!

    More Helpful Tips for Teaching Nonfiction

    • Teach the power (and importance) of annotating. Remind students that, to be done well, annotations must include more than highlighted or underlined texts. Instead, annotations should include markings and notes in the margins (or on sticky notes) that express a thought, question, or reaction.
    • Consider students’ experience, backgrounds, and interests. Providing students with opportunities to read stories of high interest or relatable characters and situations is always a plus. As you learn more about your students, strive to fill your classroom library with nonfiction texts that play into their interests, experiences, and backgrounds.
    • Take advantage of cross curricular learning opportunities. I’m always looking for ways to showcase that education doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I love showing students that these things we’re teaching have implications for the world beyond the classroom walls. Chat with the teachers in other departments (especially history) to see if there are any opportunities for cross curricular learning.
    • Make it relevant. Just as connections are important to student retention, so is overall relevance. Take time to hold discussions with the goal of making connections between the nonfiction text and student’s lives. By taking the time to discuss the text and finding ways it can relate to them, students will be able to make more connections than they realize. In turn, these simple discussions inherently promote social and emotional learning.

    Teaching Nonfiction Texts: Stories Your Students Will Love

    The truth is that many students are simply intimidated by the “nonfiction” label. While they know what to expect from a novel, nonfiction can feel like uncharted territory. However, by introducing your students to the right nonfiction titles, you can show them that these real stories can be just as engaging and easy to enjoy.

    To get you started, here are 17 nonfiction titles your secondary students are sure to devour:

    1. Night by Elie Wiesel
    2. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
    3. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
    4.  The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
    5.  A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
    6.  Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
    7. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
    8. The Borden Murders by Sarah Miller
    9. The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
    10. Call Me American (YA) by Abdi Nor Iftin
    11. I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
    12. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
    13. Free Lunch by Rex Ogle
    14. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
    15. We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist
    16. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
    17. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

    Again, while fiction might seem more fun for you to teach and your students to read, that doesn’t have to be the case. By incorporating the right titles and activities into your classroom, teaching nonfiction doesn’t have to be such a bore. Give some of my teaching tips above a try and see for yourself! Chances are, you’ll convert some of your students into nonfiction fanatics in no time!

    Have any other tips or titles for teaching nonfiction? Share them in the comments below!

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