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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Opposite Ends of the Social Studies Spectrum

In my Rutgers class this week we were talking about non fiction books, history, and the elementary school classroom — the same themes we often discuss here. One of my students who is already a teacher reported that several of the second grade teachers were in a funk. The upcoming unit they were expected to teach was Social Studies but they had no idea how to do it, which books to use, what to say. After much hand wringing they came to the best solution they could think of: they were going to skip the unit. I am not sure if anyone has updated the 2000 study which found that elementary school teachers were devoting just 3.6 minutes a day to social studies (which declined to 1.9 minutes in more disadvantaged neighborhoods), but this very current story suggested that those horrible statistics may still be holding true.

And yet. Yesterday I spent the morning speaking in assemblies with some 150 for so fourth and fifth graders. The school librarian was concerned that, now being asked to research and write reports, the kids seemed both lost and resistant. I keep hearing some version of the same thing — kids in 4th and 5th grade who simply don’t know how to read nonfiction — they picture surf, they dash to Google, they expect a quick answer, then give up in frustation. But the assemblies — and granted an assembly is a revival meeting, we all get happy and feel the spirit, I am not giving them homework and they don’t have to produce any work for me — were wonderful. The kids were easily and avidly engaged with historical questions and questioning, they “got” what it is to be a researcher, they came up with many interesting theories about the historical issues I raised — they were totally present, alive, eager to learn and, it was clear, many of them were already engaged readers of history.

So here we have it: in one way Social Studies seemingly so alien and daunting that adults teaching 2nd graders feel they have to avoid it; in another, endless numbers of supposedly Social Studies averse 4th and 5th graders being the most engaged young historians. The adult side of this equation is out of touch with the kid side. Which brings up yet another story, this about teenagers. Last night I visited a teen reading group in Texas bySkype. they were reading War Is, the book I co-edited with Patty Campbell. What was so apt and interesting is that war had touched them in so many different ways — from furiously anti-war kids, to kids whose dads are in Iraq or Afghanistan, to kids with a silent cousin who won’t talk about his recent service, to kids being recruited and thinking about enlisting. The universal fact, though, is that war and the set of choices around war are vivid to them, that many of them feel strong support for the troops (at least), and that the post-Vietnam War-is-bad view of many adults is simply out of touch with the complex ways war effects teenagers now.

Somehow, too often, we adults are getting in the way of kids, not connecting with their actual interests and needs.