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Help schools use non-fiction books

Buried in the avalanche of emails and comments I received after my column begging for more non-fiction books in school I found a note from one of my favorite educators, Dan McMahon, principal of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. One of his English students (he insists on teaching in addition to his other chores) told me McMahon assigned “The Dragons of Eden” by Carl Sagan and “Black Boy” by Richard Wright, so I hoped for more good suggestions.

Instead, we got into an argument. He upbraided me for blaming English departments for the fiction overload. He said: why couldn’t the math department assign Mario Livio’s “The Golden Ratio?” How about psychology teachers requiring Russ Rymer’s “Genie” or Oliver Sack’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat?”

I said he was biased in favor of his discipline, a grave sin for a principal. The math, psych, history and science teachers have barely enough time to teach the content that makes their fields comprehensible. Since the English department teaches how to read and write, why couldn’t they use more non-fiction?

McMahon said that was a canard. He said teachers in all fields had some discretionary time if they chose to use it. “Traditionally English departments and art departments are the dumping ground for everyone who has an idea that they don’t know what to do with,” he said.

Ouch, I said. Okay, Dr. McMahon. You win. I have enough non-fiction book ideas from readers to fill every class period from now until Armageddon. (That’s usually a fiction title, but Max Hastings used it for his book on the last two years of World War II.)

I expected see a lot of the same titles, a non-fiction greatest hits. There were some common favorites, such as “The Panda’s Thumb” by Stephen Jay Gould, “Band of Brothers” by Stephen Ambrose, “October Sky” by Homer Hickam, “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin, “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer, “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin, “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston, and “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” by Otto H. Frank.

But the range of suggestions was much broader, breathtakingly rich, showing how much our students are missing. Here are a few:

“Black Holes” by Heather Couper and Nigel Heubest, “Apollo 13” by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, “How To Self Destruct” by Jason Seiden, “Chasing Lincoln’s Killer” by James Swanson, “The Third Chimpanzee” by Jared Diamond, “Friday Night Lights” by Buzz Bissinger, “Red Horizons” by Ion Mihai Pacepa, “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers, “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Wolff, “A Mighty Long Way” by Carlotta Walls LaNier with Lisa Frazier Page, “The Color of Water” by James McBride, “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls, “The Perfect Storm” by Sebastian Junger, “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis, “Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, “Green Glass Sea” by Ellen Klages, “The Curve of Time” by M. Wylie Blanchet, “Coming of Age in Mississippi” by Ann Moody, “My Early Life, A Roving Commission” by Winston Churchill, “The Soloist” by Steve Lopez, “Mayflower” by Nathaniel Philback, “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan, “The Ascent of Man” by Jacob Bronowski, “The Last Duel” by Eric Jager, “Makes Me Wanna Holler” by Nathan McCall, “The Mystery of Capital” by Hernando de Soto, and “The Island at the Center of the World” by Russell Shorto.

Among books I have read, my favorites would include “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, “Farewell to Manzanar” by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, “The Double Helix” by James Watson, “A Distant Mirror” by Barbara Tuchman and “Son of the Revolution” by Liang Heng.

But unless McMahon and I resolve our disagreement, how can we persuade teachers to give non-fiction more prominence? Any ideas? How about a non-fiction week during that limp period after the early May crunch of state, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams? Pick a book and read it for two hours a day. The rest of the time we’ll have lunch and special projects. Post a comment here and tell me how we give non-fiction the time it deserves.

By Jay Mathews  | March 7, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Dan McMahon, DeMatha Catholic HIgh School, schools need more non-fiction, spring non-fiction week, too much fiction in schools  
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Many, many English teachers enrich curricula with "outside reading" assignments. If these are to be assessed at all -- by writing or projects or discussion -- something gets moved aside. I wish every teacher in every discipline would do the same. Their disciplines are neither more nor less essential than mine (English) when it comes to helping kids grow into good people, good citizens, good scholars.

I have colleagues who do make this space, and those who don't. I'd rather we not have special enticements, other than the awareness (promoted by Diane Ravitch and Dan Willingham and CoreKnowledge and so many others) that more content knowledge is healthier for young people -- all people -- in every way. Teachers, after all, want kids to be well.

