LE CarmichaelWhen we think about literacy we often think about literature and poetry – but what about non-fiction? The National Council of Teachers of English put out a powerful statement (with recommendations) about the importance of non-fiction literacy and the value it has in the classroom. Non-fiction children’s author Lindsey Carmichael joins us to talk about how non-fiction can engage students who may not engage with other literature, some of her favourite moments with non-fiction in classrooms, some tips for integrating non-fiction into the classroom, and talks about her new book.


Podcast Transcript

Intro: Talking about innovation in teaching and education, Popular Podagogy, discussions that are topical and sometimes philosophical. Popular Podagogy. Popular Podagogy.

CC: Hi there. Thanks for joining us, and welcome to another episode of Popular Podagogy, where we try to bring big ideas in teaching and education to life. I'm your host, Chris Carlton, and this podcast is being brought to you by the Faculty of Education at Queen's University. Welcome to our podcast. In this episode I am excited to be speaking again with returning podcast guest Lindsey Carmichael, an amazing award-winning Canadian author of more than 20 science books for children and young adults. Lindsey uses her science education and real-world field experience to wow her readers with cool facts and information to help spark their curiosity and ignite their imaginations. Lindsey has joined me today to talk about the power and importance of non-fiction literacy in the lives of our Kindergarten to Grade 12 students. We will also be discussing the recent released position statement from the National Council of Teachers of English on the role of Non-fiction literature. She may also be coaxed to talk about the upcoming release of her newest book, sensation titled “Polar”. It's going to be another great conversation, so stay with us.

CC: I'd like to give you a little background information that will help frame our conversation today with Lindsey. For over 100 years, the National Council of Teachers of English, known as NCTE, has worked to offer journals, publications and resources to further the voice and expertise of educators as advocates for their students, they share lesson ideas, research and teaching strategies through its annual convention and other professional learning events. The NCTE also has a huge bank of lesson plans in read, write, think and their books are outstanding. They have a wealth of expertise and research available to create position statements, and the recently issued position statement is the topic we are going to discuss today. I'd like to introduce our guest to our podcast today and that is Canadian author Lindsey Carmichael. Welcome to our podcast, Lindsey.

LC: Thank you. I'm glad to be back.

CC: I'm glad you're back. Lindsey, I'm very excited about this NCTE position statement, because the two of us have had many conversations on the importance of nonfiction literacy and its role in our students education. So let's talk about the statement and its importance to teachers and students. The statement says its purpose is to propose a paradigm shift for teaching and learning with nonfiction literature in K to 12 education. That's a very powerful statement. So my first question is to you, Lindsey, how do you view this NCTE position statement and its importance to teachers and students?

LC: Well, I'm a professional author. Before that, I worked as a children's bookseller for a few years, and I have consequently read a ton of research and opinion articles on literacy, in addition to interacting with book buyers. And the non-scientific conclusion I have come to is that most adults believe that novels and poetry are the only forms of literature that really count. But research shows us that if given the freedom to choose their own books, most kids choose both fiction and nonfiction, and many kids will always choose facts over stories that someone has made up. So nonfiction can turn kids into readers, and nonfiction writers like myself have been saying this for years, so we are all thrilled that a teachers organization like NCTE is now backing us up on this. LC: And it is an amazing statement for them to come forward and say, nonfiction is what we need to follow. And as you read through the statement, you see all of the resources and the recommendations, which are just so powerful and will include that document on our website as well. And Lindsey, I've seen that as well. When you put out books for independent reading, and I always try to include so many different genres, it's so exciting to see my so-called Non-readers pick up these nonfiction books and say, okay, this is a topic I'm interested in. This is actually something that I can read and get behind. And you mentioned that in terms of it just gets kids excited about factual books and writing.

LC: Well, and this is the thing, right? We often label kids as non-readers, but it's not that they're non-readers or they're reluctant readers, it's just that they don't want to read novels, and we're not providing them with the kinds of literature they want to engage with.

CC: Exactly. From the NCTE statement, it reads, “nonfiction is a rich and compelling genre that supports student development as critically, visually and informationally literate 21st century thinkers and doers.” And I love that expression thinkers and doers. This, to me sums up what we as teachers should always be trying to accomplish. So from your point of view, from a perspective of an author, why nonfiction? Why is it so important for students?

LC: I would say two main reasons. First of all, nonfiction is a really powerful vehicle for language acquisition. I attended a conference presentation once where the speaker said that children's books are as linguistically rich as expert witness testimony, and studies show that kids will choose books that are above their reading level if they're interested in the topic. So they will pick something that is too hard for them because they want the information that's in that book. So nonfiction is really helping them to develop their word recognition, their vocabulary, their confidence as readers. But in my opinion, what's even more important is that nonfiction literacy is information literacy. Reading nonfiction builds critical thinking skills. It teaches kids to distinguish between facts and opinion or interpretation. It teaches kids to identify the author's bias in a piece of text, how to assess the quality and reliability of source material in STEM, which is my specialty. Nonfiction teaches kids how science works and all of those things. All of those thinking skills are building readers that are better equipped to navigate an online world of fake news and misinformation, and to make decisions or take action that is actually based on fact rather than all of those other things. So it's not just that we're building readers by encouraging reading nonfiction. We're actually building informed, empathetic humans, and we need more of those.

