When I first started iNK Think Tank in 2009, the economy had tanked, school visits and book contracts had been abruptly canceled and I had time on my hands. For years I knew that we nonfiction authors were perhaps the most over-looked and underutilized resource available to the cash-strapped educational community. Why not find a cost-effective way to make authors like me and our books available to schools?
At the time, I was involved in contributing to a group-blog called Interesting Nonfiction for Kids (the origin of our logo iNK). Founded by Linda Salzman, a children’s nonfiction fan, she recruited about 2 dozen of her favorite authors who wrote their posts pro bono. The Common Core Standards had been announced, which required more reading of nonfiction. But we authors knew that most teachers had very little awareness of the treasure of nonfiction books, related to their required curricula, that was sitting idly on their school library shelves. We also knew that teachers were so busy that they didn’t know how or where to find such books. So I approached my fellow blog contributors in July of 2009, and convinced everyone to create a database that would align our books to the Standards so teachers could search and get lists of appropriate titles to fulfill their needs. We discovered that such a database needed a website, which we launched on October 7, 2009. Everyone donated money to make it happen. The volunteer effort was overwhelming. And the response to the website was strong. So far we have about 8,000 registered users.
It became clear over the next few years that the classroom use of nonfiction literature had been preempted by standardized test performance —testing every grade, K-12, every year turning classrooms into joyless test preparation skill and drill. Even if teachers knew about our work, there was no time in the school year, with the well entrenched pacing programs to do anything but the prescribed curriculum with the prescribed reading material. That material has been provided by behemoth school and textbook publishers who have dominated classrooms for years.
One winter evening at the beginning of 2014, my friend and colleague, author Alexandra Siy called me. The conversation went as follows:
Alex: The Common Core Standards say that kids need to read a lot more nonfiction, right?
Alex: Well, we write a lot of nonfiction but teachers don’t even know where to find our work and kids don’t even know we exist.
Me: That’s true.
Alex: Kids have to read a lot of boring material and teachers are over-burdened with data collection, evaluations, test preparation, testing. When do they have the time to find quality nonfiction for their students?
Me. That’s a problem.
Alex: So here’s a solution: It’s a website called the Nonfiction Minute with posts written by award-winning authors. We make it available free to teachers all over the world. Suddenly kids will be reading great-quality nonfiction every single day. The essays will be very short. Teachers can bring it up on their Smart Board, use it as a do-now. They can launch discussions and conversations. They can launch units on science, math, history, art, anything!
Me: I LOVE it! It’s a way to get our foot into classroom doors.
So a few of us in iNK began writing 400-word essays on subjects that interested us. We read our own Minutes aloud to make mp3 files so less fluent readers could enjoy the content and the language, we added intriguing visuals. We started posting in September of 2014. About that time, my former publisher, editor and friend, Jean Reynolds called me. She had retired when she sold the two publishing companies she had founded—Millbrook and Roaring Brook Presses. She saw the Nonfiction Minute as an opportunity to do the thing she loved most: editing. I am enough of a pro to know that it was exactly what we needed to make the Nonfiction Minute a success. I told her that I wanted to pay her but didn’t have any funding to do so. Nevertheless, she was hooked. She had complete control to edit some of the best writers in the world—and she didn’t have to deal with inventory, payroll, personnel hiring and firing, book production. I was thrilled that she wanted the job and stepped back into being just another one of her writers.
Since the Nonfiction Minute went live in 2014 to now, we’ve had more than 3 million page views and 300,000 users. We've become a nonprofit and we've tried crowd-funding and grant writing to find a way to become financially sustainable. Now we are trying a new experiment. We are creating an iNK Membership for Teachers, Students and Parents. The fee for annual membership for Charter Subscribers is $19.95. Members will get full access to all the Minutes and the Archive and the Transfer to Teaching (T2T. ) The public will have access to the NM blog and 10 free Nonfiction Minutes over the summer. In the fall they will get a daily free Minute with its T2T but only on the day it is published. The public will not have access to the archive and we intend to offer Members other perks now in planning stages. You can learn more about this transition on Monday, July 4.
We hope that the Nonfiction Minute is an introduction to us authors whose books are already in school libraries. We'd love some feedback from librarians if this has happened. In the meantime, when teachers ask me how they can justify the classroom time needed to read and discuss the Nonfiction Minutes, I grin and say slyly: “Call it ‘test prep.'”