Making Connections: Nonfiction & Postsecondary Success

On Oct. 4, 1917, Virgil Cook from Unionville, Missouri, enlisted at age 19 to serve in the U.S. Army. He was expected to understand words in context (specifically, medical terminology). He was asked to interpret, synthesize and use evidence found in a wide range of sources, whether that be from hand-drawn maps, weather data, verbal directions, his own common sense, or applying knowledge of the fighting in Central Europe before the U.S. entered the War. The aptitudes demonstrated by Cook and thousands of other World War I soldiers are universal; many of these essential skills that are now tested on the SAT: problem solving, reading comprehension, vocabulary, data analysis, algebra or geometry.

Although I never met Virgil Cook, I work with many high school students who mirror his characteristics. Why teens decide what path to pursue after graduation is, in large part, a mystery. We do know that providing a sound instructional base of essential skills in problem solving, literacy and math will prepare students to make reasonable decisions regarding life after high school. As educators, we need to provide appropriate and engaging reading options for students so they remain invested in their education.

The SAT Reading Test always includes the following:

  1. One passage from a classic or contemporary work of U.S. or world literature
  2. One passage or a pair of passages from either a U.S. founding document or a text in the Great Global Conversation they inspired, such as the U.S. Constitution or a speech by Nelson Mandela
  3. A selection about economics, psychology, sociology, or some other social science
  4. Two science passages (or one passage and one passage pair) that examine foundational concepts and developments in Earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics

The above list may seem like a challenge to use in just one content area. There are many nonfiction choices available for student reading that will resonate with all students.

  • The National Council of Teachers of English offers extensive lesson plans utilizing nonfiction. My favorite is “Analyzing Famous Speeches as Arguments” highlighting Queen Elizabeth I’s speech to the troops at Tilbury in 1588. This speech is a contrast to the one given by King George VI in 1939.
  • The National Council for the Social Studies features new books, lesson plans and a discussion board appropriate for teachers, parents, and students. Links to state social studies consortiums are also available. For example, Mark T. Kissling and Jonathan T. Bell, both from Penn State University, have integrated history, science, economics, and data analysis in their study “Climate Change and Pennsylvania Social Studies Teaching.” This approach to climate change can be duplicated by any high school and a comparison then made between the new findings and Kissling and Bell’s work.

Learning the vocabulary, systems, applications, and history of scientific areas is an intense process for any student. However, teens with no interest in biology or chemistry, for example, might resonate with physics.

  • The Science Teacher published by the National Science Teaching Association focuses on high school applications. Michael Blair researched my favorite approach in “Applying Age-Old Physics to Teach Modern Physics Concepts.” Blair highlights spears, atlatls, and trebuchets. Many of these inventions were first conceptualized by Leonardo da Vinci in the early part of his career over 500 years ago. My students created a reflection (essay, art, new machine, podcast) on Blair’s quotation “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

Nonfiction options for reading and instruction are not limited to reading, writing, social studies, science and math. Nonfiction infuses music, art, dance, theatre and the movies. From each of these disciplines we reflect on various events in history with honor and perspective, and even see our own vision of the future. No matter where a school is located, there are always opportunities in the arts that are not geographically near enough for individual/class study. But opportunities abound in our digital age! Several outstanding museums have their entire collections online with accompanying lessons and essays, including The Louvre, Solomon R. Guggenheim, National Gallery of Art, British Museum, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and more.

Nonfiction is also found in our own personal letters and family treasures, and here is where we return to Virgil Cook. After serving his country, Cook wandered back to Missouri and then to northwestern Nebraska, where he began a new life as a rancher. He and his wife raised one child, my father-in-law. His story is reflected not only in family lore, but in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. The IWM was founded in the midst of the First World War with a mission to preserve and tell the stories of all kinds of people. The museum sites feature a unique collection of objects that tell the human stories of lives engulfed in war and show how conflict has shaped the world in which we all live. This resource alone could engage teens in reading, history, geography, math and technology.

We have many Virgil Cooks in our classrooms across this country. We, as career and technical educators, have a responsibility to these students, to help guide them toward postsecondary success — whatever shape that path may take. To accomplish that, however, they need that synergistic spark: to learn and feel and lose themselves in our best writing, to discover topics they never knew existed, and to understand the interconnectedness of all subjects, all topics in the past, present and future.

Leanne Cook is a postsecondary education specialist as well as gifted education coordinator at a small, rural high school in Colorado. Learn more and discover additional options for nonfiction reading that will resonate with your students at ACTE’s CareerTech VISION 2019, where she will present a session — Nonfiction Options = Increased CTE Skills and SAT Scores — on Thursday, Dec. 5. This is an event you won’t want to miss! Register today; the VISION advance registration discount expires Friday, Oct. 25.

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