CC: 100%. And as you were describing that, Lindsey, I'm thinking we're talking K to 12, but we should be pushing that rate into the adult world as well, because a lot of adults need that critical thinking ability as well. So, so much involved in, in making sure that we are being able to contribute to the conversation in an educated way.

LC: Absolutely.

CC: I will jump to one of the sections in the statement. It talks about information literacy crisis. And it says “without access to nonfiction, literature, literature from a variety of voices and perspectives, students are limited to a dominant view of history, which selectively erases the contributions of marginalized people and obscures the process by which histories are composed.” And I've seen that in social studies. I've seen that in history textbooks where we are getting one dominant view and through nonfiction, like you were saying, it just opens us up to so much more information and so much critical information that helps us become informed decision makers and doers.

LC: In the STEM fields, we see this a lot with the presentation of Western science and traditional Indigenous knowledge side by side and looking at those things as different ways of knowing in the sciences. I don't have as much personal experience or expertise when it comes to social studies and humanities, that's not my own area. But I have been working on a book that ventures into that territory. This is new research, so I can't go into a ton of details yet, but I've really had to grapple with the effects of what's called archival silences in the historical record, because people who were writing history just didn't bother including the stories of people that they didn't think were important. And those are things that that scholars are now trying to fill those gaps and recover the lost stories. So that all of those different voices of different kinds of people, of different backgrounds, of different perspectives are starting to be represented in children's literature that haven't been represented in the past, which is just wonderful to see.

CC: And as a teacher, I'm constantly seeing these new books coming in, the nonfiction books that are helping to do that. And I love that word that you said. The phrase archival science silences. That's such a beautiful way to describe that and shows the importance of us finding the literacy and literature that helps us erase that or work towards having better representation.

LC: I did include a couple of resources on that topic for the History Book Bank and the Social Justice and diversity book banks that are produced by the Canadian Children's Book Centre. They have tons of resources of all Canadian books that address those topics. So that'll be on the resources for this episode as well.

CC: Awesome. Thank you so much. Now you talked about writing, so I want to mention that one of the NCTE recommendations is that we use nonfiction literature in writing instructions. It states that “nonfiction writing is often assumed to be better suited for older children and teens. However, research demonstrates that younger learners enthusiastically and competently write and illustrate nonfiction mirroring their world and the things within it that fascinate them, nonfiction writing is for everyone.” And I love that part where it says mirroring the world and the things within it that fascinates them, which is what you talked about just a couple seconds ago as well.

LC: Yeah. And I think this is about sort of opening up our definition of what research is to begin with, because younger kids that maybe don't have confident reading skills yet can still do research on topics just by making observations of the world around them, that is, information that can be incorporated into their writing. And then older kids, of course, that are more confident readers can be bringing in library sources as well. And they can independently learn about things that they are interested in and then share that information. That is my favorite thing about being a nonfiction writer. I get to learn new stuff, and then I get to share that stuff, and watching my enthusiasm for a subject infect someone else is an intensely profound experience. I did an author visit in a fourth grade class once, and during the Q&A, a boy raised his hand and said, I never liked science before, but now I want to be a scientist when I grow up. And I swear I welled up in front of the class. I had to take a moment to collect myself before I could carry on, because that is just the best thing I've ever heard in my life, except for the moment when I was in an elementary classroom teaching a writing workshop on how to write true stories. And one of the teachers told me in complete astonishment, that she had never seen this particular student so engaged in a writing task before, when they were doing fiction and poetry, she had to drag him kicking and screaming, and he just didn't want to do it. But he was flying. His pencil was just going, and I asked her what he liked to read, and she said he loves history. So no wonder this is a kid who is information focused. He's reading for facts and he wants to write true stories. This is the kind of student that nonfiction is for.

CC: When we can get student engagement like you're describing. It might have been an author moment for you, but it's a teacher moment for every single teacher out there. When our students are so engaged that they're just involved in the activity. And in the statement, it talks about authentic nonfiction writing. We've had many podcasts about authentic assessment, authentic learning. So the authentic nonfiction writing, it just seems to be a natural progression to get kids, like you said, engaged and involved and excited about writing again. It's not just a made up writing assignment. They're writing about something that is part of their life that they've experienced or that they want to know more about, like you explained as well.

LC: Absolutely.

