Spark Your Child’s Imagination and Reading Skills With Companion Readers - Well-Trained Mind


Spark Your Child’s Imagination and Reading Skills With Companion Readers

We all know that reading is a vital skill to master, but it ought to be a delight, not a chore to be checked off in a “Literature” class. That’s why we’re so excited to bring your children some great new books to dive into, with features that will instruct while they entertain. #StealthLearning #YesWeJustMadeUpThatHashtag

For over 30 years, Jim Weiss’s storytelling and his audio adaptations of classics from world literature have delighted children and parents. Now Well-Trained Mind Press has turned some of Jim’s stories, word for word, into beautifully illustrated books, with features that will spark your child’s imagination while strengthening reading ability.

Your child can experience these stories in three different ways, each one building verbal skills while fueling a lifelong love of reading:

  • Listen to the Jim Weiss stories on the CD or MP3. Jim’s keen ear for language, his carefully-chosen material, and his astounding array of voices will keep children rapt with attention. We hear from thousands of parents that “My kids want to listen to Jim’s stories all the time!”
  • Read along in the illustrated Companion Reader to improve fluency, vocabulary, and grammar. Since each book contains a word-for-word transcript of Jim’s story, young readers can follow along with him, even on books they might not be able to tackle on their own. We’ve included indications of where each audio track begins, to help children follow along.
  • Speak great words and sentences out loud by practicing and performing the short, accessible dramatic versions of Jim’s performances. Acting out stories is so much fun that kids don’t realize how much they are learning at the same time. Some of our favorite childhood memories involve staging plays for our family and friends, all inspired by books we had read [Note to Mom: Thirty years later, we can now admit that your lipstick disappeared because we used it for Chief Tecumseh’s war-paint.] Every Companion Reader includes scripts and staging instructions for one full-length play or several shorter presentations: plays, monologues, puppet shows, radio/audio dramas, and more. Actor/writer Chris Bauer provides kid-friendly tips on acting, casting, props, sound effects, and even stage combat (i.e., how King Arthur’s knights can have a sword fight without anybody going to the Emergency Room).

We love making these books, and we hope that they’ll become favorites in your household. See them all here.

If you have a favorite Jim Weiss story that you’d love to see in book form, let us know via email or in the comments.

Well-Trained Mind Press: Stories of the World, for the World’s Children


Why Poetry?

The following was written as an introduction to Jim’s new two-volume collection of classic poems, now available from Well-Trained Mind Press.

This is a collection of wonderful words. Oh, not all of them would seem beautiful or important taken one at a time. But someone loved them enough to form them into poems.  So now they shine a light on the world and on its people; and to suddenly see, as if with newly opened eyes, what had become “every day” in our surroundings is one of the great gifts that poetry brings to a reader or listener. The English poet Percy Shelley said it this way:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.  

Why is it especially important to encounter poetry when we are young? Because children naturally love poetry and take to it, and it’s important to play to that love before the voices that claim to speak for the serious world of adults start tossing out such adjectives as “frivolous” or “not essential” in describing the arts – because those voices are as wrong as can be.  As Robin Williams’ character says, in the film Dead Poets Society,

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s ‘cute’.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion… Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.

Sir Walter Scott, poet and inventor of the historical novel, put it this way:

Teach your children poetry.  It opens the mind, lends grace to wisdom and makes the heroic virtues hereditary.

Surely we could use more “grace” and “wisdom” in our world; but the Scottish lord also pinpointed something that is out of fashion today: “heroic virtues.”  In a world in which heroes and heroines are quickly besmirched and “cut down to size,” the world of poetry and story remains one place where we can still meet and appreciate heroes. And we need heroes to feed our spirits. As the Native American leader Tecumseh said,

When the legends die, the dreams end. There is no more greatness.

Of course, many poets focus on the small miracles around us, rather than working on an epic scale, and these poems are equally important, for they remind us to look for the wonders around and within us, every day. Let the American poet e.e. Cummings, word painter of nature and master of the love poem, say it:

I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing/than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.  

So here I have collected poems, large and small, that sing. Not all will please you equally, or in the same ways, because you are the co-creator of each poem. Carl Sandburg, poet, singer, and Lincoln biographer wrote,

A poet explains… what for him is poetry by what he presents to us in his poems…There stands the work of the man, the woman, who wrought it. We go to it, read it, look at it, perhaps go back to it many a time, and it is for each of us what we make of it.

Here are some of the best poems I know.  Make of them all that you can.  I wish you much joy in the making.


