Changing On the Fly
First off, thanks to all of you for your nice, encouraging, posts. At AASL, an audience member asked the panel Jim Murphy http://www.jimmurphybooks.com/, Ann Bausum http://www.annbausum.com/, Kathy Krull http://www.kathleenkrull.com/ and me http://www.marcaronson.com/ why we write for young people, not adults. I said, "because you are all so welcoming, so it is your fault." And so it is — the fact that our books are read, engaged with, discussed, valued, makes us want to keep writing them.
I thought that, in the spirit of interactivity, I’d try an experiment here. We all know the assignment where a student has to get information, but is required to use more than an encyclopedia. But what exactly is an encyclopedia these days? That gets to the really interesting new meeting place of nonfiction and young people. We are in November, so assume a kid needs to find out something about Thanksgiving. I don’t have a print young reader’s encyclopedia at hand, so I can’t look it up. But I can presume that an entry would be visually appealing, written and edited with the younger reader in mind, and pretty careful to be aware of both the Indian and Pilgrim experiences. In other words, it would be carefully crafted to hand the students what thoughtful authors, editors, publishers, educators, historians, and art directors believe they need.
What would wikipedia give us? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving#United_States Clear information, written for adults but not overly daunting, with links pointing in directions from cranberries to Thanksgiving in Canada. There is also a "simple English" version http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving that is a bit like a book for younger readers, except in a book aimed at this reading level there would surely be many pictures. So it is a kind of half book. Now take a look at how Thanksgiving is handled at answers.com, http://www.answers.com/topic/thanksgiving-day Here you can find the Wiki version, as well as the Columbia Encyclopedia, and the shorter Britannica, and others. Surely this is more than a young reader would want, but it shows, at a glance, how the very same event can be described, discussed, treated many different ways. In the digital environment, the Encyclopedia is almost the opposite of the print version: the Wiki leads you to links you need to select from yourself, Answers.com turns the encyclopedia from the one-stop-product of adult selection to an instant portrait of the many forms of adult writing and thinking.
In hockey, when teams trade shifts while play continues they call it, "changing on the fly." What we are seeing in these digital encyclopedias is knowledge changing on the fly. So I think that rather than tell students not to use an encyclopedia, or to use more than that reference, we should have them compare among print and various on-line encyclopedias. Lets use the print to get the benefit of adult judgment, then on-line to spur kids to do their own thinking, their own comparisons, they own judgments. Instead of being a source for canned knowledge that ends enquiry, the many encyclopedias can now bring young people to the frontiers of changing ideas, and spur their own thinking.