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Nonfiction Matters
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Content, Content, Content

Last, President Obama spoke of America’s “Sputnik moment” and vowed to hire 100,000 new science and math teachers. Nice. But he had better hurry up. Yesterday the Nation’s Report Card (National Assessment of Educational Progress) came out, and it showed terrible results: The report writers suggested some caution — the tests are different than in the past, so we cannot measure change. But we can say that just 34% of fourth graders, 30% of eighth graders, and a shocking 21% of twelfth graders — those about to be our so-called world-class, innovative, work force of the future, are “proficient” in science — in other words, this is not a test of excellence, it is a test of basic mastery. The great accomplishment of our educational system and our society is that one-fifth of those kids who reach 12th grade actually know the basics of science. Want to know the one area where 12th graders are even worse than in science?…..history.

I have been writing about this since my very first blog here two years ago. We can blame society for not funding schools well enough, we can blame NCLB and the focus on testing, we can blame the media for being more concerned (pro or con) with Skins on MTV or the latest buzz about American Idol than anything in the classroom. But anyone who reads this blog is in some way involved with kids, reading, writing, books, and, often, school. And it has to matter to us. It has to matter to create books on science and history that kids will read. It has to matter to us to reach out to teachers and half convince and half help them to use our books. It has to matter to us that, when we meet anyone involved with kids and that person says — I hate math, or History is boring, or I just love story I can’t stand facts and figures — that we make sure that person realizes that, while those may be private feelings, they are public failings. Teachers, librarians, authors — content matters. It matters that we as adults know science and history. We have to know enough to pass it along. Otherwise what we communciate to young people is that ignorance is bliss, science is for geeks, history is dull and dead — lets read another novel.

I recently met a retired college physics teacher who told me thought it was a waste of time for high school teachers to take graduate classes in science. They don’t need that, he said, they need really good undergraduate classes — they have to have a deep, secure, knowledge of the kind of science they need to share with kids. So he convinced his education school to add undergraduate science classes for graduate-level teacher-in-training. Maybe that is what we need in history — in Ed School make sure you take one really good year of US history, and one really good year of World History — so you go out into the schools with some deep, secure, knowledge. If you are motivated add more — but start from a solid base. How’s that for a plan?


  1. What is the best way for those of us invested in the hard work of educating young people advocate from our different corners of the school universe? As writers, teachers, teacher educators, administrators, and librarians, working with the professional organizations that represent content (NSTA, NCSS, NCTE, NCTM) learning, can we organize and communicate a common vision or set of principles for states to consider? Because essentially, when it comes to teacher preparation, we’re unfortunately talking (much like the NAEP) about basic skills. Whatever it is that states determine are the basic set of courses/content that teachers should know sets the standard. No one school can go out on a limb and require more, because no one can pay for it. To what extent can we parallel the preparation of teachers to the preparation of doctors? With all that’s wrong with health care delivery in this country, no one is advocating shortening medical school; no one is arguing that doctors don’t need ongoing professional development in order to use best practices; no one suggests that you can become a doctor with on-the-job training. So how do we take the Teacher Residency Model of preparation and scale it up? How do we allow for staggered entry into the field with lots of mentoring, combined with classes on methods, content, and human development?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Mary Ann — one question that I have, as an outsider, is the focus on methods over content. That is to say, we are training teachers, with the idea that they are so skilled at planning lessons, managing classrooms, keeping up with professional development, etc. that they can teach just about anything, from phy ed to chemistry from history to physics. One obvious alternative is to train social studies teachers, science teachers, as distinct fields, or, at least, as distinct majors within education. That way the teacher would graduate with a deeper knowledge of his/her area which could be applied to whatever the schools require. Is this impossible? Are we worried that there will not be jobs for specialized teachers? Help me to understand.

  3. Interesting discussion. I come at this topic as a history writer who sometimes gets a little knocked for my approach. Granted I write for middle schoolers, but I’ve noticed that, in the more staid journals, some reviewers struggle with the “voice” of my biographies–which is casual, colloquial and teen-oriented. And yet, I’m convinced (based on feedback from teachers and students alike) that this is one approach (among many) that can capture the imagination of reluctant learners/students.

    Issues of multi-culturalism? Let me tell you about how Alexander the Great tried to get rid of an “us” and “them” mentality (forced intermarriage to produce bi-racial children). How do you think that worked out? What do you think would happen if somebody tried something similar today? Wait, you mean the Romans waged a propaganda war against Cleopatra by calling her sexually-demeaning names? Do we still do that to girls and women we don’t like or who threaten us?

    The issue is relevance. Making connections to THEIR world. As long as the primary research and vetting is there, being open to new approaches in the stories we tell about history is going to continue to be important. (Sorry, stepping off my soapbox now; it’s just that I feel passionately about this subject!)

