What I Learn, Again and Again, When I Meet Teachers
I spent the first two days this week at the Reading and Language ARts institute that Linda Pavonetti and Jim Cipielewski run at Oakland University in Rocherster Michigan. I was there to introduce teachers — from elementary to High School — who are working towards a Masters in Reading to nonfiction. I experienced there what I have seen over and over again when I meet similar teachers throughout the country: their own experience with reading and studying history was bad; they use textbooks which they find boring; they have no concept of what can be done in trade nonfiction; and they don’t know how to use our books in class. It is not so much that they are resistant to nonfiction as it is that they have no experience with books that center on inquiry, that put a premium on engaging the reader, that ultilize thoughful design.
Before we met, I sent the students five drafts of the biography of Bobby Kennedy I wrote a couple of years ago. We looked at all of the decisions, the choices, I made from version to version. I wanted to them to understand that there are no givens in nonfiction — you don’t have to begin when your subject is born, or with his or her name — a book is not an encyclopedia entry. A book is a result of many creative decisions — not creative in the sense of invention, you are not making up information about your subject; but creative in the sense that your artistry, your experience, your research into other books and modes of writing, allow you to a great deal of invention and innovation in how you will structure your book.
The teachers were seeing nonfiction in a new way and, at the same time, getting a model for their students who have to write, revise, and rewrite. It just feels so obvious to me that we authors need to be working closely with classroom teachers, and classroom teachers need us. I kept hearing over and over what I have said here before — most, K-12 teachers do not have enough training in the content areas they teach. That is simply a fact of our educational system. Again, they need us — we who make our living reasearching new content, assimilating, understanding it, and translating it into books for the very students those teachers teach. We need them.