My daughter Ella is obsessed with birds. Her favorite birds are tropical, but she is fascinated by all of them. When did this start? Last January, when her second grade class studied the tropical rainforest. Ella really wanted to study the Toco Toucan, but another student did, too, and so Ella formally researched the Capybara (the world’s largest rodent, for those of you who don’t know) instead. But she didn’t let the Capybara stop her from learning about the Toco Toucan. In fact, it spurred her on. Why am I writing about this on a professional blog, you may wonder? Because what I saw unfold in and out of school last year continues to impact her life now, and there is a lesson for all of us in the fusion of reading and writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in the context of genuine inquiry and exploration in the classroom.
Many primary grade teachers have spent the past ten years focusing almost exclusively on reading, writing, and math skills because of the statewide assessments demanded by No Child Left Behind. But for many students, it’s exploring the world, puzzling over maps, studying animals, and examining artifacts from different cultures and time periods that serve as the catalyst for reading and writing. This is where the new focus on having elementary school children read 50% informational text over the course of their school year is so exciting. Not only will this, hopefully, bring back more science and social studies instruction in the elementary school so that students aren’t starting from scratch when they reach middle school, but it will allow for authentic exploration of nonfiction texts not solely in the context of language arts and genre study, but in the context of learning content, of experiencing the world. Learning about the world and reading a range of nonfiction texts is not boring, it’s liberating. It does not fence off the imagination, it fuels it.
Ella continues to love learning about birds, and has enough exposure to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, that she knows how to read to learn and write to show what she’s learned. In her spare time, she reads nonfiction books and websites, observes birds at zoos and in the backyard, and watches videos and documentaries on endangered birds. She takes what she has learned about birds and uses the information to write fictional stories with birds as characters, songs, and nonfiction texts that inform the reader.
But she has also created a new activity: Birdnastics, where birds experience a fusion of gymnastics and dance. Her collection of stuffed birds has grown, and when she comes home from school, they are often taking classes such as “Seed Splitting and Spitting” or “Camouflage” at her imaginary school. Fact and fiction are fused in play, incorporating the best of what she’s learned within her own imaginary world.
Learning about endangered birds and the endangered rain forest has also fueled Ella’s sense of activism. She wanted to donate money to the Nature Conservancy on her birthday, and she’s policing our purchases of chocolate and coffee to ensure that we are buying Fair Trade.
For Ella, what began in school has spilled out into her personal life. We have been able to witness how her passion and curiosity has fueled her learning. There are many children who do not have access to texts at home, who do not have time and resources to do research as a personal hobby. For those children, they need school to be the catalyst, to be the place where fact and fiction are fused in play, where choosing to write fiction or nonfiction about a topic they are exploring is an avenue for agency and engagement with their learning. They need these wrap-around experiences in science and social studies to reinforce and extend what they are learning about language in language arts.
I fear that too many schools are thinking about the Common Core Standards as simply a checklist of things they have to do, rather than an opportunity to reorient learning as emancipatory, as a way for students of all ages to use print and digital texts to interact with the world beyond school, and perhaps even try to change it.