King Arthur Gets a Makeover (Not THAT Kind…)

It happened long ago, in the misty past, in a time we call The Dark Ages…in 1991. A wandering bard named Jim Weiss created a thrilling tale of King Arthur and his brave knights of the Round Table. People listened to the tales of Jim the Bard on ancient devices called “tapes.”

Now, a “tape” was something you could listen to, like Spotify or iTunes, except not like that at all. It had been cursed by a sorcerer so that it would be full of hisses and pops and background hum, and it was hard to find your way to a particular part of the story without constant “rewinding” and “fast-forwarding.” This was quite “tiresome.”

But now, Jim the Bard and Well-Trained Mind Press have re-mastered the original “tapes” so that you can listen to King Arthur and His Knights in a beautiful new edition (available in MP3 or on CD).

We asked Merlin to lift the spell of poor audio quality, so this new edition features crisper sound (listen to the audio comparison below).

It has also been divided into 10 tracks for easy navigation. Furthermore, it has a gorgeous new cover by artist Rebecca Sorge (that’s “Sorge” like “George,” not “Sor-jah” like “Georgia”).

Find the new edition of King Arthur & His Knights here!

[And for you nostalgia buffs, the older edition is still available on CD for a low price, while supplies last.]



We’ve also created an exciting new Companion Reader with colorful illustrations of these classic stories, plus instructions and a script so kids can stage their own play!



(And yes, we included directions about “How to do Stage Combat without actually stabbing anyone.”)



Well-Trained Mind Press

Stories of the World, for the World’s Children


A Sample Lesson from Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind

Watch as Susan and Kevin guide you through a sample lesson from Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind.

Check out our other videos for Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind: Introducing Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind and Teaching Tips for Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind.

Want to dive in? Here is the first six weeks for free!


Susan: I’m Susan Wise Bauer. And I am here with Kevin Boston, who works for the Well-Trained Mind Press. And Kevin has offered to play the role of a somewhat reluctant sixth-grade grammar learner. So we are going to go through Lesson 83, at least part of Lesson 83, which is about conditionals and the subjunctive tense.

We’re not going to do the entire lesson, but I wanted to give you some idea of how grammar for the Well-Trained Mind actually works. I have Lesson 83 from the Core Instructor Text, which has all of the dialog that you use to teach the student. And Kevin has the copy of the Student Workbook, which has all of the rules, examples, and exercises.

If we had done the previous 82 lessons, we would have already studied conditionals. So I’m going to pick up at the point where we are reviewing what a conditional sentence is and then we’re gonna go on to discuss the new material which is the subjunctive tense, an introduction to the subjunctive tense.

Here’s where we’re going to start. We’ve learned that there are three kinds of conditional sentences. So what I would like you to do is to begin by reading me those first three bolded lines there, which is the definition of the first kind of conditional sentence.

Kevin: “The first conditional sentences express circumstances that might actually happen. The predicate of the condition clause is in a present tense. The predicate of the consequence clause is in imperative, present or future tense.”

Susan: Good. Read the first example there.

Kevin: “If we surrender and I return with you, will you promise not to hurt this man?”

Susan: Very good. So what you see there is that, “surrender” and, “return” are in the present tense. That’s the condition clause, and “will promise” is in the future tense, that’s the consequence clause. In the second example, you actually have an imperative in the consequence clause. And what is that sentence?

Kevin: So bow down to her if you want. Bow to her.

Susan: Good. So, “bow” is an imperative verb. Okay, that’s good. Let’s go ahead and review second conditional sentences. Read me those three definitions there.

Kevin: “Second conditional sentences express circumstances that are contrary to reality. The predicate of the condition clause is in a past tense. The predicate of the consequence clause is in the simple present modal tense.”

Susan: Modal tense. That’s right. We’ve studied modal tense before. He has no memory of this, and your sixth grader won’t either. But that’s why you use the program for more than one year in a row.

[To the audience] Let me stop for just one minute. The reading out loud that he’s doing, although it sounds a little bit tedious, is incredibly important. This is a big part of the memory process. So I’m constantly throughout here gonna be asking him to read things out loud. That will help his memory process and also help him to really understand how language works.

[Returning to Kevin] Okay. So you just read me the definition of second conditional sentences. Read me the first example.

Kevin: “I would not say such things if I were you.”

Susan: Very good. Now that first verb is a present modal, “would say.” The second verb is past. So the predicate of the condition clause is in a past tense. If I were you. We won’t read all the examples. Let’s move on and talk about third conditional sentences.

