Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Teaching and Reading

What Would You Like Me to Talk About?

I was asked to speak to teachers at a bookstore’s "education" night. Cool, I thought, what should I talk about? The store manager made various suggestions, then said, "I spoke with a teacher the other day, and she said, ‘how can we get them to read?’" There is a great deal in that statement — in one way, it shows how history, which is to say content, folds into literacy, or skill. That harkens directly back to my first posts, about the social studies crisis. In another it is about interest — how can we get kids to pick up a history book? I have many thoughts about both, but I decided to ask my 7 year old son, who had some good suggestions.

Sasha knows that I’ve been excerised about something I learned this summer — the Triangle Trade, that staple of all our textbooks, really was never a Triangle. In fact some 40% of the goods used to purchase enslaved people in Africa were fabrics, from India. So, at a minimum there was no triangle. Europeans needed to go to Asia first in order to trade in Africa. There are more twists and turns to this, but Sasha said, "why don’t you begin with the triangle trade. That is easy, it is something the kids know, then you open it up, which is a harder kind of American History, then you go to world history." In other words, you take something familiar, turn it upside down, and show how that leads out to ever more interesting and newer forms of history.

That sounded just right to me. How can we get kids to read? Start from what they know, but then move into new ideas, fresh points of view, concepts that are not familiar. If we find history fascinating, if we are willing to turn what we thought we knew upside down, then we invite young people to be interested, to join in the adventure. "How can we get them to read" could be rephrased as, how can we get them to enjoying thinking and making discoveries. That’s where I would start.



  1. Chris Barton says:

    That’s a pretty handy seven-year-old you’ve got there. The key to his approach, I think, lies in that startling moment when the reader/listener/audience realizes that he’s not merely being told (again) what he already knows, but that what he already “knows” is wrong. For my money, that’s a sensation that never gets old.

  2. Monica Edinger says:

    I recommend that teachers make no assumptions about what their students already know. As I believe you know I’ve long used the Pilgrim myths with my 4th grade students to get into the truer history of the settlement. I first ask them what they know and it is pretty interesting how muddled their ideas of the Pilgrims are (as they confuse aspects of the “story” with Jamestown and Columbus). Anyone interested in learning more about what I do with this and another misunderstood situation (Chief Seattle), see my article, “The Pilgrim Maid and the Indian Chief” in the October 2005 Educational Leadership (a themed issue on Reading Comprehension, by the way).

  3. Betsy Fraser says:

    I think you (and your son) hit the nail on the head. Some of the books that have had the strongest reactions from teens recently have started in exactly that way: Russell Freedman showing Marian Anderson singing to thousands, Pete Nelson’s “Left for Dead” starting off with a twelve-year-old wondering if something really did happen that way while watching “Jaws”? The first step on the road to Congress. History gives kids a chance to make a discovery about what *really* did happen.