CC: Now, talking about the importance and amazing attributes of nonfiction writing, you have a new book coming out very soon, and the title of it is “Polar Wildlife at the Ends of The Earth”. I am so excited about this because I had the privilege. I hope I'm allowed to say this, of getting an early sneak peek of the book just through Zoom, and it looks incredible. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

LC: Oh thank you. It is coming out on May 2nd from Kids Can Press. Part of the reason it looks so incredible is because of the illustrations by Byron Eggenschwiler. They are phenomenal and I handed him an enormous challenge. He just knocked it out of the park. So this is a book about the adaptations that help animals survive in the Arctic and in Antarctica, and each spread shows a similar adaptation at each of the poles. So that was the challenge for Byron, is figuring out how to show both of those areas of the world while demonstrating their seasonal opposition and how, for example, birds in the Arctic are laying eggs in nests, while birds in Antarctica are fledging their chicks. And showing that connection and opposition at the same time. And the artwork is just amazing. For me, the biggest challenge was the research and the structure. I consulted almost 350 sources while researching this book, and I had a giant Excel spreadsheet where I was trying to figure out which species of animals were doing which thing, at which time of the year, and trying to get those adaptations to match up so that I could show what I wanted to show again, that that connection, but opposition at the same time. So it was a huge challenge. I'm incredibly proud of it, and I cannot wait to get it out there into the world.

CC: I cannot wait either. I've actually our library has advanced copies or we put in orders already for multiple copies. The other thing that I noticed in the book, too, it concludes with a description of the disruptions that climate change is causing to the polar regions and more importantly, not more importantly, but also how this will have global consequences. Which to me, I love the way you always have those different aspects of your book. Not only that, but you've got a glossary with further readings and resources, which is just so helpful to teachers and students who want to learn more about these exciting topics that you write about.

LC: My goal is that a reader will finish my book and want to go find more information. So I do always try to include somewhere for them to go, somewhere for them to learn more, to go online, to go back to the library again, just to spark that interest in pursuing their own inquiry. That is that's how I win.

CC: And that it's the same with my science lessons. I want them to have more questions at the end of my lesson than they did at the beginning of the lesson, because that will spur them to do more. And I love when you come into a classroom. You've come into my classroom several times and you talk to, for me, my teacher candidates, and you talk about how many resources you had to use to produce this nonfiction writing. And it's so important for our students to learn that as well, is that this is an opportunity to just gather information about a subject that you're interested in and that you want to learn more about. And we don't have to know it all. We just have to have these critical thinking skills to know where to find it. And your books help us so much in being able to start that process. So thank you so much.

LC: Oh thank you.

CC: The one thing I forgot to mention also in that position statement, they have a whole bunch of recommendations which take us through all of the different literacy in terms of writing, reading, understanding and all those things. So again, just like your resources, an amazing opportunity for us to learn more about nonfiction literacy and the importance of it in the classroom.

LC: That's one of the things I loved about that statement is that it is so grounded in research, but then it is bullet points of incredibly practical, simple things that teachers can do, which is so useful, I love it. CC: Very useful. We love those practical points. Now, Lindsey, you know, I always do my exit question and yours is going to be focused around nonfiction. So one final tip from you. And we want you to try to answer it in two sentences like we usually do. What advice would you give to a teacher who wants to start using nonfiction literature in their teachings? What would be their first steps?

LC: I would say visit author websites because we want you to use our books in the classroom. So we are producing all kinds of free resources for teaching, both subject matter and writing skills. Go find them.

CC: And I'm sure there was a whole bunch of teacher ears perked up when you said free resources. We are very frugal, so there we go. And I agree, I've. I've looked over your website so many times and keep on pulling new information out of it. And, and it's so wonderful that authors are very much invested in making sure that people can use their writings. And here are other resources and ways to do it. So thank you so much. We've got to get people on to authors websites and see that rich resource.

CC: Lindsey, thank you so much for sharing your expertise, experience and obvious passion with us today. It's always a pleasure and very educational speaking with you, and I look forward to reading and sharing the newest nonfiction book, “Polar”. I've got it as one of my screen savers, so you know that May 4th was the one that Indigo can get it to me. So I'm going to be reading May 4th, my newest book. So thank you so much, Lindsey. Again for always coming in here and enlightening us on the richness of writing in general.

CC: Oh, thank you Chris.

CC: That does it for another episode of Popular Pedagogy. Again, thank you to our amazing guest, author and educator, Lindsey Carmichael. I hope you take the time to visit her website at www.lecarmichael.ca and check out her amazing books and resources. Josh, as always, where can our listeners subscribe to make sure they don't miss any of our Popular Podagogy podcasts?

Outro: Yeah. You can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the Faculty of Education website, and pretty much any other place you get your podcasts.

CC: Please don't forget to check out our Queen's Faculty of Education website and search for Popular Podagogy for additional resources and information, and where you can find a link to National Council of Teachers of English. Well, that's it from myself, Chris Carlton, and our incredibly talented and resourceful podcast team of Josh Vine and Erin York. Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay connected, and we will see you next time for another episode of Popular Podagogy.