#TravelinBen: The Historian’s Flat Stanley

Flat StanleyDo you know Flat Stanley?

Flat Stanley is a paper boy that kids cut out, color, and send to friends, family, and pen pals. These friends and correspondents take pictures of Stanley in different places and send those pictures back to his owner. Once the pictures come back, the kids write stories about where Stanley has been and what he did during his trip(s).

The Flat Stanley exercise helps kids learn “authentic literacy.” Kids get to create and write about the stories and ideas they are passionate about.

Flat Stanley made me wonder, can historians and history teachers use a version of this idea to help kids learn and become passionate about history?

In this post, you will discover my new experiment for 2016: #TravelinBen.


The Inspiration

I have two nephews and a niece.

I met my eldest nephew when he was 6 or 7 years old. He talked my ear off for hours about Pokémon during our first meeting. It was cute even if I had no idea what to do with the conversation. Today, he’s 18 and a freshman in college.

My other nephew and niece are young. My youngest nephew is 1 year and my niece is 3.5 years old.

Admittedly, I am not a baby person and I feel (and likely look) clueless around little kids. However, my niece has decided she won’t stand for a clueless auntie.*

Every time I walk into her house for a visit, she runs up, gives me a hug, and takes me to her playroom. We color, build Lincoln Logs, go shopping at her store, play doctor, and serve tea with her princess tea set. Mostly, she just bosses me around.

It’s cute and smart. My niece is bringing me into her little-kid world through play.

My niece’s intuitive actions have caused me to wonder whether the process can be reversed. If a 3.5 year old can bring a 34 year old into her world through play, why can’t I bring my niece into my world using the same idea?

If my niece loves to play princess tea party, why wouldn’t she love to play Boston Tea Party?

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Ben Franklin’s World Partners with Omohundro Institute

Ben Franklin’s World has its first sponsor and partner: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture!

Together we are producing “Doing History,” a 12-episode series that will answer listener questions about the work historians do and serve as an educational resource for those who teach history.

I am really excited about this series and to work with the folks at the OI.

You can read the official announcement on the Omohundro Institute website.

bfworld-oi partners

Historian  SOS

The partnership between the Omohundro Institute and Ben Franklin’s World came about because I asked for help.

When I launched Ben Franklin’s World in October 2014, I thought I had considered every aspect of the show: I knew how I would record the show; why I would hire a sound engineer; why I would host my audio files with Libsyn instead of Soundcloud; how long my episodes would be; why my in-show music would be Bach; why my website had to be designed to host a podcast; and why I wanted to call the show Ben Franklin’s World.

What I never considered was what I would do when the show became successful:

  • How do I choose books to feature on the show when everything publishers send would appeal to my listeners?
  • What should I say to those with unrelated services or products who wanted to sponsor Ben Franklin’s World or who invited the show to join their non-history podcast network?
  • And the most scary (for me) aspect of all: How do I say “no” to colleagues I can’t feature on the show?

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Why Are Popular History Books Popular?

WhyWhat makes popular history books “popular?”

Over the last few months, I have read several popular history books for Ben Franklin’s World.

I read these books with the same care and thought I give to scholarly work. I also read them with an eye toward trying to figure out why they are “popular.”

Why do history lovers choose these books over scholarly ones, which often contain better evidence, information, and analysis?

In this post, I offer observations about the popularity of popular history books.


Popular History Books Feature People

Many historians argue that popular history books are popular because they tackle a founding father or famous person.

A casual glance at the bookshelves or best-seller tables at Barnes and Noble supports this idea.

With that said, I am not convinced that famous people make popular history books popular.

Listeners of Ben Franklin’s World love learning about the founders and famous people, but do you know what they love learning about even more?

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The Bobblehead Collection

Thomas Jefferson

My first bobblehead, Thomas Jefferson

January 7 is National Bobblehead Day.

In honor of the occasion, I offer you a look at my historic bobblehead collection.

My collection consists of 14 bobbleheads. It started in the late 2000s with Thomas Jefferson.

The collection started with Jefferson because we share a birthday (April 13).  Jefferson’s birth (and mine) are the only interesting historical happenings on that day. (Seriously, April 13 is a historically boring day. April 12, 14, and 15 are action packed.)

After Jefferson, I acquired John Adams, one of my favorite historical figures.

John Stark

John Stark, Famed Revolutionary War Officer from New Hampshire

For several months, Jefferson and Adams lived on top of my office bookcase. Friends and family always commented on them when they visited and for the next several Christmases and birthdays I received bobbleheads. Bobblehead gift-giving continues today: this past Christmas (2015) my Dad gave me John Stark, Continental Army colonel and New Hampshire general.


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Boston Athenaeum Author of the Month

boston-athenaeum-logo-9x9I am excited to announce that the Boston Athenaeum selected me as their “Author of the Month.”

Over the last 2+ years, the Athenaeum has become like a second home. I joined the institution because of its reputation for being a great and inspiring place to work. They also have university-like interlibrary loan services, which I need given how many obscure and specialty titles I request.

As “Author of the Month,” the Athenaeum asked me to answer a few questions about my research, Ben Franklin’s World, my favorite podcasts and Twitter follows, and why I study early American history.

My favorite part of the interview was trying to explain why I became a historian of early America. I became fascinated with early America because I grew up in an old, New England  town and because my parents cultivated an interest in history.

My parents never took my brother and me on beach vacations (it’s okay, we both turn red just thinking about sun exposure). Instead, we enjoyed cultural vacations around New England and the United States.

Also, Mom and Dad granted us an allowance in books instead of cash. We became voracious readers as a result. (We earned the money we wanted for other things by doing chores and delivering newspapers.)

All my reading, combined with trips to museums, historic sites, and national parks, ensured that I learned how to ask “why” and where I might find the answers to my questions.

You can read the full interview on the Athenaeum’s website.

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