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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Context and Change

Ceceile left a comment to my last post in which she talked about the challenge of context when her third grade students are being tested on isolated “identify and define” terms. At best such tests serve two purposes: they work as tests, since it is not hard to figure out if the student checked the box the testmaker had in mind, and, they do give students a very basic grid for identifying differences among various times and places — just the way learning basic vocabulary is one needed step in learning a language. But I suspect the tests are also a kind of concession — they show that we as adults, as a society, don’t know what knowing about Greece, or Rome, or ancient China, or India or Egypt matters. We don’t have a narrative about the growth and development of ideas, civilization, culture where we can use knowledge of a previous time and place to situate young people in the evolution of politics, government, ethics, science, human relations, the arts. In fact we don’t really have a growth model at all.

There is something good in that — the old Rise of the West had all sorts of problem –all too often  it was Eurocentric, American-Exceptionalist, pretty much male, etc. etc. It had overtones of the colonialist beliefs mixed with Cold War tub thumping about the virtues of free enterprise. If you went to grad school any time in the past 50 years you learned the dangers of “Whig History” — that old 19th century view that there was this germ of the future great nation in its earliest stages and that the rest of its history was a kind of inevitable almost biological development as the principles of, say, British parliamentary government and then American independence burst into full flower. But if we don’t have a biological metaphor, if we don’t see how one stages builds into another, why does the past matter? Is Greece important because of its columns? Rome for its arches? Even on a third grade level, it would seem to me, we need to make some case about connection and disconnection. How does who they were and what they did connect to us? How is it that change came and we are different from them?

I remember that in one of my elementary school classrooms — maybe 5th grade through this is hazy — they had that very old vertical wall chart showing the ebb and flow of civilization. I’ve seen it as an adult and it was terribly flawed — beginning, I am sure, with Biblical history. But that organic flow, that crest and crash, or cultures made the past important and fluid. I just realized that the crucial flaw in the Indentify and Define testing is — what we really need to teach kids is about Change. What do cultures grow, flourish, decline, evolve, revive — how and why does change come to human civilization? Isn’t that really the only question? Because then the students can imagine change — changes to come, changes they can try to bring about, change from what they know back to what used to be. They live in a world where change is sold to them in ever new technology — this download, this game, this phone, this 3-D, Blu-Ray, immediate delivery of something. But we have the chance to show them about more fundamental change, where the ground beneath their feet may shift.

Maybe that’s the missing mission for Social Studies — explaining change.


  1. I do think teaching the concept of time, of change, of chronology has a developmental aspect. I had always wondered about my fourth graders ability to really get time lines (I’d have them put their own info on one that went around the room to give them a sense of how they fit in to something massive) and did some research when working on my books. That and what I experienced with them made me decide to ditch the huge time line. Now I’m mainly concerned that they “get” the idea that some of what they are learning about happened a much, much, longer time ago than others. I mean, hard as it is to get my mind around, 9/11 is as much history to my current fourth graders as the Holocaust.

    And so if I were teaching third like Cecelia, I’d work on engaging activities, hands-on ones that are deep and rich and get the kids thinking (and I used to teach a 10 unit American History curriculum in forth so have a tiny bit of sense of what she’s dealing with although not the additional pressure of high-stakes tests) and excited about the past. Knowing their developmental place I wouldn’t be concerned when they didn’t get time and flow and change in anything too large. They will get that (well, they “should” get it:) later when they are more able to get it.

    I doff my hat to Cecelia who is trying to fight the good fight even with that daunting multi-unit curriculum with a text.

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    You have classroom experiences to back up your observations, but there is a puzzling gap here. The literature of civilization and change is immensely popular with kids — we call it Fantasy, but what are all of those quest books? At some key moment of change in a civilization — the old empire, the corrupt and decadent court, the fierce raiders from the wild wastes — heroes arise who bring about the next act in that culture. In reverse, the great fantasy epics of an earlier era were evidently about the Nazis and the Allies — Tolkein, Susan Cooper, etc. So clearly young people are interested in stories of vast change in cultures and civilizations that are totally different from their contemporary experience. Why is it that in fiction we can make that epic drama so compelling, while the real examples of exactly that kind of drama remain obscure? I don’t think it is just because fantasies are often about the small, the child, the hobbit, against the strong — the ability to identify. Because many young people (this was true of me, but I also see it with kids today) want to identify with great figures who accomplished great things in the past, not with children or outsiders. Why is our popular narrative of heroism and change given to dragons and questions and not to actual history?