  4. Depending upon the age group that you’re going to be teaching, there are different certification requirements. If you’re a middle or high school teacher, in a few states there are separate middle school certificates; most have a 7-12 or 6-12 certification in a subject area. Most of the time, these certifications require a certain number of courses that are the equivalent to a college major in the subject and a state-based or national test on the content, plus required courses in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Thus, in most cases, if you’re teaching history you’ve been a history of political science major or you’ve taken roughly the equivalent of that in courses. I would argue that those who are pursuing that kind of certification would also benefit from graduate level coursework in content as well as the kinds of courses currently offered in child psych/adolescent development, subject-specific methods courses, content literacy, assessment, etc. I believe it’s not an either/or but a both/and situation. As a middle and high school English teacher, I grew as a teacher when I furthered my knowledge of both content and methods. When I learned something new about literature or history, or understood it from a different angle, it gave me a way to revision my instruction based on that content knowledge. And the reverse was true, learning more about certain kinds of assessment or modes of instruction showed me new ways to see my content and open it up to my students.

    The larger problem, I think, is the lack of content coursework that is required of elementary teachers, most particularly in the area of math, social studies, and science. When I was preparing to be an English/LA teacher at the masters level, I had more than the equivalent coursework as an undergrad in literature, plus I took multiple courses in literacy methods, reading, writing, and adolescent literature. In contrast, elementary teachers have only one or two literacy courses, and often the survey course in children’s literature, the very means by which to differentiate instruction for children learning to read and reading to learn, is lumped in. Some schools and states require a major in an academic subject and then the education coursework, while others allow for a major in elementary education. There are courses in the teaching of social studies, math, and science, but not undergraduate courses in science, math, and social studies. Again, students may have one of those areas as a major, but only one, and they are typically asked to teach all. Therefore, elementary teachers are being asked to teach these subjects while relying on their high school level of education in those areas. With the emphasis on testing in reading and math, there are many education programs that have combined the methods courses for science and social studies, so teacher candidates are getting even less preparation in these areas.

    I think if you asked most teacher educators, working at the undergraduate or graduate level, most would advocate for additional courses in content, methods, and field-based experiences. However, we live in a “less is more” society, with policy people advocating for “removing the barriers” to teaching and making it easier to get into the classroom. We put our least prepared teachers and/or most poorly prepared via provisional certificates (pass a test, start working on your certificate) in schools that face the greatest challenges, and we wonder why those children aren’t succeeding. Schools of Education can’t offer deeper programs with more coursework and field-based experiences individually until the states change their minimum requirements, because the market just doesn’t support it, minus lots of grants. If we really thought about educating (not “training,” which doesn’t have the same heft) teachers as we educate doctors, I think the nation would be surprised by the results. There are thousands of outstanding teachers in this country. We need more of them. We need to do more, not less.

  5. Two more thoughts….new test, but the kids who have grown up with NCLB are now in high school…is it any surprise that they aren’t doing well in science? They most likely went through school “shedding” science instruction year-by-year until middle school, because of the myopic focus on isolated reading instruction and mathematics. Again and again I hear from middle school teachers who have to “start” science and social studies instruction because the students know so little because of the infrequency with which it is not taught.

    Additionally, I didn’t add that elementary teachers do have to pass multi-subject exams in English, Math, Science and Social Studies, but it’s more like a basic competency exam.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    this is very useful — I don’t know the details of ed school, requirements, certification. Your focus on the elementary ages makes sense — and that problem of putting raw teachers in tough schools has been going on for a good long time — I remember hearing about that back in the 1960s.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    you should write something about that — the NCLB link to lowering NAEP results (although they were careful about saying the NAEP standards have changed so you cannot directly compare this result to previous tests. You can, though, be clear on what a bad outcome this is).

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    the journals review for libraries — there really is not journal that has a clear view of how books will be used in classrooms — not least because hardcover books do not go directly into classes. This gap between libraries and classrooms is a key problem for all nonfiction aimed at school aged readers.

  9. It’s true…and the education journals have short book review sections that relate to classroom use, but they don’t cover a lot of books. As a teacher educator, I rely on the resources for children’s and school librarians because they are the best resource, and I share them with my students as such. It’s one of the reasons why my colleagues and I started our blog, because we wanted to model for teachers how to evaluate and consider books for their range of opportunities for instruction across grade spans and subject areas, depending upon the teacher’s purpose. Teachers often think that what’s at Barnes and Noble is what’s available, or they go online to amazon and rely on what they find, maybe looking at the reviews, maybe not.

  10. Marc Aronson says:

    while SLJ has Curriculum Connections, and Booklist has Booklinks, there is no solid, well-known, frequently updated bridge from library reviews to classroom teachers. What if you folks who run the classroombookshelf blog approached SLJ, Booklist, Kirkus — the three journal which review most widely — and ask if you could flow their reviews to your site, adding annotations for and from teachers? You could ask Horn Book and BCCB, but their reviews are much more selective, though I suppose you could propose the same add-on commentary to The semi-annual HB Guide which is more inclusive.


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