More Thoughts on the Journey: Helping Students—and Ourselves—Understand Nonfiction

Recently I looked at how inviting students to notice patterns across a nonfiction text can help them consider the large and often invisible—i.e., not explicitly stated—ideas a writer is exploring. Raising students’ awareness of patterns and how writers use them to explore and develop ideas can ultimately help students meet many of the Reading Informational Text Standards of the Common Core, especially RI2 and RI5. It also helps students reap the full benefits of reading nonfiction, which is not always just about learning new facts but considering a writer’s unique take or perspective on those facts in a way that can deepen a reader’s understanding of the world and the people in it.

To introduce your students to how writers use patterns to develop their ideas—and how readers, in turn, build their ideas about a text by noticing the patterns the writer’s laid down and considering what they might mean—you’d follow the same process that I engaged in to plan the blog post on patterns: I pulled out a handful of books from my shelves and asked myself the following questions as I looked through and read each book:

  • Does this seem like a text in which the writer is using facts to explore one or more ideas—or put another way, is it a text that I’d want students not just to comprehend but also understand?
  • Do I notice patterns in the book—words, images, events, even structural devices that somehow keep repeating?
  • Does asking myself what the writer might be trying to show me through those patterns help me dig deeper into the text?

My hunch is that we don’t always ask ourselves the last two questions—and we might not ask the first one either because of the way we’ve traditionally used nonfiction in the classrooms. We have students read nonfiction, for instance, to learn facts about specific content, whether it’s to know the names of the great explorers or the process of photosynthesis. We have them read nonfiction to learn about text features or different text structures, or to find facts for research projects. But unless we’re looking squarely at bias, we may not think about the writer at all when we’re reading nonfiction, at least not to think about why she’s chosen and arranged whatever facts she’s sharing in a certain way.

I think that all this has to change in light of the Common Core Standards, which, in standard after standard, ask students to think about how the parts of a text are related to the whole. Noticing patterns and thinking about what the writer might be trying to show us through them automatically helps students do that—without the kind of teacher-directed prompting that comes with the text-dependent questions approach. And again and again I’ve discovered that, just as with students, we, too, as teachers start noticing patterns when we look for them, as an instructional coach and teacher in Georgia attests to in her blog post “Confessions of a Plot Junkie.”

But what happens when you don’t notice patterns, which certainly happens to me sometimes when I read nonfiction? As experienced readers, we know that nonfiction writers often use facts to explore ideas they sometimes have an opinion about, and they unfold those ideas in more complicated, subtle and indirect ways than thesis-driven five-paragraph essays. Because of this we enter a text on the look-out for glimmers of ideas and opinions, asking ourselves, consciously or not, what the writer might want us to understand, as we both read forward and think backwards to draft and revise our ideas.

Unless we’re in a text outside our comfort zone, we tend to do this work automatically, barely aware of how we process and arrive at our sense of what the writers is up to. But to make this more visible for students, we can ask them to be trackers, reading the text paragraph by paragraph to sniff out possible ideas, and then reading forward and thinking backwards to consider how those might—or might not—be connected to what came before and comes after.

To show a group of K-12 educators what this approach could look like during a workshop on reading nonfiction, I searched for another text that, like many of the Common Core exemplars, took readers on a journey of thought that couldn’t be fully anticipated or deeply understood by most of the strategies we currently give students. To provide some common ground across grades, we decided to focus on a single topic, food, and for this activity I chose a short piece from The New Yorker called “The Big Heat,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, which begins with the grabbing and provocative lead, “Corn sex is complicated,” before taking all sorts of twists and turns whose purpose and logic aren’t immediately apparent.

I asked the participants to read it with a partner (as I invite to to do, too, on your own or with a colleague), stopping at every paragraph to share both what they thought the writer might want them to understand and how that might or might not be connected to whatever had come before. Interestingly enough in the beginning, several found the piece so disjointed they were tempted to deem it ‘bad’ writing. But by the middle of the second page, everyone began to see that there was a method to Kolbert’s seeming madness. And at that point they had to revise their understanding of what the piece was ‘about,’ which they had to do yet again as they reached the final two paragraphs.

The participants left the workshop that day with a deeper understanding of both what, beyond obvious measures like lexiles, makes a text complex and what readers need to do to navigate that complexity in a way that allows them to understand the ideas and the train of thought that holds the facts together. They also came away understanding that food has many implications, beyond health and nutrition. And when, after reading this text together, they explored ones that were at their students’ grade levels (some of which there are links for below), they were far more aware that there were ideas and opinions lurking in them. They saw more because they were looking for more—and they were eager to invite their students to look for more than text features and facts when they got back to their classrooms, as well.

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