  3. Hmm…I do think fantasy of the sort you are describing is more for older kids than the 3th/4th grade age group we are discussing. Right now because they are popular I’d say over 50% of the kids I teach enjoy Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson books, but they are not as enormously epic and complex as something like Lord of the Rings. And even then, in my decades of 4th grade teaching, I’d say LOTR has always been appealing to a very small demographic of fourth graders. Even as you get older I think fantasy works appeal in very different ways. To open up another kettle of worms, those epic stories tend to be attractive to boys more than girls. (I loved them as a kid and have been giving them to kids my whole teaching career and those kids have been 90% boys.) And so I’d be cautious about developing curriculum for this age group thinking they all love epic fantasy.

    Megan Whalen Turner writes amazing works of epic fantasy, but her readership is way, way, way above 3rd and 4th grade.

  4. In answer to your final question, “Why is our popular narrative of heroism and change given to dragons and questions and not to actual history?” I’d say it is MUCH easier to consider hard themes and questions in fantasy than in real life. It is one of the most powerful aspects of good fantasy literature, IMHO. Here’s a HufPo blog post I did on The Hunger Games and Chaos Walking series and these issues:

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think nonfiction could be just as popular and attractive as fantasy, but . . . you can’t write a 150 page book on World War II (or whatever) when what you really need is a seven volume series with 300 pages each. You give kids that kind of depth, and I think they will flock to the genre.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    i’m with you — in fact I was just about to write to you, Monica, I assume you are correct that it is “much easier to consider hard theme…than in real life” but that is a question not an answer. Why is it? It has not always been so, nor is it so for all people. I personally find it much easier to engage with difficult subjects in non-fiction. So assuming you are right, let’s examine why that may be. And again I agree with Jonathan, it is not a given that fantasy is more popular — remember how recently it was viewed as a marginal genre. In the current issue of the New York Review of Books there is a review essay on the philospher John Rawls in which Kwame Anthony Appiah writes that “Rawl’s work refelcts a broader shift in American philosophy away from appeal to general principles, valid at all times and in all places, toward a reliance on local, historically particular values and ideals.” In a way that is what has happened to us — we have given the sphere of “general principles” to fantasy, while reducing history to the “local.” the question is how to infuse history with that grand sweep — the rise and fall of empire, of evil, of great causes — so that kids see that it really matters.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Go read IN DEFENSE OF LIBERTY by Russell Freedman. Then go read COUNTDOWN TO INDEPENDENCE by Natalie Bober about the same period, the lead up to the American Revolution. The latter book reads like LORD OF THE RINGS, but it’s virtually unknown (although I plead for it several time a year in various places).

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    There are several really big issues here in Jonathan’s posts and Monica’s. Let’s look at the terms we’re dealing with — the binary of “easy” and “hard”; the binary of saga-like engagement versus dutiful slog (or breathless precis); the binary of nonfiction and fiction. Monica says it is “easier” to teach difficult material with fiction. But why? the claim of those who prefer to use fiction, or historical fiction, in teaching is that fiction makes stories more vivid, more immediate, more personal, more “real.” But one would think that a tragic subject made more vivid would be “harder” not “easier” for both teacher and reader. Then my question about fantasy, taken up by Jonathan, is about a different form of engagement — the vast sweep of forces, the clash of titanic enemies. I believe we have lost track of the way in which history is filled with such epic conflicts. Think, friends, of how often, pre-Harry Potter, we were told that a more visual generation needer shorter text with more art and fewer words — we kept hearing that even as the HP books and their epigones kept getting longer and more popular. So clearly there are beliefs sloshing around about what fiction does, what nonfiction does, and how each needs to be delivered that have not been carefully examined. To take just one example — I’ve long thought of writing a book on the Crusades — as far as I know there are only heavily illustrated Usborneish books about castles and knights and sieges. But here is a crucial set of events in the past of Europe, the Middle East, the Latin Church, the Orthodox Church, Jews, Muslims — not to speak of fans of Richard the Lionheart (Robin Hood), Saladin, naval battles, the children’s crusade — which, it can be argued, has echoes and resonances today — why aren’t there shelves full of those dramatic days?

  9. You wrote, “Monica says it is “easier” to teach difficult material with fiction. ” No, no, NO! I didn’t say that at all. What I said is, “it is MUCH easier to consider hard themes and questions in fantasy than in real life.” I did not at all mean it is the way to teach difficult material. In point of fact I don’t believe that at all. Don’t you remember way, way, way back we were meant to debate the issue of historical fiction on stage at a conference in Oakland? At the time I was incredibly against the use of historical fiction in teaching about history. I’ve mellowed a bit, but it is still not my choice for teaching history.

