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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Site to See: Becoming Historians

How can we help students in elementary school go from passively reading about history to becoming historians themselves? Here’s a place to start: A bit of background, last year Rachel Mattson and Terri Ruyter invited Marina and me to meet with them and some 20-or-so elementary school teachers and to present our Work In Progress — the book on the history of suger we are writing. It was a great experience for us, because — as Monica frequently points out — we are only rarely in elementary classrooms. For us, we had the chance to learn where our project did or did not fit with these teachers’ sense of their students — some of whom were as young as kindergarden. But there was a second benefit, which you will see on the site. Terri and Rachel also developed projects, exercises, actions that the teachers tried out, and which extended what we are working on in the book. Writing a book is a form of translation, you take your research and put it into a form suited to your readers and your format. Now we experienced a second form of translation, seeing our book-in-progress being turned into a set of classroom activities.

We hope to go back and work with Rachel and Terri again this summer. And recently having been in a number of elementary schools I have been thinking more about that second form of translation. How do I take what is in a book I have written as a text and turn it into an experience for kids who are unlikely to read the whole book. I don’t believe that I should include any of those activities in my book — that becomes a textbook, an entity crafted for the classroom. And I personally have to write for a reader, not for a user. But I do think this whole area of working out how to take what we craft for the page and turn it into something that leads to active learning is important. I wish regular trade and library publishers would pair authors with a teacher from early on — not to make us match some Lexile count or taper what we do to State Standards. But, instead, for her to be developing tools that draw on our research, our writing process, and then our books. 

In April I am going to Illinois to spend a week in a high school where we are trying out a version of what I just said — I will work with the kids on their writing, and share with them what I have worked on that day. The idea is that we are involved in each other’s process, becoming historians together.


  1. Tricia Stohr-Hunt says:

    My answer to your question is exactly where you went. We must start with the teachers. I spend a great deal of time with my preservice teachers engaged in the work of “examining history.” We do the kinds of activities I think they should do with their kids. Since we know most teachers will teach as they were taught, we must help them to see history as more than names and dates, and thinking historically as akin to solving a puzzle.

    Thanks so much for sharing this site.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Tricia: I would love to work out a way for authors who write knowledge books for younger readers to meet with those teachers, as Marina and I had the chance to do. We need to be in touch.