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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Signs of Change — Chipping Away at the Iceberg

Very recent sWestern NY State school library (courtesy of Sue Bartle and Pat Griffin):

7th Grade Girl walks up to her teacher and the librarian (Pat) and says:

“These are nice fiction books about the Titanic but I really want to read a nonfiction book about the Titanic.”

Teacher Response to Student: “Sure, go right ahead and select a nonfiction book on the Titanic to read for this project.”

One student, one library, one librarian, one teacher — sure. But that little exchange is the CC in action — and is the reverse of what has been the mantra in reading for as long as I can recall — that is 3 decades in books for young readers: “that is an interesting NF story, but if we want kids to read it, you need to write it as fiction.” Now the Titanic is something of a special case in that the girl knows about it, and indeed very likely knows a great deal of the story already. NF adds to a store of knowledge — and thus a possibility for curiosity — she already has. She knows enough to have questions and to want to know more. There are a few of those high interest areas where kids come to the library knowing something and wanting more — we could easily make a list here — from dinos and bugs and warriors in elementary schools through the Salem witch trials, the Titanic and, what, Anne Frank? into upper middle grade, then via sports and war we get to — well I am not sure in high school, as body, dating, self-help, sexuality crosses with college, future, and other practical interests.

If the CC is anything, it is — or should be — a way to create more of these hot spots of knowledge — where kids learn enough to become curious, to want to know more, to ask new questions — then all of us work together to feed their hunger. As in the little incident above, the librarian and teacher work together, the author, editor, and publisher keep those active readers, those lively minds, supplied with new opportunities, we begin to chip away at the iceberg of ignorance. I have said this many times before — our technological present traps kids in the horizontal NOW — ever more connected to the same shallow buzz of what is taking place all around them. Our job is to create vertical depth, to connect them to the past, and thus the possibility of a different future.

One more small story from my trip to Western NY, courtesy of Sue. As I was extolling the virtue of compare and contrast — two books on Benedict Arnold, for example. A teacher raised her hand and asked “that’s fine, but where am I going to get these great books for my students.” Another woman quickly raised her hand, “ask me” — she was the school librarian from the same building. They had never spoken. When we work together, when students see that they can ask for books that feed not just their imagination but their thrist for knowledge the ice cracks, the ships sails on, success.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    What I like about the first anecdote is that the student showed initiative and went on a quest.

    The 2nd illustrated the need for peer communication among teachers & librarians, guidance staff; departments remain separate, there is little exchange of ideas, needs, or even interests; even sitting in the cafeteria reveals cliques. And, there is little time to discuss subject matter. I hope that changes, for we all know that learning in school has to be integrated–math, language, history, art, music, etc. are connected, but in school there are often impediments to experience those connections & influences.

    Perhaps, teachers have to become “tourists in their own schools” and explore the landscape of possibiities.

  2. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Here’s a story of my own from a pile of papers I am grading. It’s written by a college student who is describing her experience reading to an elementary school-aged child:

    I further asked her if she knew what nonfiction meant. She replied, “Yes, it means
    when there is nothing but facts in the book.”

    I told her, “Yes that is correct.” After which, I began to read the book out loud.

    This is after taking an entire course entitled Teaching History with Children’s Literature–a course that emphasizes and demonstrates the differences between books on the same topic.

    The good news is that both the college student and the child enjoyed the nonfiction book. The sobering news is that there is still much work to be done to show teachers the creative, interpretive aspects of nonfiction. My colleage Susan Turkel, a math professor, and I have been talking about how long it takes to changes people’s well-entrenched ideas. As I have learned by reading the literature on conceptual change, this can be a slow resistant process. Just as Susan’s students resist learning the “why” of math, my history/literature students resist seeing history as interpretation because it is so contrary to what they have experienced and what they have thought for so long.

  3. Pat Griffin says:

    Thanks for the shout out Marc. You have a wonderful message about nonfiction, and it comes at the perfect time. The teachers at my school are taking the nonfiction component of the Common Core very seriously, and are embracing my suggestion that students’ “free choice” book selections include nonfiction. It started with that one teacher the other day, and now it’s a deliberate lesson plan for two teachers and four classes today alone. After your workshop, I also met with a science teacher who is going to give extra credit to any students who reads books related to science, and I am arranging a science interest center in the library (fiction and nonfiction).
    The nonfiction train has left the station. Thank you!

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    wonderful, wonderful — keep us informed as it speeds along, or hits any bumps — this is all so new, the more “best practices” we can share the better for all of us.