I always look forward to the Thanksgiving break as a time to visit my family (especially our granddaughters), and to recharge for the weeks leading up to Christmas break. This year I was especially looking forward to it not just for feasting on the dinner, but also to devour the latest book from Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. I love the signposts from their first Notice and Note book and was anxious to learn about the signposts for nonfiction. I was surprised to find that it was not a book just about signposts. It is so much more. It is a comprehensive book about teaching students to read, understand, and to question nonfiction. It is a staff development plan for faculties to discuss and plan for school wide instruction in nonfiction. It is a book for teachers of content other than reading to learn best practices in guiding students to access knowledge in specific content areas. It is a peek inside classrooms across the country. Yes, this is much more than a book about nonfiction and signposts. I believe this is a cornerstone text that will revolutionize teaching of any nonfiction topic.
Defining Nonfiction & Other Issues to Consider
How many times have we said to students, “Nonfiction means not fake,” and believed we were giving a good definition of nonfiction? I know that was a go to phrase for me when I was still in the classroom. It made sense and was easy to remember. One of the first aha-moments for me in reading this book was examining what nonfiction really is. Beers and Probst explain the thinking about the definition and why the “not fake” definition is not sufficient. The expanded definition, “Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea or a belief,” takes the emphasis off the text itself as being fact and puts the focus rightly on the author. Although this is not the definition you will give to younger students, it is where you want all students to arrive. “Not fake” is not appropriate for our elementary students either. Beers and Probst take you through a developmental process of using the definition through the grades.
There are nine other issues in the first section of the book which caused me to stop and really reflect on my own practices and those of the teachers I work with. The cited research and thoughtful questions in the “Talking with Colleagues” feature at the end of each issue will lead our work going forward. I found myself wishing that I had others to talk with right away as I read and reflected on each issue. The issues presented are encompassing of so much more than reading instruction. There are implications for teachers of all content areas.
A Questioning Stance
One of the most revolutionary ideas presented in this text is the idea that students must own the learning. They must own the learning because one day soon they will be the citizens electing officials, voting on important issues, and making important life decisions that will be based on gaining information. Our students must be able to evaluate what they read or hear with a questioning stance. Beers and Probst use three questions or stances with students regardless of the nonfiction text read. The questions are:
What surprised me? (The power of this question is illustrated in the examples provided by Beers and Probst)
What did the author think I already knew? (This question is used when students are confused and the most powerful part of the question is how they can fix the confusion for themselves.)
What changed, challenged or confirmed what I already knew? (Using this question will cause students to be more engaged in the text as they will be expecting to learn something from the text.)
There are detailed lessons provided for each of the stances on how to introduce and transfer the learning. The authors provide examples from classroom in transcripts of classroom conversations and in videos accessed by QR codes. Sample anchor charts and many tips in the sidebars make these chapters teacher friendly. Many templates and forms are provided to support the use of the stances. Another thoughtful addition is the “Questions You Might Have” feature at the end of each chapter.
For nonfiction there are 5 signposts:
- Contrasts and Contradictions
- Extreme or Absolute language
- Numbers and Stats
- Quoted Words
- Word Gaps
One of the things I most appreciate about the work that went into developing the signposts is the action research of using them with students. All of the signposts have been tried and proven with students in various grade levels and across content areas. I also appreciate the thought that Beers and Probst used in regards to developmental stages with the signposts. There are different anchor questions to use depending on the age of the students. Elementary has only one main question, “What does this make me wonder about?” that works for 4 of the 5 signposts. In middle school the questions are matched to each signpost. For high school students the questions are not only matched to each signpost, but also to the discipline being studied (history, science or math). Each chapter again has detailed lessons on how to introduce and use each signpost with peeks into classrooms who have used them. As with the stance chapters, there are sample anchor charts, sidebar tips, “Questions You Might Have” feature, and templates for student use. The chapter on word gaps is slightly different from the others, and puts the emphasis on how students can find the meanings of words that are challenging to them. Personally, I think it would be very difficult to teach the stances and signposts without careful reading of this text or training from someone who has studied them and utilized them with students.
Before, During, and After Strategies
I believe that the issues, stances, and signposts alone would have made for a incredibly comprehensive text about reading nonfiction, but Beers and Probst went even further. The last section of the book has seven strategies that students can use either before, during, or after reading to deepen their understanding. Again each chapter describes a strategy and provides many teacher friendly teacher tools to help you put them into action with students. Student work samples are very helpful here. I am excited to try these out with students and to share with teachers on my campus.
I guess it is clear that as the author of this post, I have a bias. I truly think this book will make huge impacts with the instruction on our campus. I am thinking about our next steps and believe that a summer book study may be in order, not just for our ELA teachers, but for all teachers. I am anxious to get into the classrooms to share these ideas and to collect samples to share with other teachers. The tools provided are teacher friendly and encourage both student engagement and ownership. These are skills that our students need to be successful adults. I thank Kylene Beers and Bob Probst for this new treasure and look forward to discussing ideas with the Facebook group that was formed after the first Notice and Note book. I look forward to discussions with teachers based on this text. I look forward to conversations with other Instructional Coaches based on work we are doing with this book. I think you will be thanking them for this text too.
Living the Workshop with You,
Follow me on Twitter @Melissajonesic