Any teacher can do this...but who will?

Posted by: carlrosin | March 7, 2010 10:19 PM | Report abuse

Frankly, Jay, you haven't really proven that this is an actual problem.

In high school, kids are force fed "memoirs" (that is, other entries in the Million Little Pieces vein) like the kid who says he was a child soldier in Africa (but oops! he wasn't), I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and all sorts of other horror stories pretending to be real life.

Most of the books you mention are beyond the capabilities of the kids who would never read non-fiction for fun.

So why are you suddenly on this kick, again? Do you have any evidence that kids aren't reading non-fiction?

Oh, and a ha ha very ha ha to the principal who thinks math and science teachers should start assigning books in their class.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 8, 2010 12:08 AM | Report abuse

There is so much to agree with in this discussion. Yes, students should absolutely be exposed to the riches of well-written non-fiction. Yes, much of that reading can and should take place in the relevant content-area classes, in keeping with the idea of reading across the curriculum. Yes, English teachers as a group need to stop ignoring non-fiction, for a multitude of reasons. Yes, lots of worthwhile non-fiction is above the reading level of most students, which is also true of lots of fiction, but the only way to remedy that is to remedy it (not ignore it.) Happily, I teach AP Language and Composition, which has a strong non-fiction focus, as well as a class called Humanities that also focuses on non-fiction. But some English teachers (who should know better) at my school have admitted to finding non-fiction "boring" themselves, so you can imagine how much of it they share with their students. Compared to the myriad other problems in education, this one has such a simple solution that I don't believe I even need to belabor the obvious by typing it out.

Posted by: DDawnC | March 8, 2010 4:57 AM | Report abuse

Ask educators what percentage of the SAT reading section is fiction and what is non-fiction. I remember doing better on the GRE after wading through dry psychology texts and articles than my brilliant English major classmate who had read many more works of literature. Kids need to be able to read and understand collge texts, but schools assign less reading in texts for history, science etc. than in the past. I agree that English courses should include non-fiction genres in say biography, journalism, political, scientific and economic writing to present models of good writing and promote reading comprehension.

Posted by: spence2 | March 8, 2010 7:44 AM | Report abuse


Jay, that would mean that schools would teach (gasp) REALITY!!!

There are too many real things the evil English teacher trolls and the helicopter moms don't want students to find out.

Taking a look at your list (which I agree these would be phenominal to use in high schools) let see there's a few things that some want to make sure teenagers don't find out about:

-the realities of war and these books just use too many curse words!
-the science of the universe, which just get students starting question the existence god, Jesus, and well its all down hill from there!
-mental illness; of course this only occurs to people who were mistreated psychologically and sheltered from reality by their parents and teachers.
-learning and congnition? Jay, if they start reading Malcolm Gladwell in our high schools then students will start questioning the whole curriculum and I shutter to Blink as to what might happen then; oh chaos (as opposed to Chaos by James Gleik, which I started on my own at age 17).

Jay, my dream is to one day establish a social sciences magnet school version of Thomas Jefferson HS in Northern Virgina. However, having even an accelerated program using these types of non-fiction books is just a dream that all it is...

Posted by: professor70 | March 8, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

First, Mr. Matthews, thank you for including _Witness_ by Whittaker Chambers (my grandfather) among the non-fiction works recommended.

Second, how to incorporate such books into English class (or others)?

Book reports are my suggestion, to promote reading, reading comprehension, and writing -- useful in all studies.

Take a list such as the one above. Make sure the teacher/s have read all the books, of course. Have the teacher assign a set of probing questions to answer in the book report. Require students to answer in few words: force them to think comprehensively and express themselves concisely. If they don't satisfy the teacher, have them write again (with the next book, too) and present again -- and again, until the teacher is satisfied.

Meantime, assign one or more books for initial treatment in front of the whole class as a classroom learning exercise -- once at the beginning and then again at the end of the semester, so the students can read the book "afresh" (half-forgotten over the semester) and then compare how they reported before and after. Each student should see improvements and feel self-rewarded.

Then, throw a spanner into the works -- have all the students read and report on something like the Declaration of Independence, a computer software manual, and a credit card agreement, and see whether they can summarize the main points!

