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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Facts On the Ground

Can It Really Be True That Some Elementary School Teachers Have Trouble With Historical Interpretation?

Betsy Partridge wrote in yesterday, incredulous at that statement. And when I started this blog and made similar statements, Monica — speaking for other teachers — also disagreed. But I have to tell you that since I made that speculative argument I have been speaking at Teaching American History grants all over the country. These are professional development opportunities for teachers, who run the gamut from upper elementary to AP. These are motivated, self-selected teachers who want to know more about American History and how to teach it. And just today I heard from another grad school where I will be teaching reading and language arts teachers — my host (not knowing about the post I’d made yesterday) began by warning me that overall the teachers dislike nonfiction, don’t know history, and don’t know how to see nonfiction as literature — rather than just a classroom tool.

At the TAH seminars, just as when I am invited to speak in schools, I keep hearing the same thing. Overwhelmingly, from the elementary grades up through middle grade and even high school, teachers like kids, are trained to teach, but are much more comfortable with fiction, with story, then with historical interpretion, questioning, and thinking. Many are interested in learning more. Many feel crushed by NCLB. But we are hiding our heads in the sand if we don’t recognize the problem trade nonfiction faces in classrooms. Teachers just do not know how to use the books, especially if the books present a point of view, or make their interpretive frame evident. Even as national initiatives stress 21st. century skills — especially developing students’ own abilities to sift information, formulate theories, and make pursuasive cases — the teachers tasked with putting those ideas into practice have not been trained in, say, how to think like a historian.

Just as I wrote a few weeks ago about the reading supervisor who associated reading with "inner emotional experlience." there is a prevailing feeling in public schools, especially in the younger grades, that history is a matter of facts and that speculation and interpretation belong in discussions of novels, not people and events. And that is simply out of touch with the skills students need to learn. 

I say this not to criticize teachers — I enjoy working with them, and am greatful that I am beginning to understand their challenges. But rather to recognize what diplomats call "facts on the ground." We have to recognize the situation we are in in order to work to change it.


  1. Elizabeth Partridge says:

    Thanks for saying more on this subject Marc. Critical thinking skills are probably the most important thing any of us can teach someone. But they are also really complex to understand and to teach. Teachers struggling to comply with No Child Left Behind have admitted to me that history and social studies get neglected so their kids will pass the NCLB tests. They are so overloaded, they simply don’t have the time.
    So how do we help leap across the divide? Since I like to write primary source, close-to-the-bone narrative non-fiction, I’m trying to learn how to step back and show people how to find, assess and interpret information for themselves.

  2. Betsy:

    Those are the key, key questions and I am trying to develop a venue where we authors can work with educators to try to answer them.

  3. Susan Campbell Bartoletti says:


    I like what you say, about stepping back and letting the reader assess and interpret. It’s tempting to do all the thinking for the readers, to provide all of the meaning and all of the context, but does that ultimately empower them and help them become problem solvers and independent thinkers?

    Marc, in referring to your earlier post, do you think historical interpretation requires special training in “that mode of thinking?”


  4. I think that if you are not trained in reading and researching history you may stumble over the fact that the past yields conflicting interpretations — you need a certain comfort with that uncertainty and disputation. Training in history is not the only way there, but for those who have little experience reading academic history, or struggling with primary sources, there is (so I have seen) a tendency to want clarity — true/not true right/wrong — rather than ambiguity and room for debate.