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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Guest Blog From Marina

Recently, I’ve been delving into the past. My school past, that is. Yesterday, in one of my periodic organizational fevers, I went to the garage and pulled out a box of old school work from elementary school. My mother had thankfully saved it and I, in turn, have managed to carry the crumbling folders and yellowed pages from address to address, from my studio apartment in Manhattan, to the storage bin in Harlem, and out across the river to our New Jersey home, where we clog up the nooks and crannies of our house with far too much paper and books. The both of us are hoarders of the past, probers of the past, in different ways. And as we’ve raised our two boys here, guiding them through the sometimes bewildering maze of their education, our own past, our own experiences in school–for better or worse–flicker and inform some of our passions.

I have always nurtured a nostalgic, glowing image of my elementary school years—siphoned into gifted classes, taught by ambitious, gifted teachers, I remember those years as extraordinary adventures in reading and learning. I wrote and drew and made projects; reams of paper came home each day. Sometimes I wondered if was misremembering or casting those days with a nostalgic hue. But dragging out those boxes, I knew I wasn’t just romanticizing the past. What I immediately noticed was how many projects and book reports we always did—far more than I’ve seen my son do in his years in elementary school.

Beginning in 2nd grade, there was my report on Miles Standish (five others would come, each rewarded with an index card with a gold star). Next came the 3rd grade blue spiral where every Friday we had to bring in a New York Times article that we had clipped, read, and then digested with the “Who-Why-What-Where” pyramid. That same year came the Apollo Project (I’m dating myself) in which I wrote an imaginary diary for the mission, along with an imaginary family debating whether they thought we should spend money on missions to outer space. Or the “Russian Scrapbook”, a collaborative 5th grade project with another student, summarizing all the articles we found about the Soviet Union. Some of those pieces were downright sophisticated and complex for an elementary school student to engage in—a novelist who critiqued the government for sending troops to the “Far East”, while his colleague held a different opinion; a Soviet summit in which the latest phase of their 5 year plans were discussed. I had grown up in a U.N. community, so talking about the world, politics, or even local NYC events, was as commonplace as making scrapbooks for the Partridge Family, so this was simply fun. But I also wonder if it had something to do with the expectations of the times, when teachers saw themselves as guides into the adult world of news and politics, rather than translators making the world accessible to us.

What struck me, in paging through these fading reports is how the teachers simply expected us to go out in the world and forage in newspapers and magazines. That current events, knowing about the world, was a given. The skills we were learning—reading, analyzing, summarizing, even offering an opinion—are probably no different than what my fifth grade son has done throughout his elementary years. However, there were no worksheets with a scattershot of nonfiction topics and directed questions. No textbooks or work books. Simply, we were expected to head out, like hunters and gatherers, and make and ask the questions ourselves. Granted, my sources were either the Encyclopedia Britannica, the New York Times, Life and Look, and my son now has the entire internet at his disposal. Is it a kind of cultural anxiety that in the numbing waves of information, we feel we must now package nonfiction into digestible sheets, with ready-made questions? That we don’t believe they can go out on their own and make something of information? Ask their own questions? That they won’t be naturally interested in the news or recent scientific discoveries or some figure from the past?

I’m sure something has been lost: our own inventiveness with respect to making and doing; our confidence that children can and should absorb the news and all that is going on around them. Maybe it’s time to start clogging up our attic spaces with those old-fashioned construction paper reports.


  1. Certainly, the value of original, high-level material shouldn’t be lost even for a young audience.

  2. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I grew up in a world similar to yours. My parents read The New York Times each morning and so did I. No one asked if it was on my level! As a child I was, like you, asked to find my own resources. Like you, these were the Britannica, the Times, and magazines. And there were no worksheets, although there were workbooks. I remember those reports and how I worked so hard on the writing and the fancy cover which I created. I think being handed an unpackaged, messy world was a good thing–a great thing, a gift. That’s how the world is. It prepared me for graduate school and beyond when I had to think for myself.

    I am afraid that what your sons and others are experiencing is the result of mistrust–mistrust of teachers and mistrust of children. When I began teaching, I was was allowed to work with my class to pursue interesting topics. My job was to awaken their enthusiasm for learning, make sure they were reading and writing, and guide them, not control them. Times have certainly changed. When I taught I was able to give my students in elementary school “choice time”–45 minutes of doing what they wanted to do three times a week. Imagine that! They could read, paint, draw, make a model, make something with clay, whatever! And knowing they had the time to do this, they prepared for it. They counted on it. So, I want to ask, What happened? Why don’t we trust our teachers and children enough to let them pursue their interests?

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    I like the idea of handing young people an “unpackaged, messy world,” it reminds me of my problem with youth sports. We went to the park and played — whatever and with whomever. Now, as in a few minutes, my son is in his age appropriate uniformed baseball game on an official field with an umpire. In a way it is like worksheets — they never pick up sides or work out a batting order or make boundaries with bookbags and argue about who was tagged — they look for signals from coaches. More on this in a future post.

  4. While I too remember having a blast researching and writing reports, I also remember ….er…copying pretty much straight from my sources. As I wrote in one of my books on teaching history — I probably spent as much time on my cover for my butterfly report as I did researching and writing it. And, yes, these teachers sent us off to do it on our own, but they didn’t do much to prepare us on how to research, read, write, or had much to say with the results other than giving us a grade.

    Myra, I’ll be 59 in October and I do very much remember worksheets. Many, just mimeographed rather than xeroxed.

    As I’ve noted here and elsewhere I’m fortunate to teach in a school where I can continue to support children in becoming experts and be able to delve deep into a subject, but it seems many of my colleagues are not so fortunate.

  5. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Monica, you are certainly right about our teachers not giving us any preparation for writing those reports. To be fair, they probably didn’t know what to tell us. It was all to be magically accomplished and graded according to some unknown standard. None of that was good. The good part was being able to research and make sense out of what we found–to shape our findings. I can only hope we learned something about sentence structure from copying those sentences!