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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Different Strokes

Yesterday my main work was with 8th graders, but then I had one assembly with 4th graders. That is the widest spread in this week’s visit (outside of the grad students I Skyped with last night) and as always, fascinating. The 8th graders here have been working on writing for years, and it shows. Their challenge yesterday was to write the first paragraph of a historical fiction short story they have been researching — bringing together what they know about a particular historical figure with the skills in writing they have practiced for years. As expected the room split by gender, three crowded girls tables where they prefered to squeeze closer then to move away, the boys spread out on the edges in smaller clusters. The girls immediately began sharing their work, making encouraging comments, crossing off bits, suggesting changes, and, also quickly settling on some kind of order — who was the best as the table. The boys worked individually, it would not have occured to any of them to ask for or to offer help.

That was the sociology of the moment. In terms of art, male or female, best writer or student who struggled to get one sentence down on a page full of splotches and ripped spots, the pattern was the same. They were very good at scene setting — time, place, moment, event mood. But for a piece that was meant to show a key moment when their person changed, became who he or she was to be, the person strangely invisible — often not named or described. And over and over they chose the same moment — the actor, singer, sports figure, about to go on stage, his/her fate to be decided in that moment. That was a good choice, but I wondered if these children of American Idol and Facebook might live in a world of the blow-up, the moment of mediated life change where you make it or break it — the world of celebrity and broadcast where you have this One Big Chance to catch the world’s attention.

The fourth graders were, as I have seen everywhere, great. I have to say teaching history to fourth graders is a pleasure, a blessing — they are so engaged, lively, eager to think, to ask questions, to show what they know, to be taken on a journey. I wonder if we shouldn’t switch around our view of Social Studies and Science — make 4th grade a Year of Questions — open minds, show kids many areas and prompt them to ask many questions. So that as they move on to 5th grade and middle school they will enter the curriculum with minds already stimulated and eager to find answers. Right now, fourth grade (in NJ but I think elsewhere) is State History — as soul killing an approach as I can imagine. But what if instead it was The Year of Questions — to launch those bright minds into the rest of their education.


  1. The Year of Questions–what a powerful “reframe.”

  2. Marcy Prager says:

    I teach second graders, and their minds are ready to be “taken on a journey” to learn about other cultures and famous people from those cultures. The class is a setting of inquiry. Students look at visuals such as slideshows and i-movies depicting aspects of culture that I have taken in the countries they study, and they notice the differences and similarities of their own cultures with new ones. By studying maps of countries, they know some of the cultures’ stories ahead of time, for maps do indeed tell stories. They ask questions and research for answers. They continue to have further questions. My job is to know deeply about the country ahead of time, have enough age-appropriate books, websites, and hands-on activities so that students can pursue their learning to try and answer their own questions. Second graders, like the fourth graders Marc Aronson visited, are “engaged, lively, eager to think, to ask questions, to show what they know, and be taken on the journey.”

  3. Mark Flowers says:

    4th grade is State History in CA as well, and I have to say I remember quite a bit of my elementary school education, but I can’t remember a thing about California History (apparently there was a gold rush?).

    I love the idea of a year of questions as an alternative.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    sounds very lively and engaged — and I particularly like your statement about your job — the knowledge you need to have to be able to help lead them on their journeys.