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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Some Exciting Links and Connections — and a Question

I’ve been asked to consult with a growing NYC public school that is adding on the 6th and 7th grade and wants to think through its Social Studies sequence. In preparation for our meeting, the principal sent me this link to the UCLA National Center for History in the Schools, and the standards it set forth: Reading this page was thrilling. Look: “Real historical understanding requires that students have opportunity to create historical narratives and arguments of their own. Such narratives and arguments may take many forms–essays, debates, and editorials, for instance. They can be initiated in a variety of ways. None, however, more powerfully initiates historical thinking than those issues, past and present, that challenge students to enter knowledgeably into the historical record and to bring sound historical perspectives to bear in the analysis of a problem.

Historical understanding also requires that students thoughtfully read the historical narratives created by others. Well-written historical narratives are interpretative, revealing and explaining connections, change, and consequences. They are also analytical, combining lively storytelling and biography with conceptual analysis drawn from all relevant disciplines. Such narratives promote essential skills in historical thinking.

Reading such narratives requires that students analyze the assumptions–stated and unstated–from which the narrative was constructed and assess the strength of the evidence presented.”

This is pretty much everything I have been advocating for — and it is laid out as a program for all schools and teachers. The approach also fits perfectly with the National History Day program with their emphasis on student-created research projects. I have just learned about an extensive D-Day project students did, which involved research people from the town in which the students lived who died on DDay, but whom the students come to research and honor.

So whether it is in advising teachers or providing stimulating challenges for students, many, many good things are happening, even in the days of testing. But I wonder if the nonfiction side of children’s books has stumbled because we have not paid attention to these classroom developments. We continue to serve bookstores and libraries first, with the classroom as an afterthought. Yes textbooks are manufactured to fit classroom needs. But they cannot succeed — at least by the UCLA standards — since they cannot have a point of view, and thus cannot model student-created-thinking. Why don’t we know teachers better, and why don’t they know us?