I’m sure you’ve all seen the news that the administration is proposing a new version of NCLB tinyurl.com/yzno8qf This, like the new national standards, can be really good news for non-fiction. But as we turn back to content, and to an expanded definition of iteracy that includes non-fiction, we come back to an old debate — are we to teach kids facts, dates, names, distances to various stars and planets, or should we focus on teaching them to think leaving it to them to fill in the blanks with data that they can easily gather? Well using the tiny focus group of my 9 year old son, I’ve seen something interesting, which relates to that haul of non-fiction treasure which arrived in the mail the other day: the more he reads about anything, the more he begins to have a baseline of information which then allows him to add on new stuff, and then begin to ask questions and build theories.
To any of you who are teachers this must seem obvious, but it is fascinating to watch in operation — because he happened to read Jim Murphy’s The Truce (about WWI) and a book on Hiroshima, he needed to understand the difference between the two world wars — and since he is not that far from having read My Brother Sam is Dead (or even Sam the Minuteman) he had to puzzle out how England went from being our enemy to our friend. Then having read about the Bomb, he needed to know what the Cold War was, and where we are today. In other words having the fragments of information — those relatively random set of books — gave him enough knowledge to connect dots, or see where there were apparent contradictions and gaps. Information created the possibility of new knowledge.
So it seems to me what we need to do is flood kids with non-fiction that they find interesting — in almost any, or no, order — just give them lilly pads to land on, and as they begin to understand the contours of each pad, they will begin to be able to map the whole pond in their minds. They need as many starting places as we can provide — and then some next and third and fifth places to go from those launching pads — that search will gave them both information and the kinds of questions that create new knowledge.