Fiction Before Facts: The Value of Novels in the Content Area Classroom

Classroom learning

Read any good books lately?

If you have, I can almost guarantee it wasn’t a middle school textbook.

Maybe it was a great mystery thriller by John Grisham, or something from the Game of Thrones series your brother-in-law keeps talking about. Maybe it was a romance novel you smuggled to the beach and read while the kids were building sandcastles. Hey, I’m not judging! Maybe you find comfort in re-reading the classics, or perhaps you gravitate towards the latest Nicholas Sparks tearjerker.

As teachers, we often need to remind ourselves that our students aren’t so different from us in terms of what they enjoy reading. They, like us, read books to escape or explore. They seek out novels that make them laugh, cry or hold their breath. They fall in love with characters they can relate to, whose emotions and experiences mirror their own – even in the most fantastical circumstances. Vampire-werewolf teenage romance, anyone?

In most cases, ELA is the only class where students are allowed and encouraged to read those novels they so enjoy. But if fiction is so adept at grabbing and holding our students’ ever shrinking attention spans, why shouldn’t other content areas utilize this incredibly valuable tool?

Over the past few years at Jackson Middle School, my colleague, Brad Haertling, and I have hosted World Geography Book Club for our 7th grade students. Each month, we select a high-interest novel that directly connects to the social studies content we are teaching at that time, and we “sell” it to our students. They are encouraged to check it out from the school library, and read it over the course of the month. At the end, if they can pass a simple, 10-question, comprehension quiz, they are invited to attend our monthly “meeting” – a casual, family-style, pizza lunch where we talk about the book … and have a little fun!

We argue about which character was the bravest, or whether the protagonist made the right decision. We sample naan bread from India after reading Homeless Bird, and use VR headsets to visit the top of Mount Everest at the end of Peak. We tape off the size of a regulation soccer goal just to see how big it is after reading Keeper, and research all the crazy East Berlin escape attempts during the Cold War when we finish A Night Divided. The meetings themselves are engaging and educational for the students who attend, but even more powerful and surprising is the ripple effect our little club has had on classroom learning as a whole.

These students (many of whom were only initially motivated by the promise of free pizza), are suddenly waiting at my door to ask about the next month’s book. One student, just last month, came to me every day to tell me what page she was on. “This is the first book I’ve read that I actually liked!” she said, beaming. They are voluntarily reading at home; I’ve had multiple parents come to parent-teacher conferences and ask, “So what’s this book club he keeps talking about? He’s never really been a reader, but he really likes it!” One of my ELA colleagues said she has noticed it too. “There’s something about those books,” she said recently. “I don’t know what it is, but they get kids hooked!”

It IS all about the books, but not for the reasons you might think. Of course, we try to choose books with great plot twists and lots of action; books written at the appropriate reading level and with a manageable number of pages. But surprisingly, I think the real reason our book clubs are so successful is because they are content based. We carefully choose books that are matched to upcoming or recently covered curriculum, and that gives students a new found confidence in their knowledge of vocabulary and content presented in our social studies classrooms. Words like “Soviet” and “Hindu” no longer make them shrink back with uncertainty, because they know those words. They raise their hands excitedly, saying, “That’s just like that one part in the World Geography book!” and then eagerly share what they’ve learned with their friends. The next month, they bring those same friends to the meeting. Their enthusiasm is contagious!

And not only are our book club students more motivated and engaged in their own learning, but they also perform better on assessments. Because of their comfort with and enthusiasm for the content, they are able to make connections and process new information more quickly and easily – which pays dividends when the test rolls around. Just by exposing them to great content-based stories, we are able to improve their overall achievement.

Sometimes, in the high-pressure world of education, we get so bogged down in standards and skills, data and differentiation, what’s trending and what we’re testing, that we forget that the longest-lasting and most valuable learning always happens naturally. If we can get students lost in a good book that just happens to be about World Geography (or American History, or science, or math), the intangible but very real learning that takes place might just surprise us. It may be that a good book is just the tool we’ve been looking for, one that will help us out in our quest for proficiency more than any formative assessment ever could.

In other words, maybe sometimes it’s okay to teach the fiction before the facts.