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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


I am typing this on my iPad so please forgive even more errors than usual. Over at CCTV they have been talking about educating kids about civil rights — including some innovative use of music, role playing, and documentary film clips. All good. But there are two presumptions behind the discussion: kids no very little about the civil rights movement (the example which began the discussion is the term “Jim Crow” and that they need to be motivated to care.

This is a debate Monica and I have had before (as indeed she mentioned in one of her CCTV posts) but there is a twist in this round. What I hear from both kids and students is not lack of knowledge but resistance and weariness. I hear of exhaustion with hearing about rosa, mlk, I have a dream, about Nazis, Jews, and the camps. somehow we have managed to tell kids enough to make them think they know, but not enough for them to care. Monica emphasizes this need for kids (and teachers) to be invested in this history. I agree that matters a lot — and is a challenge to us as authors to make sure we are connecting with readers not lecturing at them. But…….

I also think facts, dates, names really help. Knowing your multiplication tables is not a matter of motivation — though it is in fact fun for some kids. Rather it is a matter of necessity. You must learn them to progress in your life, in school, in becoming a functional person. The key events of world history are the same: you need to know what 1066 and 1215 mean, when Rome fell, when Constantinople fell, why, and why these events changed the world. You need to know reconstruction and Jim Crow as an American who will become a citizen. Facts matter and as adult educative we must pass on not just excitement about math, science, history but also a sense of responsibility:you need to know this.

The problem is many adults, especially those involved in teaching young people, do not believe that. But more on that in another post.


  1. As usual, I disagree :) Memorizing facts, learning facts so as the hold on to them is very much about motivation. Kids have to have some reason to memorize the times tables or, for that matter, spelling words (and I actually believe strongly that kids need to develop good memorization skills). Some folks naturally take to facts and hold on to them, but many others need context and meaning and something more to make them stick. That was way I was so dismay by the NAEP since the 4th grade test was not encouraging the sort of deep historical thinking I think is the way to go.

    I didn’t say that kids need to be invested in “this history’ (I’m assuming you are referring to the Civil Rights history as discussed over at CCBC). I just think they need to be invested in whatever they are learning.

    I think you have to consider age and development here. Older kids are probably right to complain that they get the same stuff over and over. But younger kids? You know Kieran Egan’s work (because, though you’ve forgotten, I introduced you to him years ago) and he has clear idea about kids’ imaginative development and that factors greatly into their ability to think historically. For instance, I think 4th graders have a very vague sense of time and I think it is pointless to spend much time trying to get them to get a sense of dates over a few hundred years. They certainly need to know that one thing happened before something else, but looking at dates on a massive time line can be interesting, but not necessarily as meaningful developmentally as it would be for kids even a couple years older.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    My only close experience is now watching my sons who are entering 6th and 2nd grade. I find that lodging facts — dates, events, names in their brains is of great use. That way they have markers, landing spots, so that as they learn more and gain a better sense of causation and chronology they have those solid places already set. For example Sasha has a beginning sense of the cold war bc he long knew the basic dates of ww2 and the bomb. Knowing that framed his ability to think about what came next. Similar for Rafi and evolution: knowing roughly the deaths of the dunks, rise of mammals, then allowed him to begin to frame evolution of humans. Absent those frames they would be lost, always starting from zero. More on this when I am not typing on an iPad.

  3. So that is two kids who do indeed find facts helpful. But I’ve worked closely with hundreds over almost four decades I’ve been in the classroom and can say from firsthand observation that is not generally the case. Not for younger kids, that is — 4th grade is what I know well.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    There is no question that you have vastly more experience with kids than I do. But I also detect a male female difference on facts v story that too few women involved with kids question. And this is what I want to explore.

  5. I just wanted to toss into the mix the information that I looked up Kiernan Egan this morning and found his work very interesting. I have no strong opinion on this debate but the exchange of ideas has been very beneficial for me.