Kevin: “Third conditional sentences express past circumstances that never happened. The predicate of the condition clause is in the perfect past tense. The predicate of the consequence clause is in the perfect present modal, or simple present modal tense.”

Susan: Good. Now in the example, read me the example sentence.

Kevin: “But they would have killed Wesley if I hadn’t done it.”

Susan: Good. “Would have killed” is the perfect present modal. That’s the consequence. If I hadn’t done it, that’s the perfect past. That’s the condition clause. Now what we wanna talk about is something odd that happens to one of these verbs. Each one of those condition clauses that we read has a predicate expressing something that is contrary to fact. Either it didn’t happen, or it couldn’t ever have happened. Or it could have happened, it just hasn’t happened yet. So there are five of those subjects and predicates listed in your work book under the heading contrary to fact. So if you could just read that column out loud.

Kevin: “If we surrender, if you want, if she is, if I were, if we had.”

Susan: Good. Those are all the contrary to fact verbs. Now in the right-hand column, all of those subjects and predicates have been turned from contrary to fact to actual statements of fact. So read them out loud.

Kevin: “We surrender, we want, she is, I was, we had.”

Susan: Good. Now verbs that express unreal situations, so that’s everything in the “Contrary to Fact” column, are said to be subjunctive verbs. Read me the definition of a subjunctive verb.

Kevin: “Subjunctive verbs express situations that are unreal, wished for, or uncertain.”

Susan: Good. That is as opposed to an indicative verb. Read me the definition of an indicative verb.

Kevin: “Indicative verbs affirm or declare what actually is.”

Susan: Now what you’ll notice from those columns is that all of the contrary to fact verbs are subjunctive. All of the fact verbs are indicative. And in most cases, they look almost exactly the same. What is the one verb that has a different form in the subjunctive than in the indicative?

Kevin: “Were” and “was.”

Susan: “Were” and “was.” Exactly. So a long time ago the English language had different forms for all of its subjunctive verbs. Over time most of them fell out of use. So in English today, subjunctive verbs usually look like the regular present tense except for state of being verbs and that’s where we’re gonna see a difference.

[to the Audience] So then the remainder of this lesson, is a set of exercises that will help Kevin to go through and identify when he needs to change the form of the state of being verb in order to make it into a correct subjunctive verb.


Teaching Tips for Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind

Susan provides several tips for getting the most out of our grammar curriculum, Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind.
Check out our other videos for Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind: Introducing Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind and A Sample Lesson from Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind.

Want to dive in? Here is the first six weeks for free!


I’m Susan Wise Bauer and I want to give you a few teaching tips to help you get the most out of our new program, Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind. This is a very thorough, very complete program. It takes students from nouns — a noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea, the most basic grammar rule that there is — all the way through complex sentence structure. And because there’s a great deal of material that’s covered in each year of the program, I want to give you some idea of how to teach it in a way that will avoid frustration, avoid boredom and, above all, avoid tears. We don’t want to have any tears.

Here’s the first thing. When you go through this program, you basically will cover the same material during each of the four years. That repetition is incredibly important. It also means that you shouldn’t expect the student to get it perfectly the first time through. Don’t expect students to master the material the first time through. Don’t expect them to even completely understand every principle, particularly the more complicated ones. You have to be willing to accept some imperfect learning the first time through. The repetition and the practice are what will eventually bring clarity to the student. Accept initial confusion as a natural part of learning, especially the more advanced concepts. Give all help needed, move on. You’re going to circle back around to it again. You don’t have to master it the first time through. So don’t expect perfect learning, that’s the first tip.

Second, this is not a test. Always prompt the student if the student is confused. A learning process means that you give as much help as necessary. You never try to trick the student. You never force the student to come up with an answer, any answer. Prompt them, number two.

Number three, if you’re using the course, you’ll discover that about halfway through from about Week 19, we’d say, “Ask the student to read the answer out loud.” Don’t let them skip this. Okay? Even if they don’t want to do it, they have to read out loud. Reading your own work out loud is a major, major skill when you’re writing and editing your own work. Make them read it out loud. Don’t let them read it silently. That is not an okay shortcut.

Four, the program is set up to be 36 weeks, with 4 days of work per week. Take as long as you want. If a lesson gets long, finish it the next day. If a lesson goes really quickly, you could do two. Remember that you don’t have to finish the entire book the first year. If you go with the student’s natural learning pace and you only get up to Week 20, that’s fine. The next year, go back and start again at Week 1. The earlier weeks will go so much more quickly the second time through that you’ll then be able to spend more time on the more difficult concepts at the end of the book. So you set the pace. Don’t be driven by the setup of the textbook to do more per day than you want to.

