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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Second Challenge — Which is Also a Second Opportunity: The Net

Over at CCBC they have been talking about nonfiction this month, and there is a depressing tenor to many of the comments. The thrust of those comments is that kids run to Google for their research and no longer need/want books to find information. Worse, teachers don’t seem to see a difference between bit gleaned from those net searches and research in book. Having b een in many classrooms and libraries I can attest that if you give kids from elementary school up a research assignment 100% of them will head off to the nearest computer to search. However seeing this as some big change or threat to books strikes me as both short-sighted and based on a misunderstanding of what nonfiction books are and can do.

In the old days kids rushed off to encyclopedias to complete their assignments, so much so that teachers always instructed them to use “not just the encyclopedia” or, “a book of at least 100 pages” — or some other rule designed to ensure that they had to take at least one step passed skimming the encyclopedia summary and slightly rephrasing it. So the fact that kids are rushing, skimming, and slightly rephrasing what they find via an internet search, or, now, Wikipeidia plus one other source, only means that they are doing what their parents (people like, say, us) did. If teachers today are not setting a rule that requires kids to look at the net plus a book that is a mistake teachers are making, not some difference in who young people are.

But why aren’t teachers making that rule? Because they are misunderstanding what nonfiction does. Books are not databases. Databases are databases. Books are the expression of a point of view, an argument, a narrative, a theory, a concept. Books are information thought through, organized,and presented. It is that thinking teachers need to point out to their students. To take a parallel — any teacher who wants to share a folktale, a fairy tale, a tall tale, a myth with her students can find all of the above and more, from all of the cultures of the world, on the net. Yet if that teacher takes a Paul Zelinsky Rapunzel, or a John Sciezska Three Little Pigs she is getting something more than just the story — she is getting the story as transmuted through the art and imagination of an artist, an author. Any teacher can download the Langston Hughes poem My People — but that is not the same as sharing the Charles Smith book which matches the text with beautiful photos. It is not different with nonfiction — the glory of the book is not the facts, it is the approach, the bookmaking, and that is what we need to keep stressing to teachers, to parents, to students, to reviewers. We are not trying to “cover” subjects — we are crafting information into narratives, in points of view — and that is the skill our books can model for young readers.


  1. I suspect that in many cases , we have not taught the kids how to research. We need to teach them how to assess a text critically and how to hunt down the information. I recently heard a librarian say that teachers bad mouth Wikipedia without exploiting its possibilities. In my own experience, students do not take advantage of the bibliographies in the article ; they do not check to see we wrote the article, either. As a sixth grader, I found that a whole new world opened up when I learned how to locate the author of an article in the encylopedia. I think we need to teach our kids how to do research. I personally would love a tutorial on how to use Wikipedia to best advantage.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I agree completely. Wikipedia is a perfectly fine place to start, to begin, or to check something particular — such as a date on a timeline. But it is like visiting a foreign country — you might do an internet search to check out spots to see, or hotel rates, or the weather, or download the subway map, but then you would surely take another step, look for more detailed information. That first glance gives you a sense, an overview. From there you need to actually explore so that the two-dimensional descriptions become vivid three dimensional experiences. I guess that is the analogy I’d use — Wikipededia is once over lightly, a 2-D mapping of a subject. We need to show kids how to go from that initial survey to more detailed knowledge — from overview to insight.

  3. Marc, this is a timely post here. Test results from many schools in my state show deficiencies in reading “informational text”–aka nonfiction. One prong of the solution is to help teachers & librarians broaden their definition of “reading.” It’s not just curling up in a beanbag with a novel. Reading is reading all text, even the back of the Lucky Charms box. The second prong is to educate teachers & librarians about the breadth of good non-fiction and its many purposes, both in print and online, from a resource for quick facts to a well-crafted view of a segment of real life.

  4. Shirley Budhos says:

    I agree with what you wrote, and I have a suggestion. Because youths’ enthusiasms often indicate expediency and inexperience, and they are coping with a new technology, I’d suggest that in-school teacher conferences use that time to inform teachers how to conduct research. I’m familiar with the trivia at such meetings, but acquiring an important and timely skill is really helping teachers teach. And, I’d use hands on assignments, not theory. It’s the way computers were introduced to teachers years ago. And, of course, books must be part of the exploration.

    Though retired, I still keep up with my field, as well as other subjects, and I use the Internet to search, really search, for articles, books, many sources on a writer, book, event, whatever. Actually, that is how I order books, because I usually get so involved that I want to read “everything” on a subject, and I still create folders of my findings,& write about what I’ve discovered—as though I’m still in graduate school. Also, newspapers and magazines contribute to the files. And, as you noted, Wikipedia is the beginning; I use their citations to learn about medical issues, history, and so much more. It is an example of intellectual stimulation and pleasure, for I enjoyed doing research, writing, and teaching students how to develop term papers. And, as a teacher, I’d explore more than one text or source to prepare my instructional materials and the share them with my department. These skills carry over to business and law, and other professions wherever documents and investigations are required, as we all know. I do hope that teacher training courses include the subject of technology and conducting research.

