Nonfiction conversations: Talking nonfiction picture book biographies with kids

When I read aloud nonfiction titles to my class, it takes a long time. Often, we stretch a read aloud over weeks. Lots of reading aloud is happening in our room – a novel, various picture books, selections from titles we are book talking and always, always, one or more nonfiction titles.

No, my students don’t forget what was happening between read aloud sessions. Connections are made in the days between. We pick the title up and we loop back into our previous wonders, observations and learning. We bring more to the next time we read because there has been space for more thinking, more questions. And always, our nonfiction read alouds are titles we use to talk and share our thinking.

Turn and Talk. Share out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Lots and lots and lots of talk.

We retell. We predict. We infer. We look for evidence. We list questions. We share observations.

The talking is rich so the learning is rich.

It sounds like:

“I noticed that . . . ”

“But we are still wondering why. . . ”

“Last time we learned _______ so .  . . ”

“My partner and I have a question still.”

“Oh! Now I get how . . . ”

“This is connected to what _____ just said: . . .”

So when I finish a nonfiction title, the book has become part of our classroom community. Our shared knowledge. Our shared thinking. Our layers of learning. Often, when I read the last page, the students clap. They jiggle about. We have come out the other side a little more enriched with knowing more about our world. We are celebrating.

Am I reading a variety of nonfiction titles aloud? I think so. I am so very conscious of this thanks to the conversations I have had via twitter and blogs with authors and educators who read, write and share nonfiction titles. I am particularly indebted to author Melissa Stewart and educator Alyson Beecher for stretching my thinking. When I think back to titles we have read deeply and meaningfully, I find narrative non fiction like biographies and nature themed books feature big. But I also read a lot of expository titles. And I often share snippets from what Melissa Stewart calls Fast Facts titles. See her Pinterest pages for specific examples.

So if I am exposing my students to a variety of styles, what do they think? Are they enjoying the genres we are reading? Starting with picture book biographies, I asked 🙂

 The Tree Lady  Nonfiction conversations: Talking nonfiction picture book biographies with kids

Yesterday, we finished The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. When I closed the book, there was the reaction I love. The big smiles. The big breath in. The sitting up straighter. The perfect time to grab their thinking while the reactions were fresh. I asked questions and wrote down all of these thoughtful responses. Sharing here:

Me: “So what words describe how we are feeling right now?”

Class: “Hopeful.” “Energized.” “Joy” “Like standing up and connecting to the Earth.” “Smarter.” “I like Kate so much. It happened a long time ago but her soul probably still speaks for trees.” “She was one person who did so much.”

Me: “This is one of many picture book biographies we have shared together. Last year we read Me . . . Jane (by Patrick McDonnell), Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell (written by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman), The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos (written by Deborah Heiligman and illustrated by LeUyen Pham), and many others. Why biographies? Why do you think I share these with you? Why do you like these titles? What are you thinking?”

Class: “I like to know about what other people did.” “I like those books that tell the story of someone who can’t but then they did.” “Kids can learn a lot.” “It inspires us.” “I respect people who helped us in the past.” “I feel grateful.”

Me: “Why do you think authors keep writing biographies?”

Class: “We are really interested. They know we will be.” “People can know about the past.” “It’s so we can know that one person can change things.” “So we will know history.” “Kids should know how things have transformed.”

Me: “How do these books make you feel?”

Class: “They show me not to be scared.” “They make me feel happy and inspired.” “Yeah, lots of inspired.” “People can do big things.” “I am learning history. About people who changed a city, or a country or the world!” “I like learning so much.” “This book also teaches us about community and dreams. We should think about that.” “Yeah. Cuz we will grow up and be adults. So we need to learn lots now.”

Me: “Okay. But here’s the thing, I usually read these titles to you. Then, a lot of you read them again. Or take them out from the library. But . . . would you choose to read these books on your own?”

Class: “Yes! Because I get to know facts and share them with other people.” “I don’t know where to find them in all libraries.” “Yes, because now I know there is lots of science in them.” “The librarians should make a big sign and an arrow – learn about interesting people in these books!” “It’s books that inspire you. We like that.” “It’s all new stuff. It’s nonfiction. I love nonfiction!”

Me: “But what if I had never read any picture book biographies to you? Would you choose to read them on your own?”

Class: A pause happened.

Then everyone started talking at once and I couldn’t write down specific comments. But I can summarize. Most students said that teachers need to show their students about these books. My language/their sentiment: Lots of exposure to this genre as classroom read alouds (where you get to talk and write and think together) will hook kids on this genre. Many expressed that they like that these books are written like a story that they can just settle in and at the same time, learn facts and be inspired. Some said they wouldn’t like to read a biography organized like other nonfiction titles with fact boxes, etc. because it would distract them from the person’s story. Some pointed out that some of the language would be too hard for some kids to read on their own. So these titles could first be read alouds and then be books they could read on their own when they were older. “Because we won’t forget about them,” one student added.

Me: “Should we read more picture book biographies this year?”

Class: “Yes!” “Six thumbs up!” “Like next week?”

My learning? It is still settling in. But a few things stand out.

  • It is imperative that we expose children to a variety of nonfiction genres
  • We need to name the genre. Talk about its purpose. Discuss how we feel and what we have learned.
  • Stories hook us. Stories that are full of learning and one particular personal story touch us deeply.
  • Conversation with children about what we are reading and talking about is so very rich

I wrote a series of blog posts in the summer about teaching with nonfiction titles. This post: Part 3: Interacting with nonfiction: getting students reading, thinking and talking together highlights some of what I am trying to emphasize here.

I plan to engage in conversations with my students about other nonfiction genres and share their thinking. Please let me know if this is helpful or interesting to you as you think about read aloud choices, nonfiction purchases, instruction around reading and sharing nonfiction titles.

*Note, my class is a Grade 3/4 class that I looped from a Grade 2/3/4 last year.

9 thoughts on “Nonfiction conversations: Talking nonfiction picture book biographies with kids

  1. Pingback: Celebration: Friday favourites | There's a Book for That

  2. Love this! Such great conversations and inspiring comments from your students! I especially like your open ended questions! My favorite is “how do these books make you feel?” – what a great question! Thanks for a wonderful post!

    • Thank you Adrienne. We both know how very special an incredible read aloud experience can be – the reading, the learning, the conversations afterward! Hurrah for the inspiration stories provide!

  3. Pingback: Sunday Salon: A Round-Up of Online Reading | the dirigible plum

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