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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

“We Created Something”

NYC recently held an engineering contest for kids 9-14. The kicker of the article is the very last line, from an 8th grader whose robot came in second: “The robot we built, we worked together and created something,” he said. “That teaches you a lot.” Here’s the article: I bring it to your attention because I am a big fan of student-created-knowledge in content areas — Social Studies, Science, Math — and, also, of the gaming/competition model in those ages. My older son recently graduated from playing Civilization to Age of Empire, and I see how is awareness of the strategic and tactical decisions in building a civilization have grown. A few months ago I had given him a graphic novel version of The Prince and he was not interested. Now, when he heard it had tips that would help him build empires, he was ready to go back and give Machievelli another try.

National Geographic has used crowdsourcing to help identify possible locations of ancient graves in Mongolia — They provide very high quality images of plots of land in a relatively unexplored area of Mongolia. Anyone who participates learns to tag the images — noticing modern and ancient features. Because the taggers are not the explorers, they see with different eyes, they notice in new ways, and they make possible new discoveries. (my thanks to a Rutgers colleage, Dr. Spoerri, for telling me about this project). Student eyes are as valuable as any other. So, authors, think — how can you use students, technology, gaming to create hundreds, thousands, of research assistants who help you learn more, to discover more, to write better books, to engage those same students so that they can leand grow?

“We created something” — that ownership, that pride, that pure Progressive Ed “learning by doing,” that direct antidote to skill and drill test prep — how can we as authors, editors, publishers, capture it, engage it, make space for it in our work? Right now, many of us talk about our research journeys, but what if we ended our book with collaborative research questions and projects, where kids were given challenges to take what we have given them and go beyond — and then a site to upload the videos, voicethreads, power points, apps they created as they extended beyond our books. What if we ended our books by opening doors and giving our readers direct invitations, and instructions, for how to walk through them? What fun.


  1. Just before reading your post, I read Annie Murphy Paul’s Time Mag blog post about how traditional teaching techniques (lecturing and memorization) don’t do much to change widely held, but incorrect beliefs about science. The key, as you note, is to help kids teach themselves through hands-on learning. My five-year-old has learned a lot about electricity by experimenting with his circuit board. This has led to a natural interest in conductors vs. insulators, the periodic table, atoms and subatomic particles. We’ve learned about these things — as much as we can — at a kindergarten level because of his interest in circuits.

    Our favorite science books offer a host of hands-on activities to help him experience the concepts. We love the Investigate Science series. However, I do like the notion that book authors can do more including creating learning environments online.