March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Minding the Curriculum Gaps | Consider the Source


Marc 2Last week, I moderated the SLJ SummerTeen panel “New Age of Young Adult Nonfiction,” where authors Paula Ayer, M.T. Anderson, and Susan Campbell Bartoletti presented their newest (and in two cases, first) nonfiction titles. Each book—Ayer’s Foodprints: The Story of What We Eat (Annick Press, 2015); Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (Candlewick, Sept., 2015), and Bartoletti’s Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America (HMH, Aug., 2015)—has much to recommend it: as an individual creation, as a work of research, and as an example of the variety of nonfiction available to students today. I believe you’ll get a sense of what I am referring to when you watch the authors describe what it is that they aimed for in their books and how they went about it. The webcast is archived and will be available for the next 12 months (To listen in, go to under events, and register if you haven’t.)
But here I want to talk about a larger issue related to the Shostakovich book: gaps in the history we make available to teenagers.

As you well know, adequately covering critical curriculum topics is an ongoing, often insurmountable challenge, particularly when it comes to social studies. The relentless focus (and re-re-re-focus) on U.S. history in elementary school and beyond leaves little time to cover anything else. This is even more problematic when schools split the time allotted to social studies with science, so students get a scattering of units when they are supposed to be covering great swaths of history. The result is repetition—and more repetition. As one administrator told a friend of mine who is teaching seventh and eighth social studies, we want attention on the African American experience—the events, the people, and the stories—beyond those of Martin Luther King, Jr.—his stories are “all they have ever heard about.” In the same vein, by the time he reached fifth grade, my older son was so tired of the Founding Fathers he decided he would have been a Loyalist during the American Revolution. We simultaneously ignore most history and repeat the same periods or conflicts in slightly different manners.

The World War II version of this exclusion and repetition is turning that vast world conflict into a focus on the Holocaust, the internment camps, D-Day, and the atomic bomb. There are good reasons, and well-developed curricula, for each of these topics. But they leave out, well, most of the story. I don’t mean most of the war, I mean most of what is important to know and think about in relationship to that time period.

When we teach the Holocaust, we explore the Nazis treatment of the Jews, the Roma, the mentally ill, and homosexuals, Often, the millions of Soviet citizens that Joseph Stalin murdered are not discussed. It is also true that the Nazis killed millions of Russians (whom they viewed as subhuman) and those deaths can be added to the existing narrative about views of race and difference that we already tell. But Stalin killed Russian citizens because of their political beliefs (not mainly religious beliefs, though he did focus at times on the Jewish and Ukrainian Catholic populations), because of their wealth, because they were inconvenient, and because it suited him to create an atmosphere of fear and terror. To make sense of 20th-century history we must also consider the Soviets, and Mao, and the millions of deaths that resulted from the Cultural Revolution. If we only tell one half of a story, our students will never fully understand what took place. And, as Anderson points out in Symphony, it was the willingness of Stalin and his generals to perpetuate and to accept millions upon millions of Soviet deaths and the heroic endurance of the Soviet people that stalled, stopped, and defeated the Nazis. Heartlessness met its match.

Curricula are slow to change. But now with books like Eugene Yelchin’s Breaking Stalin’s Nose (Holt, 2011) and Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray (Philomel, 2011), and Symphony for the City of the Dead, young readers have a pathway to the whole story, the larger story of the deaths of the mid-20th century. We cannot overlook significant moments in history because they are slighted in textbooks and on tests. These people lived, the events took place, and the issues that these stories raise are real. It is a form of generosity for authors to give young adults access to these histories—histories that are no less crucial simply because they are not yet required reading. That is what a school library can do—support what the curriculum states students must know and offer a corridor into what there is to know. The small shelf of books that opens up the Soviet story of World War II is growing; may it keep expanding.

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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