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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Google Me This

Another School Visit, Another Story

The other day I got to meet with all of the fifth graders at a local school. They’d seen some of my books, so I was half talking about the subjects in them, and half giving the "how I research and write my books" talk. There is always a sweet moment in one of those talks, towards the end of the question period, someone, generally a girl who has not spoken up before, who looks a bit different, raises her hand and asks, "what should a person do if she loves writing, and wants to be a writer?" You know that she eats, sleeps, dreams of writing, and wants the stepping stone that will turn her yearning into a life path. I say something about reading a lot, sharing your work, Stone Soup, etc. And I know that that question always comes from a future novelist, not a nonfiction writer. 

After going through my published books, I mentioned a new one (product placement to follow) that I wrote with the historian Scott Nelson, which traces Scott’s quest to find the real John Henry, of steel drill fame http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781426300004 Then I asked the students if they knew the song. Many did — in fact the aspiring author was the most fervent, she almost seemed ready to sing it to all of us, but backed off. Then I asked, if you wanted to find out whether there was a real John Henry how would you go about? Hands shot up all over the auditorium: "Google," "Google Earth," "Answer.com," "remember to include his middle name in your search." In a way they were precisely matching what I wrote about the other day — the way the web has changed what we mean by an encyclopedia. But it was fascinating to see how they are all so tech savvy, so comfortable with and knowledgable about how to use the web, but none associated searching with a research strategy. They knew where to look, but not how to look.

I’m working on a longer column for SLJ about this issue — what does technological literacy mean? But it gets back to my theme (and thanks to all of you for your astonishing, alarming, posts to my last blog): school must be about thinking. Everything else is a skill, a tool, that enhances your thought process, your ability to gather information, your awareness of other people’s thoughts. These fifth graders were exceptionally bright, and I am sure they will go from yelling out "Google," to, soon enough, telling how they themselves researched a problem. I just hope all schools are realizing that Google is the beginning of a sentence, not the end.