Next, remember this. The first time you go through the book, you want to ask the student to complete every part of every exercise. But in subsequent years, the student doesn’t have to do all the exercises. If you go over a concept and it’s clear that they remember it perfectly well from the previous year, skip the exercise and go on. Adjust the workload to fit the student’s understanding. The better they understand, the fewer exercises they need to do.

Final thing, we have diagramming in this book. Diagramming is a fantastic tool for learning grammar because it allows you to draw a picture of the logical relationships between the parts of the sentence. Diagramming is also not an exact science. So first of all, when the student is diagramming, give them every help possible. Don’t let them struggle on and get frustrated. If they can’t figure out how to diagram part of the sentence, use the key, explain it, let them look at the answer, and then move on. But even more than this, if they can figure out the way to diagram the sentence that maybe it doesn’t exactly match what we have in the book, as long as they can explain why they’ve made the choices that they have, then you can let them choose a different way to diagram. Diagramming is a tool. It’s not a test.

Just to come back to what I started with, your whole experience with this program will be better if you remember that it is a learning process. It is not something that the student has to master perfectly and get A’s on all their exercises and tests. Take your time, work through the program, give as much help as necessary.


Introducing Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind

Introducing Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind!

After you’ve watched this video, check out our other videos for Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind: Teaching Tips for Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind and A Sample Lesson from Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind.

Want to dive in? Here is the first six weeks for free!

Transcript (with a few annotations):

I’m Susan Wise Bauer, and I want to introduce you to our brand new grammar program. It’s called Grammar For The Well-Trained Mind.  This has been in process for I think the last eight years and we’re so excited that it’s finally finished and ready to bring to you.

Grammar For The Well-Trained Mind is a four-year grammar program. You can start at any time after [THE START OF] fifth grade. Once the student has gone through all four years of it, they will have all of the grammar knowledge that they need to go on to the study of rhetoric, which is really just the application of grammar to written and spoken word. So each year of this program, you use four books.

The first book is the Core Instructor Text. This has in it all of the lessons that you will be teaching the student. These lessons are scripted. We give you dialogue so that you don’t have to figure out how to best teach the grammar concepts. We’ve already done that for you. You’ll use this same Core Instructor Text for each of the four years of study. So one purchase, you’ve got your core text for all four years.

The second thing you need then is a Student Workbook. This Student Workbook has in it all of the rules and examples that the student will be learning. And full practice exercises to drill every single concept that the student is learning.

Each Student Workbook comes with a Key. These Keys don’t just have the answers to the Student Workbook. They also have explanations for you, the parent, so that if something is a little bit ambiguous or difficult, you’ll have additional resources to explain to the student why it works the way it does.

So, Core Instructor Text for all four years. Each year a separate Student Workbook and Key. And then finally we have a Comprehensive Handbook of Rules.  So this is, again, a one time purchase that the student will use for all four years. It has all of the rules and examples in it for the student’s reference.

Now this grammar program is different than others because it is based on the three essential things that have to happen in order for our minds to really comprehend grammar.

First, there has to be repetition and memorization. One we reason why we use the same core handbook [Core Instructor Text] every year is that every year you can use the same words to explain the grammar concepts to the student. The same rules, the same examples, every single year.  That repetition will help build the information, really solidify it in the student’s mind. So the first thing is just memorizing the rules.

Second, whenever you memorize a grammar rule, because grammar is something that governs the way real language works, you need an actual example. So every year the student repeats the same examples that illustrate the rules. That way they always have a concrete example of how the rule works to link to the actual memorized rule in their brain.

The third thing the student needs after this repetition of rules, repetition of examples is just lots and lots of practice. So although each Student Workbook has the same rules and the same examples for every year, each one also has a full new set of exercises of practice for the student to go through.

These exercises are mostly drawn from real literature, from novels, from histories, from biographies, from science books. We really encourage the student to take the rules they’re learning and then look at how they operate in real literature. So, Grammar For The Well-Trained Mind, four years, all the grammar you need through high school. Each year you’re going to have the Core Instructor Text, one book for all four years. Each year you’re going to have a new Student Workbook and Key. And then the student is going use the same Comprehensive Handbook of Rules as a reference work all the way through.


