Friday, December 25, 2015

Reading for Information: Help from a “Guide on the Side”

            I hope we see a revived interest in the work of Louise Rosenblatt very soon because her work helps us understand reader response. To put it simply, Rosenblatt explained that our responses to literature—and that includes nonfiction—are always somewhere along the continuum of information seeking (she called it the efferent response) and emotional connection  (she called it the aesthetic response or the “lived through experience”). That is, sometimes we are mostly seeking information and sometimes we are mostly seeking an emotional connection, but it is never simply one or the other.  It’s both.
            Melissa Stewart’s thoughtful post on Elizabeth Bird’s Fuse #8 blog got me to thinking about this. According to Melissa, there are some kids who are concrete, analytic thinkers and prefer expository nonfiction. These readers do not crave an emotional connection to a central figure in a book. They simply want to learn more about the world. I agree. But is this because they already care about the subject in some way and so they welcome a book that feeds their interest? Or is it because their interest develops as they learn new information and then crave more? I have seen both these things happening in the classroom.  The more kids know, the more they want to know, and the more they raise questions for further inquiry.
            What does caring about information look like? In addition to books of straight exposition, there are a number of books that highlight a passion for learning by an author who serves as a “guide on the side.” This phrase, which is often used to describe teachers who place themselves on the sidelines of classroom activity while encouraging students to become more active, also describes authors who place themselves on the sidelines of their books with the goal of showing the joy of learning. Chief among these guides is Marc Aronson, who often joins scientists engaged in discovering new information and formulating new ideas. If you read Marc’s If Stones Could Speak, a book about new discoveries at Stonehenge, you can’t miss his frequent invitations to join the excitement of scientific thinking and learning.
            There are other authors, who like Marc, place themselves beside scientists who are in the process of learning and who care deeply about what they are doing. They show readers what caring about information looks like. One such author is Simon Winchester, whose recent book, When Earth Shakes: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis, describes his own personal interest in geology and 
writing as well as the passion of others. Here is how he describes scientists in Israel trying to understand data about earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault: “They, like scientists all over the world, are gripped by the mysteries of earth’s behavior and want to understand what is happening deep down below, and why and when sudden seismic movements occur as they do.” That’s caring.
            I believe there is a useful role for the guide on the side, the author who holds our hands as we learn about the excitement of learning information. It’s like the teacher who is hoping to inspire a class of students. And like Melissa Stewart, I also believe we need to do more to recognize exemplary expository nonfiction that helps readers both learn and care about the world.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Rain Wizard: Scientist or Fraud?

           Because I love a good history mystery, I was immediately attracted to Larry Dane Brimner’s latest nonfiction title, The Rain Wizard: The Amazing, Mysterious, True Life of Charles Mallory Hatfield.  Here is the story of a man who claimed he could “coax” rain from the sky, using a secret mix of chemicals.  And . . . he was remarkably successful.  But was he a charlatan and a fraud?  Were all his methods simply a scheme for making money from desperate cities and farming areas suffering from drought? Or, was he—as he claimed—a scientist?
            After narrating this story, the author leaves us to ponder this question: “Did Hatfield hold some secret formula that caused the clouds to weep?” (p. 103).  Brimner tells us that whether Hatfield could indeed produce rain remains a mystery, but what he did produce was hope for people desperate for rain. So, in effect, we can only use available evidence to speculate.  Brimner’s bibliography provides us sources for continuing our search for this evidence.
            In addition to the intriguing mystery element, this book is beautifully formatted, clearly written, and has many, many large black and white, tinted photographs that can be carefully examined. If you are looking for ideas for using these photographs with students, check out the five-minute video from the New York State Archives on teaching with photographs at
            It was truly a pleasure to read this well-designed, interesting book. I hope that Larry Dane Brimner and Calkins Creek publishers keep these nonfiction books coming.