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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Cross Section of 9th grade

This week I have the good fortune of once again working with 9th graders in Illinois. They have read parts of my book on race and are working on their first major research paper — following up on, or challenging, some contention of mine from that book. I’ve been reading over their proposals and while of course students vary greatly there is one clear trend: it is hard for them to take the step from description to question. Nearly all of them can come up with a How or What question — how did Hitler win over youth? How did MLK and Malcolm X differ? How does the Disney princess reflect or shape current images of young women, etc. The really challenging part is leaping from there to proposing an argument, a theory, an thesis, an interpretation. This will be no news to those of you who teach or work with 9th graders. But it is fascinating because exactly this step is the heart of the Common Core.

That analytic piece — that shift from absorbing, noticing, describing to contending, examining, interpreting is where we have been weak, and what CC is telling us we need to strengthen. Seeing these students struggle reinforces my sense that authors need to be even more clear, more forthright, in announcing that we have reached the end of the known and are venturing into speculation. We need to model not just how we obtain information but how we mold it, shape it, craft it, and announce it as our view, our take, our judgment. Students need that from us — they need to see how it is done, how you leave safe harbors, take risks, announce conclusions, defend them, and leave yourself open to criticism. We are not all experts, but we are adults with knowledge, experience, and insight and when we research and write about dangerous subjects, we have opinions, theories, insights. They more we show our hands, the more young people can learn from us — if only in setting out to disprove our views, to fence with them, to take them on.

I meet the 9th graders tomorrow, I’ll let you know how it goes.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    You are absolutely right! Authors need to show where they are taking known information and interpreting it in an original way. Honestly, I don’t blame the students. I do not think this kind of thinking and writing is taught. It never even dawned on me that I should be doing this until I wrote my doctoral thesis. I remember thinking, “So, they want me to say something original…what I think. O.K., I will! Let them respond to it.” It was an eyeopening experience. Sadly, I was 30 years old. Now, I realize that we need to start talking about original thinking based on facts very early. Elementary school is not too soon. If the Common Core makes argumentation and interpretation central to our work, that will be a great accomplishment. You might be interested in Flower and Hayes’ work in this area. They make a distinction between “Knowledge Telling” and “Knowledge Transforming.” We are asking students to do Knowledge Transforming.

  2. Shirley Budhos says:

    Do our young people reflect the culture they live in? Discourse among Americans consists mainly in either/or thinking, on the whole. Are you politically correct or not? Do we, as a group, agree? Our language is sparse when it comes to shades in an “argument,” and the lack of fluency, the actual art of discourse remains flat. And, aren’t parents eager to hear their children’s agreement instead of engaging in the possibilities, the many faceted reasons and questions a subject deserves? In the public arena, do we really permit controversial questions, those which offer alternative views, not 2 or 3, but many? Aren’t thinking & writing often in the “safety” zone?

    Placing the responsibility on the shoulders of elementary school teachers is a false proposition, I believe. Transformations begin in the society, the family, the daily exchanges—-teacher training rarely focuses on how to engage in dispute, analysis, which again reflects how other professionals are trained and how we learn, think, speak. Do we witness, permit, or encourage real debate?.

    As for questions on the subject of “Race,” are 9th graders or any other children exposed to disputatious and reflective discourse? Often, in American conversation, I hear, “I don’t mean to criticize,” but….Perhaps, we need more iconoclasts among the adults, eh?

  3. Wow! Marc! What an insightful observation! As an author my creative process has been shaped by constant challenges from editors, sometimes sentence by sentence. The word “author” means “source.” I believe that my job as an author is to respond to criticism with a vigorous defense where I want “stet” placed on the manuscript. Otherwise I agree to the suggestions. This works well with editors who share my vision of making the work as strong as possible. What, then, is the value of talking to authors? Myra feels that she can help us “unpack” our process and that students should read nonfiction to understand authors as exemplary thinkers–a hard-won skill acquired only from interacting with other thinkers. Nothing new here–we’re back to Socrates. This, by the way, can and should start in kindergarten.