I enjoyed my visit with the 4th and 5th graders yesterday. As ever they are lively, bright, full of questions, ready to go out and do research, find answers, come up with their own new theories and explanations. I was intrigued to learn that this paricular school is already doing some interesting prep for nonfiction. I didn’t catch the names of each of these programs — surely some of you can fill them in — but they suggest that schools are starting to address the story gap — although I did see one large problem. This school uses a Teachers College program in which 3rd graders do a first NF “All About Me” essay, then 4th graders do a second kind of fact-based essay, and then 5th graders have their research project. The good news is that this creates a structured placed for NF writing. The bad news is that it can become (and this was the large problem I saw) rigid when teachers treat it as a formula, a step-by-step menu in which kids essentially learn to fill in NF blanks, rather than to think.
In the presentation the contrast between teachers and students was striking — the kids full of questions, eager to explore, the teachers treating a visiting author as a coffee break, a chance to schmooze. I sound peeved, and I was. And yet the librarian was great,as was the media and social studies coordinator. The key difference is that both of them realize that as we bring kids to NF we are not just training them to work within our formulas, we are turning them loose — giving them tools to surpass us. I hear my old Progressive education background in my own words — but I really believe it. When we educate young people in reading and writing nonfiction, we are giving them the tools to be scientists, historians, social reformers, critics of society. That is the spirit that goes with the flesh of learning citations and how to look things up and how to write a good topic sentence. That is the intellectual passion, the unbounded curiosity, that NF can set free — if the teacher models it.
I also heard about a Scholastic program that pairs fiction, which may be film or other visual format, with nonfiction. Another good idea, especially in the ages where kids are reading picture book NF as well as picture book or easy reader fiction. Anyone recall the name of that plan? The more all of us know about the resources teachers and librarians are already using, the better job we can do in linking our books, presentations, and school visits to real kids and real classrooms.