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Vicki Cobb Headshot

A Chemistry Book Is Not a Novel

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In past dozen years, as a result of NCLB, the focus of many elementary teachers has been literacy, not content. The preponderance of the material that is being taught for reading and writing is fiction and written reports that are little more than a regurgitation of one or two sources. The Common Core State Standards have mandated an increase in reading a lot more nonfiction in elementary school (to 50 percent) and high school (to 70 percent). This has ELA teachers upset about replacing classic literature with nonfiction. But I believe that the new emphasis on Core Curriculum Standards can have a profound and positive effect on education. (Note: that I'm emphasizing the standards, not the standardized testing, which is suddenly losing favor with the Gates Foundation.) They refocus the emphasis not just in skills (literacy and math) but in content and it will allow teachers to lift their heads up from the focus on promoting reading and creative writing skills which they perceive of as "easier" to teach and discover the joy of imparting knowledge through the many wonderful books in various disciplines by authors passionate about their subject matter.

The fact is that we nonfiction authors cannot be separated from our content. What we write about shapes the way we write. There are some old-fashioned authors who thinly disguise a message by creating characters to talk about a problem in a story setting. But trying to insert information artificially into a story format falls flat. There is no real character development and the ploy is obvious to the reader. Long ago an editor told me, "Kids do not like to have their facts sugar coated." The function of a story is to create a structural framework for a narrative. However, a story is not the only way to create such a structural framework. Sometimes a fascinating tidbit is revealed by a clever question or a startling fact that reveals some new aspect of the familiar. I like to think that my books are about concepts, big ideas, which are decorated with carefully chosen facts that are exemplars of the ideas. Not all books are supposed to be page-turners. Some books are designed to be read closely and processed slowly. There is a subtext to my books: I want my readers to understand why I am passionate about my subject matter. I want them to come away from a science book thinking "Wow! I never thought about it that way! Cool!"

The NCLB focus on literacy has had the perhaps unintended consequence of emphasizing reading and writing fiction or autobiographical material. This process assumes that everyone has content based on his or her own lives. Writing personal stories gives children some ownership in what they write about. Often teachers are uncomfortable teaching nonfiction because they feel they don't know enough about the subject. I have always shaken my head over this. I write science for the uninitiated. I assume my reader knows nothing about the subject. I hope that reading my books raises questions that can be addressed by reading other books. Where is it written that a teacher can't learn along with her students?

I have a sense of urgency about this. If we are to compete successfully in the world we must transition to a knowledge-based economy. And we're in trouble in this department. While more students than ever before are applying to college, the bad news is that hundreds of thousands of high school students are not prepared to do college-level work. They are weak in literacy skills, in math, and in knowledge of content--science and social studies. Almost half of entering freshmen need some form of remediation. In my opinion, that's starting late. I think children are capable of reasoning, inquiry, and critical thinking from the time they are three. We just don't do much to develop this talent and, in fact, we may even destroy it before it has a chance to bloom. An oft-cited study by Timothy and Cynthia Shanahan makes a distinction about literacy for different disciplines. They believe that children need to know how people in different disciplines think in order to be able to access the wealth of knowledge available in jargon-heavy books. Scientists think differently from historians or social scientists. That's where we children's nonfiction authors come in. We know our disciplines. We read the difficult books and distill them into works that make the disciplines we love accessible and fascinating for children. It's time educators gave us a try.