Posted by: davidchambers2 | March 8, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

Jay - I applaud your campaign, but please don't confuse historical fiction with actual history. (Killer Angels, for example, is historical fiction. Great book and fine for an assignment, but not in your category of nonfiction.) One to add to your list, though, is Second Nature by Michael Pollan.

And to professor70, I have been told that the IB program is the social sciences alternative to TJ, but I too would love a TJ-style social sciences magnet school in NoVa (like Maggie Walker in Richmond?). In this political and economic environment, however, it has no chance.

Posted by: elle6 | March 8, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

This is a nice list, but a lot of the titles are still "feelings-oriented" memoirs, not too far removed from novels. I teach at a university, in a STEM field, and constantly have to deal with students who can't read for information. They don't know how to read closely and carefully, because they have been fed a diet of feelings books rather than books that explain how things work, or how things happened. And sorry, I believe this is absolute part of being a literate adult, and thus belongs in the reading programs in elementary school, and in the English program in high school. They need to be teaching kids the skills they need to read all types of books, not just feelings books.

Posted by: bkmny | March 8, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Any teacher who is looking for first-rate nonfiction books written by 22 of the most highly acclaimed children’s nonfiction authors and illustrators in America today should run, not walk, to this colorful, easy-to-navigate website; It includes a FREE searchable online database designed to produce lists of award-winning nonfiction books that fit perfectly into their own school’s curriculum. Besides the fact that these books include gripping, beautifully written stories and are filled with the most well researched information you can find anywhere, teachers will be glad to know that they feature all the information required by National Education Standards. The books on on this website have won every major award you can shake a stick at, and best of all, these are books that kids most definitely love to read.

Posted by: rozschanzer | March 8, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

In my high school in Iowa, we had an exceptional teacher who exclusively used nonfiction books to teach certain classes. Each student was assigned a different book and was then required to write a critical paper on a related topic and also present the relevant history covered by the book to the class. Unlike optional or additional suggestions, there was no getting around reading the book and the level of detail presented by the books cannot be compared to that of a standard text book. Looking back at this approach, it opened so many doors for me in terms of critical thinking, studying, being responsible (not only to yourself but for others). The teacher was taking a big risk with the approach as any student could just not do it but that rarely happened). We understood what was expected and didn't necessarily realize it was unusual at the time.

Posted by: iowatodc | March 8, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

I need to go back a few years for this, but, I read Shaara, Tuchman, Stampp (The Peculiar Institution), and others in subject courses in college. Most of these books (and, of course, many others) are understandable to high school juniors and seniors. Whether they were non-fiction or fiction was almost an irrelevancy; these books provided a way to make a dry subject interesting and accessible. Also, as one of my favorite professors, Elmer Kaiser, often stated, any well supported answer can be correct. History and, apparently, math and much of science is not exactly cut and dried.

I might also recommend some parallel readings. For instance, the English teacher could be working on Richard III, while the history class was reading Josephine Tey's "Daughter of Time" as a way to show that RIII might have been an SOB, but Bill S was writing from a very Tudor perspective.

Posted by: mikecatcher50 | March 8, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Why does non-fiction need to be taught through full-length books? Much of the non-fiction I read comes from newspapers, magazines, blogs, book reviews, studies and reports. These are more manageable chunks of text for students to read, provide many more topics to grab students' interest, and allow students to see the many ways non-fiction reading and writing are part of everyday life and work.

Posted by: gideon4ed | March 8, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

gideon4ed has the realistic view in terms of the time teachers have in their already overloaded curriculums;the scholastic magazines in art history, for example, are
terrific, and include examples of the best of the world's art as well as biographies,
technical discussions, vocabulary usages and lesson plans.

Having said that for the classroom,I think our politicians, ptas and people of the media should be role models and read more
non-fiction concerning the history of education before they so gleefully proceed on the road to reform.

May I recommend "Education and the Cult of Efficiency" by Raymond is an analysis of the tie between business interests and the industrial revolution, and its impact on the administration of our schools.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 8, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I've read "Daughter of Time" many times, but as a more direct parallel to Richard III, I would suggest the RIII section from Thomas Costain's "The Last Plantagenets".

