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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Something Here Just Is Not Making Sense

In a comment that you should all read, Liz Dejean directs our attention to  as an example of the kind of “clearning house” that Mary Ann desecribed. Indeed Nick was kind enough to interview me about history and, most recently, Marina and me about our Sugar book. So yes it exists, is a rich resource, is aimed at teachers, and it does focus on trade books. She also mentions another which I don’t know called Thinkfinity — tell us more. Liz goes on to suggest that the problem is not the lack of a resource but a lack of time — that teachers are so pressed to have students produce testable results that they, and the schools, and the school testing folks rely on what is relatively easy to measure — multiple choice discrete facts, not rich, thoughtful, engagement with history.

Certainly Liz is right to point us to existing resources and the pressures on teachers. And yet: at NCSS I spoke to over 200 teachers who had made time to come there and who, since, have emailed me and Dr. O’Brian to ask for more resources in order to teach new ideas that are not only not on tests, they contradict what is in textbooks. Of course this was the most self-selected group of motivated teachers. But that is the very point — the issue really is not time it is a choice of how to use time. I hope I don’t sound dismissive, but librarians are pressed for time and their jobs are in danger, authors are pressed for time and anxious about the future of print, I am not sure why the pressure on teachers is so different. Am I missing something?

One expert I spoke with put it this way — he sees teachers as in a particular bind. They are weighed down by necessity, and yet somewhere in there is a yearning to teach, to make the classroom meaningful, to engage students with something — whether that is civics, or history, or a social conscience, or the laws and principles of our nation. The question is how to speak to that yearning without coming across as ignorant of the daily pressures. Mary Ann sees this as a problem in how teachers are trained. Shirley suggested that English and Social Studies be combined — as indeed they were in every year of my pre-college education — so that teachers are simultaneously exploring the riches of fiction and of social historical context. Liz puts it down to time and testing.

As a historian I see a result with an incomplete cause — we can describe the behavior of social studies teachers better than we can explain it. Indeed my contact with NCSS suggests that, as a group, they are feeling embattled, unimportant, marginalized by NCLB’s focus on minimum standards of reading and language arts, sidelined by a national culture in which history is more an avocation (adults read about that corner of the past that they find interesting) than a core of who we are as a society, as a nation, battered by competing views of the past tied to competing political programs today, belittled by the world of the now where the newest technology seems much more vivid and important than Henry Clay, or the Monroe Doctrine, or teasing out the sometimes racist and anti-semetic strand in populist progressivism. In other words is the problem lack of time or lack of belief — lack of a sense that what they are doing is important, so important that their students must have better tools? Do we need a self help revival movement for social studies teachers to help them believe again?


  1. I find that this past year, I have been working harder than ever before in terms of preparation and research. Lack of time is a constant problem: paperwork , extra programming arranged by the administration, etc. Their is no paucity of material, on the contrary, there is more than I can ever use in my classroom time. My biggest challenge
    ( and I am not trained to do this ) is editing. I am constantly reworking my year long plan, my weekly plan and my daily lesson plan. Editing. How do I select the most significant information and convery it in limited time without sacrificing the big picture.
    I feel as though I am participating in an athletic challenge and I have benefited from evaluating the material so closely. But the kids are vulnerable to my jusgements – what did I leave out and what message does that convery. Insights into editing will be very helpful. Happy Thanksgiving !

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    You bring up a couple of good points. For one, the fact that there are, if anything, too many good resources available to teachers — primary sources, websites, film clips, oral histories, maps, Google mpas, lesson plans, etc. etc. So back to the clearninghouse idea, the question is how to sort through the too-many possibilities. That is where a school librarian could be very useful — filtering and selecting from all that a teacher could use only those resources that are most likely to help her and her students. Now as to editing, what insights would be useful? Trade book editing is a bit different in that a great deal of our concern is communication — selecting the approach, the structure, the flow of ideas, even the individual words, sentences, subheads, and paragraphs (not to speak of images, maps, sidebars) that will make the book an engaging read. But it seems you are talking about a different meaning of editing — selection in terms of most important content — triage — is that correct? Can you give us an example?

  3. I teach third grade in Virginia, and my biggest problem in teaching history is how to teach my students the information they need to learn as well as the context to make it make sense. The Virginia SOLs (Standards of Learning) require students to know specific facts about the Greek and Roman civilizations (Greeks used columns in architecture, Romans used arches is one example) and our textbook only goes includes those specific pieces of information. But that information isn’t very meaningful without more context. So I use trade books, websites, my own photographs from travel and historical fiction books to try and give my students a sense of how that information fits into the bigger picture of these two civilizations. All of that takes time and I have eight separate social studies units to teach over the year–only a small amount of which has been covered in previous grades and all of which will be tested in May, before the end of the school year. So I am constantly trying to strike a balance between giving my students more than the bare bones that the testing requires, and not so much that I don’t have time for my other material. It’s a big challenge, and hopefully as I continue teaching, I will get better at it. As you say, collaboration and working with my librarian and other school specialists is a big help!

