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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Abuzz, But

Yesterday I attended a lunch where I had to meet the heads of various New Jersey state library associations — ranging from school librarians to law librarians to those who work closely with ALA. The good news from that meeting is that they are all aware of the new focus on nonfiction literacy — that announced shift in national policy has already had a real impact on schools, teachers, and thus libraries. In the many long cycles of books and book young readers, nonfiction is back. That was the good news. The bad news is that my wife recently attended a 5th grade social studies presentation and all too many of the students gave the monotonic recital of crashingly boring quickly downloaded facts. Only a very few students had figured out that history is about questions, not lists of dates and mispronounced names. Fifth graders are fifth graders — the problem was the teacher had not guided them. She did not seem to have that wider view of what history is and can be.

To the teacher, getting kids to research and write those lists was enough, she had done her job. She had no sense of inquiry to impart to her students. And so now we come into the very problem that is sure to come with the new standards that, in fact, focus on inquiry: if teachers themselves are not trained to think like a historian, they cannot pass that approach on to their students. Friends do you know Sam Wineburg and his site? If not, explore here and pass the link on to others: My concern is that even as the schools swing back to nonfiction, unprepared teachers — especially in the elementary grades — will be desperate for guidance which, surely, some form of textbook will provide, and we will be back to square one.

If we want teachers to use trade books, we have to think about how to train them to do so — much as, for years, middle and high school teachers have gone to sessions where they are introduced to new YA novels. There are, as you know, entire companies devoted to sending YA fiction advocates on the road to hold teacher development sessions in which they show and tell. We have none of that, we have no active conduit to teachers — either to show our wares or to give them ideas and insights for how to use our books to promote historical thinking. That’s a problem. We should all be making podcasts or youtubes showing us with teachers in class using our books — spreading the good news, winning coverts, demonstrating how its done.


  1. Thank you for the link to Great site and great quote: “Historians believe that history is about thinking, not memorizing.” When I was trying to get my books published, I worried that I didn’t include minor players’ names or crowd the copy with dates (aside from generally placing the stories in their time frames, of course). But I held firm to my belief that it was the stories that mattered, especially to kids in upper elementary or middle school grades. Leaving them with questions and a desire to find out more was what I was aiming for.

    Whenever I had to defend this approach, I’d say, “Well, they’ll have plenty of time in high school and college to worry about regurgitating names and dates. This is the time to capture their imaginations.” I’m glad to see that the “regurgitation” approach is being challenged in the upper grades too.

  2. It all goes back to education and preparation. You can’t teach what you don’t know. Until state departments of education require more vigorous content of elementary school teachers, I believe we will have this knowledge gap in social studies, science, and math, and in the field of literature if not reading. Time and time again I witness teachers in my graduate programs become aware of what they don’t know in terms of content.

    Knowledge of content shapes an understanding of how to use teaching methods (content pedagogical knowledge) and knowledge of a variety of teaching methods and ways of accessing content shapes the ways in which teachers approach new content and texts. The two are inextricably linked in my mind, and teachers need deeper knowledge and understanding of both, particularly if we want them to be grounded in the fields of study they teach and strong advocates for curriculum that meets the needs of students and prepares them for the future, unlike the Orwellian situation you described earlier this week.

    I place this burden on the states, and perhaps the new Common Core Standards and the new report from TEAC will support this transition. As long as states call the shots on credentials, schools will always have to meet the base level of coursework. Otherwise, teachers won’t attend their school, and the school will be out of business. Schools of Education get condemned for not preparing teachers adequately, but if we want to have students, we can’t require twice as many courses, and twice the time as other schools. Teachers don’t make enough money on the other side of graduate school to justify the expense. The only way for that kind of change to happen is if everyone works in tandem. Look to Europe and other places where teachers are grounded in content and then move to methods in a structured, multi-year entry into the field. Here, it’s a race to “deregulate” and get folks into the classroom, trying to remove as many barriers as possible. But if we made those “barriers” rigorous courses in content with methods courses aligned to them, I think we’d see a vast difference in what teachers are able to do.

    In terms of nonfiction literature, we need students exposed to more of it in their coursework. But in many places, the survey course in children’s literature, which gives at least a nod to nonfiction, has been blended into the reading methods courses, and a nonfiction course is nonexistent in most schools.

    There’s much good work to do to change this landscape. To start, perhaps a Nonfiction “Clearinghouse” of sorts….an online portal to authors, topics, organizational text structures, etc. Librarians could work on the archiving of the material and the organizing principles for categorizing books, descriptions, tags, etc. and teachers could work on teaching ideas.

  3. Correction – it is the new NCATE report, not TEAC. Sorry! The two will soon be merging, but it’s an NCATE report. You can find it:

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I like the idea of a clearinghouse which brings together librarians and teachers and authors — lets do it

  5. Shirley Budhos says:

    How about writers/librarians/teachers working together to devise lessons or directives on what teachers should do? I don’t mean study guides. I, of course, reveal I’m still a print person, but most teachers would welcome information on what and how to stimulate students in conducting and presenting research. For example, what are the important questions in such assignments? Telling students to do something with few instructions or directives means they just collect data. Since it is obvious that teachers are not familiar with scholarly research, then put it before them. Videos and all visual aids are fine, but teachers use notebooks to prepare lessons. Use their format (in my day it was the developmental lesson plan), and recommend several books they can explore. Such information can be posted in school libraries or distributed in the library.

    What you’re really dealing with is retraining teachers. It won’t happen unless someone reveals how historians think, read, investigate, ask questions, form hypotheses/answers, etc. You know the drill. Share it with teachers to update their skills. And, please don’t criticize them, for much is asked of them, certainly in elementary & middle schools. I am not someone who waits for national organizations to dive into the river; change comes from within the classroom, the teacher’s perspective, and supportive personnel.

    How about an historian like you, Marc, doing a presentation on how you work. Reveal what makes your mind different from a fiction writer’s, and then build on that to demonstrate how a teacher can adopt those skills/techniques to prepare materials for students.

    As a teacher who enjoyed doing research, I always provided directives (printouts with questions for students which they used to explore a library to select, examine, and read books & write about, whatever the genre. I refer to the old fashioned “worksheets,” of course, but they”d be designed to promote students’ investigations which developed beyond data for data’s sake. Concepts about what has to be done are fine, but for me, hands on tasks keep the action moving.