Posted by: momof4md | March 8, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

For Cal_Lanier: Accelerated Reader, the computerized reading program that has the most data on what students are reading, shows only two non-fiction books in the top 20 for high schoolers. Click on the link to the earlier column, or this one,

and you will see more on that. Are yr students reading lots of non-fiction? If so, what has caused that to happen?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 8, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Jay- Like many others I jumped on to add a list of books, but the reality is that most kids and most likely many teachers are not reading any books. It might make more sense to do magazine size pieces. I remember how amazing it was to discover the New Yorker and Atlantic's non-fiction. It would not be hard to take every subject and create a list and resources for a non-fiction piece of substance. After all many pieces by writers such as Malcome Gladwell or the writers of Freakanomics start out as magazine pieces first.

Posted by: Brooklander | March 8, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I don't think it is a matter of finding more time at school but rather a matter of assigning books for reading early in the year and giving students time to complete them. Non-fiction books, particularly the ones that read like novels like "Undaunted Courage" can be a great source of inspiration to students. I would use books that cover an important topic and try to see the benefits in both English, and perhaps a History class. Perhaps finding books that can be used as a teaching tool in mor ethan one class would be helpful. Besides the one I listed above, certainly David McCollough's book on John Adams would qualify as would Goodwin's book on Lincoln's advisers, "Team of Rivals."

Posted by: Natsfan2424 | March 8, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Jay: Maybe you'd use your contact in independent schools to discover whether social science, math, and science teachers there have the liberty to include chapters from exciting work appearing all the time. I'd bet that not even history teachers, on schedules of expectations for coverage of stipulated content, include chapters from exciting new work whether for scholars or educated lay folk.
Here's the further rub. There are plenty of exciting prize-winning works in popular history from several years ago which might, with planning of a year or two be included; but can teachers excited by a recent release -- say a work on the Framers' intentions, or on WW II bombing campaigns -- share that excitement? Not likely. There'd be "no accountability."
Maybe you'd like to discover room in the Advanced Placement courses your Index is based on? Readers would be interested in whether the curriculum there is relatively frozen by performance anxiety, too. "Won't teach it if it dimishes time from material that will be on the test."
Kids graduate HS with the vote; and no exposure to or cause to be interested in the new releases at the public library.

Posted by: incredulous | March 8, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

The beauty of non-fiction is that it can be topical. I agree with the commenters who suggest that non-fiction can be read as part of a cross-discipline theme, such as studying World War II in history class and read John Hersey's Hiroshima or Farewell to Manzanar in English class. When kids make the connection, it is amazing.

While I agree that reading non-fiction is in part about reading for information, it is also about the appreciation that true stories can make compelling narrative. So leave the dry facts for the other classes and read non-fiction in English class as literature.

Finally, if we are talking about high school, then the works must be short enough to not overwhelm the kids. Nobody can really expect a teenager to tackle a 500-page text, no matter how remarkable it is (John Adams by McCullough, 768pp.). If we are thinking essays, then magazine articles or exerpts from larger books can work (see gideon4ed's comment). John McPhee writes excellent non-fiction, some of it suitable for exerpting.

Posted by: mdtay11 | March 8, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

I teach computer science so my students are daily faced with reading very difficult technical material. What I wish to comment on is the idea of doing something different after testing in May.For students in grades 10,11 and 12 May is testing month. Then they have Memorial day weekend the traditional start of summer. Teaching in school after that are not very effective. Having a reading project is a great idea.

Posted by: sopranovcm | March 8, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse


I have AP exams early May, but have Maryland's HSA Exam later than early May, this year on May 26. I do not have a separate window for such reading.

On the other hand, while I may not be able to do full booklength readings, I do a fair amoun of non-fiction, starting with Supreme Court opinions (including dissents and concurrences). In AP I have a reader with selections from several noteworthy pieces and books, and I pull others as well.

What you need to remember is that much of our current testing approach weighs heavily against doing such reading, because it is not part of what is assessed by the tests, which carry weight for the students (HSAs required for graduation) and for the schools (Maryland's HSAs for 10th grade English and Algebra are used for AYP under NCLB).

I agree, we should have more meaningful reading. And I do not disagree with McMahon that is should not just be dumped into English.

