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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

Trusting Teachers

There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning

I just spent a few days on the East Coast and among my excursions was one to a tony independent school: handsome facilities, lovely teachers, a generous library, vibrant students. What more could anyone ask? In my case, there’s more.  Read More 
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What I Left Out

A letter from a reader about the updated 4th edition of "All the People" says: “I was very disappointed to see that the Mississippi Gulf Coast got barely a sentence in the discussion of Hurricane Katrina. Like the rest of the nation, you have overlooked the destruction that our state suffered and focused only on what New Orleans suffered.”
Ah me, she is right, of course. She has hit upon one of the problems of writing history, especially a grand sweep history. You can’t tell it all, so you have to make choices. I’m bothered all the time by what I didn’t include. So I often tell teachers and students to help me out and write their own volumes of A History of US. You and your students can tackle the history of your town or city or hamlet. Interviewing parents and grandparents and neighbors will provide insights into family history. And then there are all those other things that, even in 10 books, I had to eliminate. Take the Civil War. I attempt to cover it all in one small volume. Except that I don’t really. There are whole libraries on just the Civil War. You’ll be amazed at what I left out. So follow your reading with research and writing, maybe you can publish too.  Read More 
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The Early Days: How I Began to Write US History

I was a writer by trade, so writing on U.S. history didn’t seem daunting. Newspaper reporters tackle all kinds of subjects. I’d done a bit of medical writing, I was a business writer for three years, I wrote often about schools, I’d reviewed some plays and concerts, become an editorial writer, and done a lot of whatever-will-sell freelancing. As for history? A story I wrote about Jefferson’s “Statute for Religious Freedom” (a little known but enormously important document) ran in the Wall St. Journal. Virginius Dabney, one of my heroes and a grand old man In Virginia history circles, had actually complimented me on the article. So had Dumas Malone, a Jefferson biographer and University of Virginia historian. The idea was to do as good a job as possible and go to experts to have my work checked. I didn’t realize it, but compared to those who actually write the books used in most schools, I was enormously well qualified.  Read More 
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Albert Einstein: Imagination VS Knowledge

Albert Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Now it’s easy to agree with that, but I lived with Albert for almost ten years so I know he expected his thoughts to be questioned. I fell for the guy-as did quite a few women of his time-but I think that he was being a bit disingenuous with that statement.

Einstein’s fantastic imagination-the key to his creativity-rested on a solid knowledge base. This was a man who lived in his head, and there was a whole lot to keep him occupied. It was his imagination that gave him the power to visualize, which he did amazingly well. That ability helped him hatch his theories.  Read More 
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On Freedom of Speech

Because of student protests at Rutgers, Condoleezza Rice recently withdrew as commencement speaker. Something similar happened at Smith College where Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, was scheduled to give the commencement address. Now I happen to be a graduate of Smith, where I learned that our founders guaranteed freedom of speech in the First Amendment.  Read More 
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Writing For Kids Or Anyone

I‘d been a business reporter and editorial writer for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk when I decided to leave daily journalism to write a U.S. history for young adults. That was after I read an academic study that compared student’s comprehension of writing by journalists (this case Time magazine writers) with their comprehension of the same events as written in standard textbooks. Comprehension was 40% higher with the journalists. I understood that right away. If you’re a journalist and your writing is obtuse, or dull, you’re not likely to keep your job. in  Read More 
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This New Era

Just before 1600, a Polish priest named Copernicus figured out that the Sun was the center of what then seemed the universe. You know that story and how it impacted a charismatic professor in Italy named Galileo.
It would take about two hundred years before most people and most authorities could accept the scientific proofs showing that Earth circles the Sun and not vice versa. When that happened we began embracing what is now known as the Scientific Revolution. It initiated a paradigm change in human thought.
Something as big as that revolution is occurring right now. I believe our time will be seen as the end of one era of thought and the beginning of a whole new one. We, as teachers, need to be aware of what’s going on.  Read More 
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Using History to Teach Reading and Thinking

While I was writing A History of US I began trying out chapters and then books in schools in Virginia, in Rochester, in Chicago, and in San Diego. Teachers gave me feedback. Students gave me comments. I listened. I wrote a coordinated workbook to go with the text. Its focus was on history a sa reading subject, one that links all the disciplines together. So it included information on geology, on art, on anything I found interesting. There were original stories and pertinent math problems, along with essay tests. One teacher wanted more conventional work and suggested fill-in-the-blanks and true/false questions. I provided, adding ideas for historic research intended to lead to papers or student written performances or art. Getting the books published was hard, adding innovative classwork was going too far. But I’m aware of fresh educational winds. Schoolwork can now be fun, as well as challenging. Boring should not be in anyone’s learning vocabulary.  Read More 
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Frozen History

From this week's Science Magazine:
"The warming climate has spurred a miniboom in archaeology, as melting alpine ice releases a trove of exquisitely preserved artifacts. Frozen for millennia, clothing and leather are intact and supple; Stone Age arrowheads still bear the resin used to haft them. In Norway this summer, archaeologists and glaciologists scoured the edges of melting ice patches, using a helicopter to reach remote mountainous sites. In less than a month, they found nearly 400 objects, ranging from a complete horse skull to a Viking walking stick and Stone Age arrows, as well as still-pungent piles of ancient reindeer and horse dung. The haul makes Norway ground zero for ice melt archaeology today, but in the past 20 years rising temperatures have exposed frozen artifacts worldwide, including Ötzi, the Stone Age mummy discovered in the Alps in 1991. Archaeologists are working to build a specialty from these frozen finds, with papers, conferences, and a new journal that debuts in November. The discoveries encompass a wide swath of Europe's history, from the time of hunter-gatherers to that of medieval travelers on skis. In the short term, the priority is to rescue fragile artifacts quickly. But already, researchers are beginning to use them to understand how people in the icy parts of the globe dealt with past climate change."  Read More 
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From London

Friends at home tell us of terrible weather, here in the UK the sun is shining. My husband and I lugged raincoats and umbrellas, we haven't used them. Daffodils, camellias, and other spring flowers are blooming in pots and boxes on railings and doorsteps.. Today we visited Samuel Johnson at his handsome 17th century home, with tall windows, gleaming woodwork, and an entry garden.  Read More 
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"Unbiased" is Tricky. Fairness is Key.

I sit alone in a home office-which overlooks a pond and trees and Colorado mountains, so I’m not complaining—but I don’t have as much contact with my readers as I used to have, and I often wonder how they are reacting to what I write.

So I was delighted with two emails I got this week.

One described my books as “unbiased.” Which is nice to hear, except that I, as a writer, know there is no such thing as an unbiased book. Even those dreadfully dull textbooks (which aren’t written by real authors, mostly they are put together by editorial ghosts) are the product of choices. No one can tell it all, so by necessity we bring our backgrounds and our purpose into whatever we write.  Read More 
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