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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

My Last Word on the Teacher Issue

To Conclude

Readers of this blog surely noticed a flurry of posts and counterposts about books and teachers, with most of the posts here, and on her own blog, coming from Monica Edinger (a longtime friend). As I explained to her in an email, I don’t think we ought to go on in the dialog — I have been on too many blogs and listservs in which what seems to be a private exchange takes over — even if one or more party is actually speaking for others. I feel that takes what should be a public forum and makes it seem private, even personal. But I do want to correct what I feel is a misperception of my view of books and teachers.

My wife and I are writing a book on the history of sugar. This summer we had the great fortune of sharing our work in progress with about 20 New York City elementary school teachers K-6. We learned a great deal that improved our book. Anyone who visits my website, will see that I have hired the marvelous Jean West to create teacher’s guides for my books. And, you all do not know this, but I have been talking to a number of schools about my great wish: to be "embedded" in a school while I write one of my books. I would love to share my research, my work process, my drafts with students and teachers. Indeed I have been working with a college to create an institute in which teachers and authors work together to understand each other’s needs.

Why then could people have the impression that I am dismissive of teachers? Because I have repeatedly pointed out that as a rule K-12 teachers do not have enough training in content areas. That is not blame, it is not teacher’s fault, it is not universally true. But every study shows that it is true enough. And that does create a problem for authors who want to be innovative in their nonfiction. We cannot count on teachers feeling comfortable with new approaches to nonfiction topics — because they have not had a college level education in those topics — the kind of education that encourages you to understand a discipline as in formation, as having a historiography and a set of questions and unresolved problems. That is a given, a fact of American education. It is not realistic to expect every author or publisher to surround his or her books with explanations to catch teachers up to speed. Nor, as I have often heard from school librarians, are teachers and librarians in enough regular contact to rely on the librarian to supply that extra knowledge.

Think of it this way — when a novelist tries a new approach, say Walter Dean Myers in Monster, teachers who were English majors and are accustomed to the idea of an unreliable narrator will go with it. They try to meet the author where he or she has gone. But in nonfiction, teachers less familiar with new approaches are more likely to find the book itself unreliable, untrustworthy. We don’t ask novelists to go into classrooms, we expect teachers to make use of whatever they create. Speaking from a nonfiction author’s point of view, I find that to be a problem.

I leave it to readers of this blog to suggest concrete ways to cope with this problem.

I do want to move on to other topics, but I hope this clears the air on the teacher issue — at least for now.


  1. There’s a world of difference between fiction and non-fiction with expectations to match. Unless you’re a fan of unreliable non-fiction (or “creative non-fiction”) I think those expectations we place for non-fiction authors is a good thing.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I used “unreliable” in fiction as a parallel to point of view in nonfiction. I am not speaking for faction per se, but to encourage a sense that knowledge is a process of discovery, not a settled body of fact. As Betty Carter pointed out in a review, what is important about Pluto is the debate and the process of thought, not the conclusion. That is the view I encourage.