But if we want it to be meaningful, it needs to be integrated, to be a functional part of the main curriculum, not something extra after the "real work" of the tests is complete.

Posted by: teacherken | March 8, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

If the teachers could stop depending on text books they could assign relevant readings from magazines, newspapers and non fiction books. This won't happen due to the needs of large school organizations and lack of flexibility for individual classes.

I home schooled our two (now)college age daughters, both read numerous non fiction books in their high school years.

Posted by: eema23 | March 8, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Could it be that Jay, looks forward to the freedom and excitement of what he can educate himself about, as he moves closer to retirement? (Smile) Likely very good teachers here are most comfortable with learning that can be "integrated" into curriculum. That's what their supervisors in most public schools will demand of them. But, doesn't this explain how so many students have so little chance to fall in love with an area of learning, to be seduced, for example into engineering or design by a book by Henry Petroski or into math by a work on the history of an long-unproven conjecture?

For DC Metro residents, this can be put in another venue and framework: Who and what are the excellent exhibits curators mount at numerous local museums for and about? Only for tourists and just for entertainment?

Posted by: incredulous | March 8, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse


For someone who likes to talk about good data, I'm surprised that you would think this program has valid data for your claim.

As I understand it, you are arguing that this AR data shows that teachers aren't assigning non-fiction. But it shows no such thing. The Accelerated Reader program is used to support sustained silent reading, which is a program in which kids CHOOSE a book, read it, and then answer questions on it.

So by definition, your data source has nothing to do with what teachers are teaching in English class. Totally faulty conclusion on your part. All it shows is that kids, left to their own devices, don't choose non-fiction.

Then you went and "supplemented" that non-finding with some one-off interviews, where teachers "got defensive", but that's certainly not data, either.

I've tutored kids through English classes throughout the Bay Area, middle and high school both. As I mentioned, "memoirs" (categorized as non-fiction and heavily promoted on your list) are routinely assigned in English classes. I have no idea if that is the usual case or not, but given that your only data point is completely irrelevant to your conclusion, I'd say that my anecdata is broader than your few interviews. Certainly "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" is a high school standard and while I myself consider it fiction, book publishers say otherwise.

The reading assignments in English classes are simply dreadful, whether fiction or non-fiction, and need far more fixing than just assigning more non-fiction--particularly if the non-fiction increases is more memoirs.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 8, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

How about some good non-fiction books for the elementary set. The only one I've used that they loved was about Rocks and then I was stuck doing Q&A practice so that the kids could pass a test and move on to the next level. What's with that anyway?

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | March 8, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

gideon4ed has a great point. I teach World History and would LOVE to use Collapse, 1491, Plagues and People, and The End of Poverty in my class. HOWEVER, there is simply no time to include such narrowly focused books in a broad, thematic course. Therefore, I use selected excerpts and chapters, and my 10th graders read this alongside excerpts from the textbook. This approach allows the students to look at things from multiple povs as well see history from a broad vs. narrow perspective - 2 highly relevant critical thinking skills. However, I could not focus on this skill acquisition if I was teaching solely from entire works of non-fiction. Nor would I be able to make it my curriculum.

Posted by: mtnmeyer2 | March 8, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

My apologies for not taking "Killer Angels" off the list. Several readers nominated it, but I have read it and should have remembered that it won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Really cool fiction, of course, the kind you wish was true. Nonetheless, we are printing a correction.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 8, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

As for elementary school choices, there are fabulous well-written beautifully illustrated award-winning nonfiction books available for grades k-7, and not only are they are enormous fun to read, but they tie in perfectly to your curriculum to boot. They cover history, math, science, social studies, and much more Here's a partial list of the best:

George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides

Actual Size

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins

What Darwin Saw: the Journey that Changed the World

How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning

Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream

Down Down Down

We Dare You

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?

G is for Googol

John Smith Escapes Again!

Earth in the Hot Seat

Where in the Wild? Camouflaged Creatures Concealed

An American Plague

You can actually visit the award-winning nonfiction blog (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids)to find out all about great nonfiction from the award-winning authors themselves. This is not just any random group of authors; they are some of the best in the business.

