Common Core, Homeschooling and Middle School Non-Fiction

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I am looking for the beauty in the Common Core. I am reasonably fond of the word “Common.” It denotes a lack of pretensions. It makes me think of things that I share with others. I also like the word “core.” Yogis and dancers talk about a strong core. The core is the essential component of a person. Until recently, the phrase “Common Core” might have come up in a conversation about kindred spirits or lovers separated by war. “Though we may be far apart, I find solace in our common core. Your pain is my pain. Your hopes are my hopes!”

Also, while I am no fan of public schools, I do want my children to be on an academic par with the students of public schools.

So, with this spirit, I am on a mission to see what the Core can offer me, as a person who teaches homeschooled students. I am not defending the core, nor the contemptuous juggernaut of politics and money that have brought it into being. I am just examining it to see if there is anything that I can take to use as a homeschooling mother and teacher. This post is about history and social studies texts for Middle School students. In this post, I explored the list of fictional texts. In this one, I dove into poetry. My next post will be about Science and Technical writing.

Free teaching resources

With the mass of publicity around the exemplar texts, there are a myriad of teaching materials available, for free. Publishing companies like Scholastic, have educational guides available for many of the exemplar texts for the Common Core. I like “free.”

Non-fiction rocks

Non-fiction is an important topic for me. First off, it is all that I read. I have never really been into fiction and I will make no apologies for that. Sure, I know the classics, and I read to my kids and my students, but I am a seeker of information, which is much more readily available in non-fiction.

Second, I have had some really great experiences teaching non-fiction, especially to my male students. Kids who never “connected” with fiction sometime love non-fiction. I teach mostly non-fiction in my online classes for homeschoolers.

The common core likes non-fiction

The Core asks middle grade teachers to include more non-fiction and informational texts in their studies. In particular, it requires that 55% of texts be informational. It also emphasizes the importance of disciplinary literacy in social studies, science, mathematics, and technical subjects.

These books are challenging

These are not the books that you are going to offer your children as independent reading. These are the books that you will “study” with them. You will read them aloud. You will model what you do when you don’t understand something. You will stop periodically, ask yourself if you understand, and paraphrase what you just read. Your kids will see what it is like to navigate a difficult text. Carol Jago, from the National Council of Teachers of English argues that these texts create an important challenge for young readers: “In our effort to provide students with readings that they can relate to, we sometimes end up teaching works that students can read on their own instead of teaching more worthwhile texts that they most certainly need assistance negotiating. … Classroom texts should pose intellectual challenges for readers and invite them to stretch and grow” She correctly notes that students will need teacher assistance in negotiating these texts; in particular, they will need help in developing both the background knowledge and vocabulary to understand the book.

The Common Core list of Social studies texts

Here is the list and some resources to help you teach them.

Letter on Thomas JeffersonAdams, JohnComments and resources
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, Written by Himself Common CoreDouglass, FrederickAll scholars who want to understand the history of African American slavery should read this Narrative. Reading it in its entirety in middle school is too much. However, passages of it are certainly accessible and worth the effort to understand. Here are three great lessons from the National Endowment of the Humanities. This is a collection of information from Mass Humanities.
Churchill, Winston. “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Address to Parliament on May 13th, 1940.”While I am sure that there are lots of reasons to read Churchill, Middle school students often studyi American History. Why not have them read The Emancipation Proclamation, The Gettysburg Address, or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. There are plenty of resources and they are all beautiful and important pieces of writing.
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground RailroadCommon CorePetry, AnnThis book is essential to any study of the American History or Enslaved Americans. It is easier to read than the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Reading the two of these books together would both provide background information and offer a challenging text. Here is a guide that provides background information and learning activities.
Travels with Charley: In Search of AmericaCommon CoreSteinbeck, JohnThis lesson plan makes it easy. Juliana Beebe has created 9 lessons, complete with videos, conversational topics and activities.
United States. Preamble and First Amendment to the United States ConstitutionWhy stop with the First Amendment? I often have my students paraphrase the entire Bill of Rights.
A Night to RememberCommon CoreLord WalterEveryone loves a tale of life and death. This minute by minute account of the night that the Titanic sunk is filled with gripping stories. There are really great digital resources for teaching about the Titanic listed by Free Tech for Teachers, including this virtual field trip, made by
A Short Walk through the Pyramids and through the World of ArtCommon CoreIsaacson, PhillipWhat is art? Do the pyramids count? What about practical things, like a ceramic jug? Can the layout of an entire city be “art”? A Short Walk Around the Pyramids and Through the World of Art is an introductory art history text with more than 80 color pictures. The photos are great conversation starters, even where the text lacks. Nonetheless, I believe that art is to be seen and experienced. Why not take the kids to a museum? There are many ways to deepen our children’s’ knowledge in addition to reading.
The Great FireCommon CoreMurphy, JimThis is a Newberry Award winning account of the 1871 Chicago fire. There are many lessons and guides available to teach this book. There are also plenty of interesting resources about the fire, itself. Here is an interactive map by The Smithsonian and a play by play of the fire by PBS. This fire is, as tragedies like this so often are, not merely an accident. It would be interesting to compare this tragedy to more recent tragedies, like Hurricane Katrina.
Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an ArtistCommon CoreGreenberg, Jan, and Sandra JordanThe Common Core is asking us to not only re-enforce student literacy, but to richen and deepen our students’ interactions with the arts. There are not many resources available on this book, in particular. However, there are many lessons plans available about Van Gogh.
This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody GuthrieCommon CorePartridge, ElizabethHere is a wonderful lesson plan that incorporates information about Guthrie’s life with videos and recordings of his is also full of information about his life and the times.
Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the ConstitutionCommon CoreMonk, Linda RThis book is interesting and challenging. The content will need scaffolding for most students to be able to understand it. “A Kids’ Guide to the Bill of Rights” by Kathleen Krull. Offers similar information, but is more user-friendly.
Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus BoycottCommon CoreFreedman, RusselThe Montgomery Bus Boycott is so compelling that it almost teaches itself. Nonetheless, there are many great lessons available for teaching about it. If you are looking for some ideas for teaching kids how to closely read a text and support their ideas with reasons and examples, check out this lesson plan.

Let’s find something useful in the Core. Check out these books!


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at

1 thought on “Common Core, Homeschooling and Middle School Non-Fiction

  1. Non fiction and fiction goes hand by hand. We can not deny importance of fiction but non fiction is something next to reality so it must be a part of education and curricula as well.

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