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Using Nonfiction for Civic Engagement in Classrooms: Critical Approaches

reviewed by Virginia Walters - November 01, 2018

coverTitle: Using Nonfiction for Civic Engagement in Classrooms: Critical Approaches
Author(s): Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, Ruth McKoy Lowery, & Paul H. Ricks (Eds.)
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475842333, Pages: 148, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

After the tragic school shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, many of the surviving students stepped up as eloquent and vocal activists, speaking out about the need for more effective school safety measures and stricter gun control laws. Their voices were heard at press conferences and rallies, and their outrage was widely reported in the media (Astor, 2018; Hussey, 2018). More recently, children and teens have united to urge Congress to act on environmental issues (Yoon-Hendricks, 2018). These woke kids seem to understand that their future depends on adults in power moving quickly and decisively on these issues. We are starting to see voter registration campaigns with the slogan, “Beware millennials with the vote.” Caring adults who have a responsibility for educating children may question how they can teach the skills and knowledge associated with civic literacy and activism while adhering to curricular guidelines and possible restrictions on their own political activities. Using Nonfiction for Civic Engagement in Classrooms: Critical Approaches provides some answers.


Each chapter in this book focuses on different strategies and rationales for using nonfiction in elementary and middle school classrooms in order to foster students’ civic engagement. While the approaches vary, all are infused with a focus on social justice and a predisposition for critical inquiry. Most of the contributors are professors in American schools of education.


The book opens with a chapter outlining some of the ways that authors of children’s trade books have introduced social issues in their work. It also introduces some of the major awards given to distinguished children’s nonfiction, such as the Obis Pictus and Robert F. Sibert Awards. This chapter establishes the expectation that classroom teachers should guide children to works of nonfiction that have a high literary quality as well as appropriate content. The editors have found that classroom teachers tend to overlook distinguished works of nonfiction, and they intend for this book to help correct this.


Each chapter presents what is essentially a case study of a particular pedagogical approach for nurturing civic engagement in the classroom, and some of the chapters focus on specific social issues. Chapter Two uses the Civil Rights Movement as a useful framework for dealing with the sometimes uncomfortable issue of race relations. Chapter Three looks at issues of power, identity, difference, and access to knowledge, tools, and resources as exemplified in books about the immigrant experience. Chapter Five demonstrates how one teacher introduced the World War II internment of Japanese Americans to his mostly Hispanic sixth-grade students using the KWL (“I know. I want to know. I learned.”) approach to critical inquiry. Chapter Six tells how a teacher looked to autobiographies of “ordinary” Native Americans to guide students to engage critically with texts, finding that the young people related more readily to characters who were like them than they did to famous historical figures. Chapter Seven looks at ways in which biographies about male role models who overcome obstacles could lead to constructive discussion about bullying.


All of the chapters listed above include some tips for classroom teaching. Other chapters focus specifically on methods and strategies. For example, Chapter Four gives useful background on teaching for social justice. Teachers who are just beginning to think about incorporating this value into their classrooms would find the six elements for social justice (p. 41) to be useful touchpoints. Chapter Eight models reflective practice by recounting an assignment for preservice teachers that failed to reach its learning outcomes. The faculty responsible for this unsuccessful exercise explain what they learned about fostering critical literacy and critical literary theory as a result. The final chapter is a compilation of helpful resources, both print and multimedia, for classroom teachers.


The variety of topics and methods covered is impressive. What is missing, however, is a more comprehensive guide to suitable nonfiction trade books that would lend themselves to this objective. The pointers to major book awards is a start, but few classroom teachers have the time to follow up on lists of titles with no annotations to help them determine reading level or even content. Teachers who are committed to pursuing a more activist approach to civic engagement will need to find a good school or public children’s librarian to partner with them. Far too many teachers are still relying on the handful of children’s books they learned about when they were in school, and there are literally thousands of new titles published each year. An article in the New York Times in September 2018 noted a recent increase in the number of children’s books promoting political themes, usually from a more liberal perspective (Russo, 2018). Librarians who specialize in children’s and teen services will be aware of these titles and eager to share them with teachers.


While this book would be a rewarding read for most classroom teachers, it will probably find its bigger audience among faculty responsible for teaching methods or subject area courses in education schools.



Astor, M. (2018, August 16). Speakers, students, activists, survivors. New York Times, p. A11.


Hussey, K. (2018, August 27). Emboldened by Parkland, Newtown students find voice. New York Times, p. A23.


Russo, M. (2018, September 7). Children’s authors aren’t just signing books. They’re signing petitions, too. New York Times, p. A12.


Yoon-Hendricks, A. (2018, July 22). Teenagers fight climate change, from the front. New York Times, p. A21.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 01, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22550, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:12:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Virginia Walters
    University of California, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    Virginia A. Walter has a PhD in Public Administration from the University of Southern California. She is an Emerita Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Information Studies Department. Relevant publications include War & Peace: A Guide to Literature and New Media, Grades 4-8 (Libraries Unlimited, 2007) and Twenty-First Century Kids, Twenty-First Century Librarians (American Libraries, 2010). She is currently working on a book for librarians about strategies for fostering civic literacy and activism in children and teens.
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