Posted by: rozschanzer | March 8, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse


I sent you this title off-line a week or so ago when you called for non-fiction titles. Now it appears that it would not only be a great non-fiction book for students to read, it also addresses the the discussion that you and Mr. McMahon were having about reading non-fiction in other disciplines. The book is "Writing to Learn" by William Zinsser, a companion book to his "On Writing Well." The book is about reading and writing non-fiction in other classes besides English. His ideas and methods mesh very well in history, science, mathematics, or any other subject taught at the secondary level. I also agree with McMahon about principals teaching a class and disagree with Mr. Lanier, post #2. Good teachers can find a way to assign good non-fiction for their discipline. It will improve their reading and writing skills. Zinsser provides proof that it works. I hope this guy isn't a teacher.

My bona fides? I was a HS principal that also taught an English class and had my other teachers read Zinsser and incorporate his ideas into their practice. Currently, I am a high school vice principal that bugs my principal daily to let me teach a course.

Posted by: demathis | March 8, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Respectfully, the correct title of James Swanson's book is Manhunt: the 12 day search for Lincoln's Killer. Almost without exception that is my favorite book. For the I'll-think-about-it-readers... psst don't tell anyone but it reads like fiction but it's not! I finished college a long time ago and to date I think I own three copies of this book.
Young readers need a reason to read non-fiction I would suggest start in your own back yard. There are so many books about the Washington, D.C. maybe reading about the area you know? Give books a chance - you won't be disappointed.

Posted by: irishlassred | March 8, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

Working with professional adults, I often see how an education system that over-emphasizes testing on a limited range of material produces adults with too-narrow learning skills who struggle to operate in broader, more ambiguous environments. Kudos to those teachers who constantly find ways to prepare their students despite the constraints they work with, and thank you Jay for providing a reminder that educators--at every level--should step back now and then, challenge the status quo, and ask, "Would tweaking the reading list/doing something else help create a more powerful learning experience?"

Posted by: jseiden | March 8, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

I am a high school mathematics teacher, and my wife is a high school English teacher. By and large, she assigns fiction to her students to read. "I can't keep them interested in anything else," she says. (I wonder if this also is influenced by media and video games, but I digress...)

In my algebra classes all of my students read (or lie and tell me they did, and cheat on their projects) the book "Five Equations that Changed the World" by Michael Guillen. In my geometry classes, all of my students read (same disclaimer) the book "Flatland" by Edwin A. Abbott. In both subjects, every unit of study is accompanied by at least one mathematical essay whose content relates to the unit of study, and we have Socratic seminar discussions about the essay, how it relates to the unit of study, and how it takes us beyond the mundane content of math and relates to our lives in some way.

I'm doing my part, as I believe that literature (especially non-fiction) should be integrated into EVERY subject area. Students should be reading and writing in every class.

My students hate the reading, but many do it anyway, and few forget it.

Posted by: dunkerton12 | March 8, 2010 8:39 PM | Report abuse


Lots of wonderful stuff here but I am going to change things up a bit. An ugly truth behind this discussion is that one reason that more non-fiction does not get taught is because people don't know how to teach it--not that we don't have enough texts. Here is one quick strategy for those who are not English teachers and feel uncomfortable presenting non-fiction. Assign students to do a "4 X 4 X 4." Have each student write 4 questions they want answered--these can be factual or speculative; have them write 4 comments--these can be on the level of difficulty, related ideas or texts, things they were reminded of, in short, anything; and then have the students copy out 4 quotations they were intrigued by (or the first 4 words and the last 4 words of the quotation). Hence 4 X 4 X 4. Have them bring two copies, give one to you and have them keep one. Call on kids and ask for them to read one of anything, start redirecting to other kids. It works great.

Posted by: dmcmahon1 | March 8, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

elle6, I have not heard of Maggie Walker--I will check it out. IB is nice, its just that in the DC area you'd think we would have a magnet school that specialized in international affairs, political science, geography, etc.

mdtay11, John McPhee is an excellent suggestion. His writing is so clean and understandable--unlike mine.

Posted by: professor70 | March 9, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

Pick a book that deals with teen hope and dispair -- the best book about sports and culture - Heaven is a Playground


Posted by: YourRubberRoom | March 9, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

English teachers can make room for non-fiction the way they make room for poetry or short stories or writing--by dropping some work in another field. They teach poetry AND novels AND short stories because they think the students should learn how to approach all three fields--so why can't they drop a few days out of each unit and work in some non-fiction?

