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Pairing of Nonfiction Books and Film
April 25, 2012 by | Posted in General Topics, History, Subjects, Teaching Tips

Years ago, a workbook given to students to help them prepare for a standardized test asked them to read a piece of nonfiction called “School Based Management.” The students in my test prep class glanced at the title, read a line or two, and then quickly turned to the questions and penciled in the answers on the scan-tron test. Discussion ensued. I learned that the kids were certain they would do as well randomly selecting a response as they would were they to read the material and reason through to the correct answers. No way, they argued, were they going waste their time reading something so boring.

Clearly the topic was the problem, but sometimes students will need to read nonfiction whether it’s boring or not. Actually, now more than ever, students need to be able to read what the 2010 Common Core State Standards (CCSS) refer to as “Informational texts.” What they’re talking about is the kind of complex, challenging nonfiction that is important for success in college, job training, or in pursuit of careers.

Alas, it is the job of teachers across the curriculum to help get students ready for the fact that most of the reading they will do in post-secondary education is informational. Looks like change is afoot in the kinds of reading assignments ELA, social studies and other classes require.

Check out the following chart which shows the percentages of fictional and nonfictional reading required by the CCSS:

Grade Literary Informational
4 50% 50%
8 45% 55%
12 30% 70%

The above percentages suggest that ELA classes will be assigning a lot more non-fiction: more exposition, argumentation and personal essays, as well as speeches, opinion pieces, memoirs, historical, scientific, and economic texts. In elementary school teachers can expect to assign more biographies and autobiographies, books about history, science and the arts. Nonfiction reading skills will require students to be able to comprehend graphs, charts, directions, forms and maps.

If teachers don’t play this right, there will be a lot of low scores on those scan-tron tests used to evaluate reading skills and determine whether students will get diplomas.

So what we need is a hook—something that will interest the students and get them to actually read nonfiction. This is where film comes in. The right documentary or narrative nonfiction film can be used to entice young readers to explore more depth on the topics or characters they see in the film. This means reading. Consider how a cooking show, quite popular with students, can provoke the viewer to read ingredients on food product labels, search out new recipes on the internet, or read magazine articles about a cook who appears on the show. There has been a considerable increase in the number of cookbooks and biographies of great chefs, of food histories and political tracts on the food industry as well as reams of information on vegetarian and vegan diets. One must read in order to truly understand obesity and its impact on society as a whole or to know what fast food chains have done to aggravate the fat attack on the American public.

What may help move students to read more, other than interest sparked through well-done documentaries, is a process of pairing film with the books from which they were adapted. This has been commonly done with works of fiction such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Milos Forman’s film by the same title. Most films, as a matter of fact, are adapted from books and short stories. But to pair a work of nonfiction with the film adapted from the book is not so common. Of course, no film can contain all of the information found in the book on which it is based, but if the film is good enough, it can provoke viewers to read for themselves the story they enjoyed on screen. John Krakauer’s nonfiction account of the adventure and eventual death of a young college graduate in Into the Wild was made into a fine film, directed by Sean Penn and bearing the same title. The autobiography of Li Cunxin, titled Mao’s Last Dancer was made into a movie in 2009. The dance scenes and the account of the young ballet star’s defection to the U.S. are engrossing. The TWM Learning Guide to Mao’s Last Dancer uses the parables that Li Cuxin was told as a boy to provokes viewers to look up and read more about the life of this famous Chinese dancer.

Teachwithmovies is working on connections between nonfiction in film and the storehouse of “informational text” leading to or from these films. Stay tuned for more to come. A guide to 127 Hours is coming soon. Click Here for TWM’s Lesson Plans from Movies Based on Nonfiction.

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