  10. Marc Aronson says:

    I see, I misread what you said. And I also agree with you the what 3rd and 4th graders enjoy in fantasy and epic is different from what 7th and 8th graders like. But I also still feel that the epic dimension of actual history seems to be missing — and not just in schools, but in society. We know to see it in certain specific moments — the Civil Rights struggle for example — but otherwise we are back to identify and define. Why?

  11. I think it’s because it’s easier to test quickly. Incidentally, the ‘theme’ for third grade in my county is Change–we’re supposed to try and infuse it across all subject areas. But you’re not going to see a question on the standardized tests that asks third graders to explain how change relates to Ancient Greece and Rome–or even a question thats asks them to compare the two civilizations, because all our tests are multiple choice. Fortunately, although my textbook is very basic, my county does encourage a teaching method called History Alive, that pushes teachers to include hands-on and analytical activities in social studies, which I love.

  12. Mary Ann Cappiello says:

    Marc, write that book on the Middle Ages! Ten years ago, when I was teaching 9th grade English, I created a genre study of historical fiction rooted in the Middle Ages, while the students were studying it in their global history class (no one in the social studies department felt that they could commit the time to an interdisciplinary unit, since they had two years to sprint through global history). I had students self-select ya historical novels set during the time period to read and use as mentor texts. We jump-started their writing using primary source objects at the Cloisters and the MET, as little fictional scenarios to think about the craft of writing historical fiction. Drawing from what they were learning in social studies, students developed research questions to guide their research for the purpose of writing their own historical short story. I had a great school librarian who started buying series survey books on the Middle Ages, but even then, there was no core nonfiction text that I could have students read in a paired reading of fiction and nonfiction. Thus, their nonfiction research was based on survey series books and back issues of Calliope magazine. As far as I know, there is still no literary nonfiction for teens that could provide a snapshot of the complexity of the Middle Ages from social, religious, political, and economic perspectives.

  13. Marc Aronson says:

    I would love to, though not quite sure where it fits on the lin-up, next step might be to approach the Cloisters to see about doing an app, a book, a website all linked in some way and providing many entries into medieval lives.

  14. Marc Aronson says:

    I like the idea of Change as a theme, and History Alive as a process. And again I can even accept that it is important to know something about Greece and Rome — just as you learn terms in science or grammer or math. But then those terms need to be used — as you observe change. Tell us more about how Change is meant to be included in the curriculum.

  15. “it is MUCH easier to consider hard themes and questions in fantasy than in real life.” wrote Monica.
    When we are studying real things, there is a strong chance (almost a guarantee) that some aspect of our own world view will be challenged. Fantasy is safe, even when it is “about” hard issues. When I was a teenager fantasy (still a favorite genre) was referred to as “escapist literature.”

    I heard Laurie Halse Anderson at the Bank Street Bookfest talk about the research process of writing Chains and Forge. She talked about her “hero” Benjamin Franklin, who it turns out not only owned slaves but also received payment for every runaway that was captured after being advertised in his paper.

    Real history and real information can hurt. It can be uncomfortable to learn new things.

    Here is a quandary. If students have a context that makes history meaningful than they probably will also disagree with some of the information. The more meaningful and personal the context the more challenging it is to change perspective or adapt to new information.

    The challenge for the author who want to write non-fiction with a narrative arc, or a heroic sweep, must be to find the facts that tell a coherent story without trivializing or distorting the facts surrounding that story, that belong in a different narrative. Ironically, that is the same challenge faced by teachers every day. My hats are off to them, as they try to “explain it all” to the children in their classrooms.

    N.B. When I explain to the 5th and 6th graders the differences between tertiary and secondary sources I use myself and their teacher as examples. The librarian is a tertiary source: When you come to the library and ask a question the librarian will almost surely try to show you some placed where this question is answered. Instead of trying to explain or tell the story, l will help you find sources that either give an overview or tell parts of the story.
    The teacher is a secondary source. The teacher’s job is to help you make sense of the information and tell you the story so that you understand and remember. Your teacher has integrated tertiary sources such as encyclopedia articles, has read other secondary sources such as books and textbooks and articles, and may have examined some of the primary source evidence. What she or he tells you is the story as your teacher wants you to know it.

  16. I think you might enjoy this podcast:

    I found it while poking around on Thinkfinity this afternoon

  17. Marc Aronson says:


    Thanks for your many helpful comments. I have been in touch with the readwritethink folks at various times over several potential projects, though nothing has actually ever gotten done.