Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ten new (or relatively new) nonfiction texts for the modern classroom

by Derek Spencer


You might have heard it said that reaching "expert status" in a given profession or activity requires 10,000 hours of dedicated practice — this is the book that helped propel that idea into the cultural conversation. In Outliers, Gladwell examines several people who have achieved extraordinary success and attempts to determine the reasons why.

Outcasts United

If you want to teach students about the challenges people face when trying to live in a new culture, this is a great book. Outcasts United is about a youth soccer team made up of refugees who immigrated to the United States to escape war and oppression. The book does an excellent job of exploring the subject of assimilation and shows ways in which teenagers from various cultures deal with “culture shock.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Supplementary information for the Common Core stipulates that informational texts aligned with the standards are written so that the majority of readers can understand them — in other words, accessible to laypeople. This is one of those texts.

Not only does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks present scientific information in language that your students can understand without a Ph.D., it also raises pertinent ethical questions that can lead to excellent classroom discussions. The best literature — whether fiction or nonfiction — makes you think about some essential human question. This book fits the bill.


Your students might think that “dull” is an intrinsic quality of a text about economics, but Freakonomics connects economic principles to real-world situations in an engaging way. The book does explore topics like abortion and drug-dealing (both from an economic standpoint, of course), so it might not be suitable for every classroom.

Fast Food Nation

The subject of heavily processed food has been in the news often recently, as more of us are examining our daily habits and trying to figure out how we can live healthier lives. Fast Food Nation reveals some unsavory practices going on behind the curtain at fast food restaurants, and it has been compared to Upton Sinclair’s seminal work, The Jungle. Certainly it treads some of the same ground — food quality, worker treatment, ethics — but this is no novel. It's a fascinating work in its own right, a snapshot of the modern fast food industry.

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan attempts to answer the question at the heart of the titular dilemma: We have a staggering number of options when it comes to foods, so which foods should we eat? Wander through your local supermarket and you’ll find thousands of items — all manner of flavors and textures, from fruits and vegetables to cookies and corn chips. Out of this bewildering myriad, how do you choose foods that will nourish you and keep you healthy and happy?

It’s a tough question, and Pollan gives you plenty of information to help you figure it out. The book is written in straightforward language, but the Young Readers’ edition may be more digestible for younger students and less-proficient readers.


I read this one in March, and it’s a breezy read. If you want to teach this text, you should know up front that there is some profanity in the book that may offend students and/or their parents. That said, it’s a great text with which to engage students who are excited about sports (specifically baseball). And even if your students aren’t interested in sports, that’s okay. Baseball is the Trojan Horse the book uses to get inside your head; the book’s message has more to do with questioning assumptions and finding innovative ways to solve problems.

Moneyball is a concrete example of how critical thinking skills translate to real-world success. If that inspires students to critically evaluate the world around them on a daily basis, you win.

The Last Lecture

This nonfiction text is more inspirational than informational — it’s a collection of anecdotes and advice from a professor who, upon learning he had terminal cancer, wanted to impart to his family as much information as possible about his philosophy of life: how he treated others, whether personally or professionally; how he worked (and played); how he persevered.

If you use this text in your classroom, you should also use the information found at The Common Core asks students to be adept at synthesizing information in multiple mediums, and the book can be used in conjunction with the videos on the website as one step in achieving that goal.

The Freedom Writers Diary

A perfect example of how a teacher who teaches with empathy and understanding can make huge changes in the lives of her students. Using texts like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Erin Gruwell showed her students how intolerance and racism have deleterious effects on individuals and whole societies. Inspired, her students (who had been labeled “unteachable”) began to think about the intolerance they had experienced in their own lives, and they began to keep diaries, calling themselves “The Freedom Writers.”

Sex and drugs are discussed in the book, so it may not be suitable for every classroom.


This title chronicles the lives of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Hiroshima can be used to show students a different perspective on a historical event, one that they can’t find in a traditional history textbook.

When reading any nonfiction text, students need to be aware that what they’re reading could be biased in some way — just because they’re reading nonfiction doesn’t mean they’re reading fact. Our book Reading & Analyzing Nonfiction: Slant, Spin & Bias makes a great companion to any of these nonfiction texts. The book helps you teach students to distinguish fact from opinion and interpretation, an essential skill that will protect them from being swayed by poor arguments in college, in their careers, and for the rest of their lives.

Have a fantastic afternoon, and thanks for reading!

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