Last week Mary Ann and Shirley posted suggesting some interesting and fresh ways to overcome the gap between classroom teachers and trade books. If you did not read their comments, do so. Mary Ann suggested “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.” Shirley asked, ”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.” Mary Ann was imagining an on-line space where teachers could go for one stop shopping, a kind of virtual library of trade books and how to use them in social studies classes. Shirley was stressing the modeling needed to “retrain” teachers so they understand that social studies research is not a matter of amassing discrete factoids. And as they were posting, I was making initial contacts with some members of NCSS about the idea of a trade author strand at their conference — it did not go well.
Beating beneath the lively ideas Mary Ann and Shirley proposed was a sense of the gap, a recognition that the harried, test-driven, scope and sequence dominated world of teachers really is out of touch with trade nonfiction. And a version of that gap is what I encountered in emails with NCSS. Their conference is small and struggling. At least at first several of them interpreted my idea as some kind of power grab, as if these outsiders were coming in to take over and abuse their already embattled meeting. And so there you have it — there is some way that with all of the travails teachers already have, new ideas can feel more like a threat and a burden than a solution.
Now maybe the good that has come of these few days flurry of activity is to make us all very clear that there is a huge gap, that it is defended by fear, and that it won’t go away because we wish it would. Maybe we are at that therapeutic moment where healing begins by recognizing the depth of the problem. Maybe. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in the new national standards with the focus on nonfiction literacy — in the sense that we need to teach nonfiction in reading as well as research. Mary Ann’s and Shirley’s ideas are both good, and we need to think of ways to make them real. But I must admit to feeling a rare moment of discouragment when I recognize quite how far apart we’ve let ourselves become.