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful answer. 19th century America is one example. There are numerous areas for exploration. North, South, East , West, the Civil War, Reconstruction, The Gilded Age. I would love to spend time talking about the role boarding houses played in the history of this country ( an idea I got from university urban planning department websites ) . I would love to spend more time talking about the actual roads settlers traveled ( an idea I got from geneological societies ). I would love to do a project on
    transportation history , specifically railroads. The Mississippi River could easily merit a whole class but that is impossible. I guess what I need to do is learn as much as I can and get the kids excited enough to rush off to the library ( or their laptop ) and follow up.
    I think of a teacher I had in high school who gave me his library card to his college library
    ( it was in the city ) and told me to go find a topic to research. Thirty years later, I still remember the exhilaration and the content of that project. That is what I want to accomplish

  5. Mary Ann Cappiello says:

    While social studies teachers may feel marginalized because their courses have not been the focal point of so much attention, in many ways social studies is like Montana, “last best place” where authentic teaching and learning can happen, because there are no national expectations with regard to testing. Of course, that’s when, where, and if it is taught. Many teachers have been told not to teach it, because of the testing expectations for math and reading. Middle school social studies teachers have to do double-duty to give students a real background. And who wants to live in a country where students know nothing about their history or how the economy operates or where their state is on the map? If you weren’t feeling discouraged already, this is it’s own crisis. Social studies – or a humanities curriculum that integrates purposeful reading, writing, reflection, and analysis — needs a publicist. is a great resource, but it’s inconsistent. We need a framework for exploring trade books, both fiction and nonfiction, and digital resources, linking itself to the best that museums and libraries have to offer, powered by a search engine that helps teachers find what they need. Bill Gates? Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. Marc Aronson says:


    Context is our biggest challenge as well. Not because we are trying to make sure to cover a list of specific facts, but because — as you say — no detail about a previous time and place is either important or even fully understandable outside of its context. So in writing a biography, for example, the actions and thoughts of the person must be a window into his or her time or they make no sense. I think context is something we could all work on together — like what if there were a central site dedicated to each of your seven periods — a curated site that offered information on social historry, material culture, food, festivals, beliefs, art, role of women, lives of children, war, politics, environment etc. — so that as you teach a unit, or as I write a book, we could know that main site existed and work off of it? That’s pie in the sky now — but we should all think about what we want, what would help us establish context for kids trapped in the present? and work together to build it.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    History is, as your high school teacher showed you, fascinating once you begin to explore. The Mississippi, what a perfect subject in fact and fiction. As Shirley suggested — read Huck Finn and at the same time study life along the river.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    I’m with you.

  9. Liz Dejean says:

    First – an ad:
    Thinkfinity (formerly MarcoPolo but now sponsored by Verizon and renamed) is an index of content from several different sources.

    Thinkfinity is an attempt at the type of clearinghouse that I think you are imagining. Of course it misses a few really big pieces. There is nothing from outside the United States! Even within our borders it doesn’t include library websites. No exploration of a history topic should skip a perusal of the LOC materials both their primary source materials and the exhibits ( The NYPL also has both an amazing online collection and also publishes digital projects ( ) which are essentially online non-fiction texts.

    As Mira pointed out, the problem is as much with too many sources as with too few. Being able to put your hand (and mind) on just the right piece of information at the right time is the tricky part.

    The issue of context was also brought up by Cecilia. A classroom teacher is not just addressing the one ideal student that inhabited his or her head while writing the lesson but the 20-30 young people inhabiting the classroom. Unless the context is carefully built what you say will almost certainly not match what some students hear.

    Consider this vignette – Teacher: Shelter is a basic need. Name some different types of shelters. Student: Johnny lives in a shelter. I live with my aunt. At this point most of the students will raise their hands to tell where they live or what they know about shelters.

    Meanwhile, of course, the school day, year, and pacing calendar marches on. The hour that was allotted to review different types of shelter in different environments rapidly disappears as the class lists and discusses the places people can live – apartments, projects, shelters, hospitals, [group] homes, houses. The teacher returns to the text at the end and reviews two or three different types of homes/houses/shelters and environments. Traditional Inuit can live in igloos made of ice and snow…somehow the students become disengaged.