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Monday, October 17, 2016

Fiction and Nonfiction: Better Together

In my school library, I recently overheard a couple of students brainstorming ideas for their science project. They both had visited relatives over the summer who lived in Michigan and were discussing algae growth on Lake Erie and whether they could do their project on algae blooms. 

When I heard “Lake Erie,” my mind turned to The Lorax

“You’re glumping the pond where the Humming Fish hummed! 
No more can they hum for their gills are all gummed. 
So, I’m sending them off. Oh their future is dreary. 
They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary. 
In search of some water that isn’t so smeary. 
I hear things are just as bad in Lake Erie.”

Dr. Seuss removed the line about Lake Erie from The Lorax in 1985 at the behest of staff at Ohio Sea Grant.  They felt that, thanks to anti-pollution efforts, Lake Erie was much improved. 

I asked the students if they knew that this wasn’t the first time Lake Erie had been in trouble and that Dr. Seuss had even pointed out its problems with pollution when the The Lorax was published in 1971.

They were very interested to know that one of their favorite authors shared a real-world interest with them, and they had many more questions about what Dr. Seuss’s life was like apart from writing the books they know and love.

These budding scientists were focused on facts about algae but found a fascinating connection to the ongoing struggle to keep Lake Erie healthy through fiction. They left the library with books on plants and algae as well as a biography of Dr. Seuss and The Lorax.

Some students love to focus on nonfiction. Others love a made-up story. But when you can help them combine and connect to both nonfiction and fiction, you engage and expose them to different types of text while also boosting comprehension and building their background knowledge, vocabulary and critical thinking skills.  

Typically, kids’ natural curiosity gets them asking questions about things they discover from books. Often it is a fictional title that will get them wondering. Could it ever really be cloudy with a chance of meatballs? Can you make friends with a robot? Do fish really work together?

You can anticipate questions and help introduce and reinforce ideas by having nonfiction titles at the ready. Follow Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with Weather by Seymour Simon. Robots by Melissa Stewart is great after reading Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover. And don’t hesitate to dive into Exploring the Deep, Dark Sea by Gail Gibbons after reading Swimmy by Leo Lionni.

You can even take things a step further. Follow up your reading with activities or outings that offer opportunities for kids to take what they’ve learned and own it. For example, hand out big metal spoons after you’ve shared both Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Weather. Ask kids what will happen if they breathe on the back of the spoon. Have them do it and see if they create their own tiny cloud of water vapor! Talk about what you read about what happens when warm, moist air and cool air come together. They just made a cloud! 

Here are some terrific online resources to help you put fiction, nonfiction and great activities together. 

Award-winning author Melissa Stewart has not only written more than 150 science books for children but  also frequently speaks and writes about ways to teach science through literature. This article highlights her idea of Perfect Pairs and offers example pairs of fiction and nonfiction along with connections, discussion questions and activities.

Start with a Book, a project of Reading Rockets, offers 24 kid-friendly themes featuring specific ideas for using fiction and nonfiction books and related downloadable activities to get kids thinking, talking, creating and exploring. Reading Rockets also has Reading Adventure Packs (in English and Spanish), which provide recommended fiction and nonfiction titles along with printable activities and bookmarks.

Here’s the thing: as adult readers, we are constantly pairing fiction and nonfiction without even thinking about it. When you’re reading a great historical fiction title, don’t you look up the actual history? If you’re enjoying a novel set in present-day Paraguay, don’t you consult a travel website? And if you really love an author’s books, don’t you look for articles or a biography to read about his life? Just as you follow your curiosity, kids want to do the same. They just need you to help them make the match.

Guest blog post by Belle of the Book, Rachael Walker.

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