By the way, Jay, when you are complaining about the emphasis on fiction, start close to home. When was the last time a certain paper in Washington reviewed a non-fiction book in a weekday Style section? The only non-fiction I have run across is in the combined Outlook/Books section on Sundays.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 9, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

How about giving extra credit to students in mechanical engineering for reading "The Great Bridge" by David McCullough or to students in history class for reading "Nothing Like It In The World The Men Who Built The Intercontinental Railroad" by Stephen Ambrose or to students in history class for reading "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose, the story of Lewis & Clark's expedition. All of these three are interesting and informative.

Posted by: wdccac | March 9, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

I'm very surprised that your list of recommended nonfiction doesn't include any that were specifically published for young adults. In 2009, three of the five National Book Award finalists in the young people's category were nonfiction: Deborah Heiligman's Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith, Phillip Hoose's Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, and David Small's Stitches. And this year's finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Young Adult category also include three nonfiction books: James Cross Giblin's The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy, Heiligman's Charles and Emma, and Elizabeth Partridge's Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary. A good librarian should be able to point English teachers, students & interested adults to a plethora of fabulous YA nonfiction.

And by the way, Ellen Klages' The Green Glass Sea is a fabulous book about the development of the atom bomb--but it's historical fiction.
Susanna Reich
Children's Book Author

Posted by: susanna2 | March 10, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

It is common knowledge that a majority of students entering high school are not very strong readers. Our school started a reading remediation class (2 sections) this year. I volunteered to teach one of the sections and, in selecting our reading program, we felt that non-fiction was the way to go. The main obstacle with student achievement in all core classes is that, because they are so unused to reading non-fiction, their comprehension skills in this particular genre are very low. While exploring reading strategies, the students were able to pick non-fiction novels from the classroom library, which they then read in groups. How they read them was up to the group, but I required that it be a mixture of reading to each other, reading at home, and listening to the books on CD. They typically chose to read to each other. Our books ranged from "Lucky" by Alice Sebold (author of Those Lovely Bones) to "Maus" (graphic novel about a survivor of the Holocaust) to a biography on Tupac Shakur, among many others. They all had a final group project which was a time capsule about their novels. I really didn't think this was a hit until I had the same students in English 1 and they asked when they would be able to choose books and read in groups again. In addition to becoming stronger (we don't say "better") readers they also learned to have patience with each other's various reading levels. I really feel that, although fiction is stressed in the English classrooms for various reasons, non-fiction should stop being treated as the red-headed-step-child. If I have a classroom full of "reluctant readers" who are now eager to read non-fiction, this is all the proof I (and you) should need. (Apologies to any red-headed-step-children - no offense meant)

Posted by: tsm919 | March 10, 2010 9:07 PM | Report abuse

Our society is failing to produce people who read on any sort of regular basis. In conversations with people in their twenties and thirties I've begun asking the individual first if they read books (the answer is often no). Questions of the delimitation of the range of choice are valid, but we must be serious about offering real choices that encourage making a habit of reading.

In all this talk of reality, it seems like political reality has been overlooked. And what happened to civics class? Do you know how to run for office? Why shouldn't we expect active democratic participation to be taught?

Required reading (links below):

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
by Wilkinson & Pickett


The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
by Naomi Klein

Posted by: thinkahol | March 11, 2010 4:25 AM | Report abuse

My high school pre-calculus teacher used to have us do periodic "outside reading" assignments. We got to pick the book (although she gave us lists of options). It definitely sparked my interest in reading outside of fiction or "literary" type books and got me reading books on popular scientific topics as I pursued a career in physics.

Posted by: SeeJennRun | March 11, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

"non-fiction novels"

tsm919: just what is a non-fiction novel? In the face of "news" carried on Fox, the existence and perseverence of "birthers" in the face of evidence disproving them, the "docu-dramas" on TV, and the fact the millions of Americans actually think Oliver Stone's movie JFK told the truth, I am going to assert what I learned about research in school: You don't use novels for research because they are made up. Non-fiction may be mistaken but is not made up.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 12, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

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