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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

New Ideas From the Front

Some months ago I posted here about a conversation I had with my doctoral adviser and his efforts to broaden the horizons of Ph.D. students past the academy. That discussion led to the interview that sparked this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Teaching Ph.D.’s How to Reach Out” I’m sharing it here because Dr. Cassuto makes a point that we should be thinking about. Speaking from the academy, he says they spend too little time (or no time) thinking about K-12 education, even though those students are their future. But, in turn, what links do we as authors, artists, designers, editors, reviewers, librarians, teachers, have with them? Sure teachers go to Ed School and librarians have their Masters. But I mean ongoing contact — from the forefronts of thinking and knowledge to the classroom?

As authors we make individual contacts — we email professor X whose work on whatever we are researching is fascinating, hoping for an extra touch of personal observation to add texture to our books. And of course many of us trawl the Science Times and other publications for the latest discovery that might make a good subject for a book. But that is not what I mean. The academy, I have come to learn now that I am at Rutgers, is built on research; research runs on grants. That means every department is filled with smart people with specialized knowledge thinking up new ways of gaining knowledge, new insights, new theories, new modes of measurement. The buzz of intellectual activity and informed creativity is ongoing, even as we all think about how to excite students about knowledge, about history, math, science. How can we connect the two — there are shows like Mythbusters that are a kind of popular culture Reality TV version of science, and Bill Nye, and History Channel. But that is just one strand.

What if there were some forum, the Davos of Education, where academics and K-12 folks would meet and swap ideas and experiences. No agenda, no conference papers, no forms to fill out. Just meet, talk, learn, and build connections. In the article I suggest that grad students take a class in Communication, but what if all of us needed to take a class, every few years, in New Ideas from the Front? The Teaching American History program, which Congress killed in budget cuts, was a version of this for American History. Is there an expanded version of that which we could recreate — maybe online to save cost? Ideas?


  1. If you get a chance to see “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System” (I saw it on my local PBS station) I think you might see what you’re looking for. The documentary examined schools in Finland where high school students develop a passion for knowledge while working alongside master teachers. Teacher training includes numerous classroom visits, critiques and dialog with these same master teachers. Pedagogy is developed in tandem with practitioners. Of course, we’re looking at a completely different society with different values placed upon teachers and education, but this is the kind of shift necessary to really change education. I’m going off subject, but I do think this relates to the concepts you’ve mentioned.

  2. Shirley Budhos says:

    Of course, there is a way to build academic bridges for college faculty and school teachers. I can report that when I taught at Flushing High School in Queens in the 1980s, members of CUNY Queens College’s English Departments & 5 city high schools collaborated to create a program to improve reading and writing, and it did, indeed improve our English Regents grades, an important outcome for NYS high schools. As a former 6 year English Queens College instructor, I was invited by my high school chairperson to represent our school in this project.

    We met regularly at the college, each represented by a chairperson and teacher. We selected new books, and a college professor, in this instance the poet Marie Ponsot, offered writing techniques, and we all participated in the activities. There were no lectures. We worked in small groups as well as one body of readers & writers. Everything was hands on, not theoretical conversations. College personnel visited our school to meet and work with our students, Based on our findings, we set up a program in our school for more teachers to participate in, we hired tutors for group work, and the Queens College Reading & Writing Program prospered for several years. Actually, when it ended many of us continued using the techniques we had developed in this collaboration. Often, as the coordinator in our school, I was invited to conferences for teachers at other CUNY colleges where I presented the materials I wrote on several books, including African literature (Achebe), as well as Toni Morrison’s work. I soon learned that my lesson plans circulated among many NYC schools, for these books had not been taught before.

    It was a constructive experience for all, because there was no hierarchy (when the college staff presumed they’d lecture us, I protested, because we were “foot soldiers” in the war on literacy), and those who had little contact with issues we high school teachers faced learned for the first time it was like to teach 5 periods of subject matter 5 days a week, plus cope with many other responsibilities.. Even today, our collaboration of college & high school could be duplicated everywhere.

  3. Shirley Budhos says:

    Indeed, Edi,I agree though I haven’t see the film, I’ve read “Finnish Lessons”: by Pasi Sahlberg,a director at the Finnish Ministry o fEducation and Culture, a wonderful, well written, informative book on how we, in the US and elsewhere could greatly improve our educational institutions; however, we’d have to change our culture’s attitudes toward teachers and teaching, and remove the business culture which controls decisions in education. Every time I mention this book, I’m told that we are a vast, diverse country, so how can we learn from a tiny place like Finland, etc?Fortunately, the book has much to educate us.

  4. Sue Bartle says:

    More on Finland- I suggest an excellent article in the September 2011 Smithsonian By LynNell Hancock – Why Are Finland’s Schools So Successful?
    You can find it at:

    I have always felt that communications is a key to so much that we do.
    People who are good at communication get people to do things they want done, win grants and most importantly influence people.

    Since I have a unique position in School Library Land – this really comes up very often for me.

    A good experiment – go to a large family event and talk to relatives you have not seen in awhile. Try to explain what you really do. And you can’t take the easy way out and say teach. Many of us can’t even explain in simple understandable terms what we do to our own family.

    If you pass the family test – it would be a great start.

    If we had better communication we would make much better connections that would lead to more success in education and the quality of life we want for all our students!