Monday, August 27, 2012

The Taxonomy of Nonfiction

It's the first day of school here in my neck of the woods, about ten miles from the Atlantic Ocean in coastal New Hampshire, and I just put my daughter on the bus. I was musing this morning about what I would like her teachers, and the thousands of others who are starting school today, or did a few weeks ago, or will a week from now, to know about nonfiction literature. Do they know how to talk about nonfiction they way they know how to talk about fiction? With one another? With their students? How can those of us who study and work with children's and young adult nonfiction help? I turned to my Oxford English Dictionary, one of the best wedding presents my husband and I received when we got married (albeit abbreviated). The OED says that taxonomy means "1 Classification, esp. in relation to its general laws or principles; the branch of science, or of a particular science or subject, that deals with classification; esp. the systematic classification of living organisms; 2 A classification of something." Of something! Teachers need to know that a taxonomy exists for nonfiction, and that understanding that taxonomy can help them use nonfiction more imaginatively and effectively in the classroom.

Why does this matter? Teachers and librarians, by and large, particularly those teaching English Language Arts preschool through high school, know about the taxonomy of fiction. They know how to talk about those books, and how they operate internally in similar and different ways. They know that within curriculum, contemporary fiction can play a different role than historical fiction, or that mystery novels play a different role than myths or legends. It all depends on the text and the context. Whether teachers are teaching reading and writing workshop genre study, thematic units, or integrated units, different types of texts play different roles depending upon your purpose as a teacher. The same holds true for nonfiction. There are different types of nonfiction books. They operate somewhat differently internally, and, as a result can play different roles in the classroom.

Over on the other blog I write for, "The Classroom Bookshelf," we have introduced a basic taxonomy for the subgenres of nonfiction literature today, a primer of sorts for teachers. You can find the entry here: Over at the School Library Journal website, Marc has written a column about the problem with districts using Appendix B as a fast track to meeting the CCSS  ( Appendix B is just a list of sample books created by one person. It is not a taxonomy of nonfiction. It does not represent the field of nonfiction literature that is published for children and young adults. It is one list of books. One of our efforts as the Uncommon Core is to provide lots of alternatives to Appendix B, to offer you the chance to find the right nonfiction for your curriculum, in language arts and the content areas. Our database, and these blog posts, can help point the way, but we need to create these resources collectively. One of the ways to start building those collective resources is to share the same language, and start this school year by incorporating the taxonomy of nonfiction into our conversations with one another in and out of the classroom.

1 comment:

  1. We've been using the Columbia Teacher's College Reading Workshop at my school, (a small private K-6 school in Philadelphia, where I am a Literacy Specialist for grades 3-5) and I feel like it does get the students excited about nonfiction. It is true, you need good literature to make it work, though. We have a good selection in very short nonfiction books. I feel like we could use more biography and more books on topics that the kids really want to know about. I hope we can share good sources of nonfiction and share what gets the kids excited. I'm pretty bummed about the Three Cups of Tea Debacle. That kind of nonfiction story is so inspiring to the kids.