    As for the media condemning the new method of research, remember all the warnings about the dangers of television? Some people still believe that expanding our view of the world beyond our front door will lead our children to something dreadful. The fear of the new is always with us; we all know how valuable it is, so let’s help teachers absorb this new learning. Everyone will profit.

  5. Amen to all you have written! When I visit schools and talk about researching and writing nonfiction, I often do an informal survey asking the kids to raise their hands if they think that research is boring. (In advance, I request teachers to cover their eyes so kids can answer honestly, without fear of getting on the teacher’s bad side.) Almost ALL the kids raise their hands. And then I ask: How many of you use the internet? All hands go up. No doubt about it, the internet is a helpful research tool, BUT it is also one of the most boring ways to conduct research. Encyclopedias, being the second most boring way, is the next most popular research tool of choice for many students. That means kids start research projects with two strikes against them from the beginning.

    I think most authors of today’s nonfiction books for young people would agree that we try to present information in ways that will engage and involve the reader and, hopefully, stimulate her or him into seeking additional information via other sources.

    Shirley has an excellent point in suggesting that teachers be instructed how to conduct research. The sad, simple truth is that many teachers are unfamiliar with research techniques and time constraints from the many demands on their schedules don’t allow them the luxury to develop research skills. In-service meetings may provide help in this area.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Perfect — can you tell us where to find those results, and the proposed efforts to improve NF reading skills?

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    I agree that we need to show teachers how to conduct research, while we need to train librarians to not just help kids look for information, but also guide them in how to evaluate it, and invite students into the adventure of doing both — finding things out and making sense of what you have discovered.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    I think — and I will say more about this tomorrow — part of the problem is that kids know how to web surf but not how to shelf or book browse — we go from one bit to the next on our own, instead of roaming in a field someone else has crafted. More soon.

  9. Mary Ann Cappiello says:

    In my nonfiction course for teachers, I used to do a library visit on this very topic. Because so many teachers work in schools without a certified librarian or media specialist, often times the book finding/browsing strategies fall to teachers or worse — to no one. We would practice specifically looking for topics (in pairs) both strategically (via the catalog) and by browsing. From there, they categorized the books in terms of which were the best to start with (survey books or specialized, etc.) and by publication date. Sadly, even I don’t do this anymore because there is so much else to try to squeeze into my course. This post is making me rethink where I can find the time. Last weekend, I was teaching my nonfiction course in a large, beautiful middle school library. It was evident that one of the grades was researching the American Revolution, as two tables were filled with books on the topic. Many of the books were published before I first studied the American Revolution as part of the Bi-Centennial when I was in 2nd grade! Honestly, the titles were from 1970. A great physical space, but the books were not going to get kids excited about reading about the American Revolution. I wonder if such conditions, when outdated nonfiction outweighs the number of current titles, compounded with a dependence/devotion to the net, is what makes some students not want to read nonfiction books.

  10. Marc Aronson says:

    that sounds like the worst possible combination — books that invite you to ignore them plus the gleaming net. The one fun activity might be to challenge the older books — to examine them as time capsules, artifacts of another era, and invite the kids to find their flaws, or how they reflect their time, or to compare them to some sites to see how our view of the past has changed.

  11. Marc, newest data not released on web sites yet, but here is a brief explanation of the problem & corrective professional development program

  12. Shirley Budhos says:

    A short note: Indeed, many teachers have not taken graduate courses in how to conduct research whether concentrated on books only or using online sources.The common assignment is to write a paper on a specific theme, person, event, etc, and to use a specific number of sources(books), add footnotes and bibliography, and there you are, awaiting a high grade for excellent organization and typing! Conducting research is much more than that, as the writers on this site know. It’s a pity when research is experienced as a mechanical process to amass sufficient details to create a paper , because research is also pleasurable, or perhaps it is obsessive-compulsive, for when a topic becomes so exciting, interesting, and challenging, one concentrates deeply. I call it a scavenger hunt of the mind.

    What Marc describes as a table filled with boring books that students manage to peek at is often the case. But, again, I insist that teachers who learn how to conduct research can become passionate about it by selecting topics they are truly interested in, and that fever is then passed on to students. Also, a visit to a library with a class, to me as a teacher meant structured preparation, guiding students in the steps to help them find their passion. I still use that outdated word, for that is what it can be and is.

    For example I notice how exciting it is for my grandson to amass information and evaluations and think about sports, the athletes, their performance & records, comparisons of games and scores, exciting events, etc. I wish that excitement seeps into studies in classrooms; otherwise, we are educating Dr. Casaubons all over again.