How to Teach Your Wiggly Preschooler Math

Preschoolers are a ton of fun. They’re energetic, curious, and immensely proud of their new skills and abilities. But their short attention spans and high energy levels can make it difficult to get these sweet wiggly little people to sit and focus.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t give your preschooler a great math foundation for kindergarten, though. It just means that you need to work with your preschooler’s natural tendencies rather than against them. Instead of trying to force your preschooler to sit down to worksheets and drills, here’s how you can teach your preschooler math in a way that’s both fun and developmentally appropriate.

1. Find the math in your child’s interests.
One of the most adorable aspects of preschoolers is the way they get obsessed with specific topics. When my son was four, his ruling passion was Thomas the Tank Engine. He would zoom his trains along the tracks for hours, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the name of every character in the series. So, we did lots of train math. We counted lines of trains, added rows of trains together, and figured out how many empty spots there were in the roundhouse.

My daughter’s preschool interest was her beloved stuffed animals. We’d sort them by type and count how many were in each category. (“Three dogs, four cats, one sheep…”) She also loved to have tea parties for her stuffed animals, so we would count out play cookies for each guest and make sure each had an equal number.

Whatever your child’s interest, try to include counting, comparing, and simple addition and subtraction when you play together. Incorporating numbers into your child’s favorite activity will not only build his math skills but also help him appreciate the importance of numbers in daily life.

2. “Mom, look at me!”
Preschoolers love to show off all of their new physical skills: turning somersaults, walking on tiptoe, hopping on one foot, and so on. You can use their need to move to get them interested in numbers, too, especially when they can use numbers to quantify how amazing they are: “I can run around the whole playground in just 14 seconds!”

For a child who’s still learning to say the numbers in order, offer to count how many times she can do something. “Want me to count how many times you can hop on one foot?” Listening to you say the number sequence will help your child internalize the correct order.

For a child who already knows how to count, use a mix of questions to help him practice this vital skill. Sometimes, ask, “How many times can you…?” so that your child does open-ended counting. Other times, ask questions with a fixed amount: “Can you do three somersaults in a row?” Learning to stop after a certain number is a key skill in helping children learn to count out a fixed quantity.

By counting physical motions, you’ll also teach your child that numbers can be used to count more than just sets of objects. This will help your child understand the very abstract idea that numbers can be used to count intangible things, too.

3. Snuggle up with a book.
You probably already have a time each day when you cuddle up on the couch with your preschooler and read. This read-aloud time is very important for developing your child’s literacy skills, but you can build your child’s math skills at the same time, too.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to simply check out a math book or two each time you haul a stack of picture books home from the library. Look for books about numbers, shapes, time, measurement, and patterns. Many libraries have a special section for these books (or a special label on the spine) so ask your librarian how your library organizes these books.

Some math books are very dry, but there are many engaging ones that teach mathematical concepts along with an entertaining story. To help you get started, I’ve put together a list of 12 wonderful math picture books for preschoolers, along with suggestions for how to gently draw your child’s attention to the math in the story. (You can download it by following the link below.)

Preschool math doesn’t have to mean formal lessons or worksheets. By incorporating numbers into your child’s interests, physical play, and read-aloud time, you can enjoy this sweet age and give your wiggly preschooler a playful, developmentally-appropriate foundation in math, too.


Teach Your Young Reader how to Choose Books

How to Use Home Library Organization to Build Vital Literacy Skills

A woman walks into a book store. She’s in the mood for an escape through an imaginative story, so she browses the fiction section. Within this section, she navigates to the fantasy aisle. Sooner or later, she is bound to stumble across an author that she recognizes, with a story that is worth exploring. She sees her old friend J.R.R. Tolkien. “I must be in the right place,” she thinks.

Whether she realizes it or not, she is about to select a book using sophisticated strategies like author and theme navigation. A young reader has not yet developed the ability to navigate a mysterious and magical place, like a book store, school library, or household bookshelf. Children, especially beginning readers, can’t tell the difference between multiple books on a shelf. But if you organize your library the right way, you can teach your student how to select the books they actually want to read.

Here are three organizational strategies that you may wish to use in your library. These strategies will work at home, at the co-op, or at school, and will work both with books that you own, and books borrowed from the library.

Before You Get Started
You will need bins to organize your book collections. Stackable bins can be purchased at the dollar store. Remember that children’s books tend to be larger and thinner than adult books. You may need to bring a book with you when picking out tubs in a store. Lakeshore (and other online educational websites specializing in learning materials) have nice bins, or you can make bins at home. If you’re familiar with a magazine rack, you understand the shape of a book bin. DIY book bins can be fashioned out of cereal boxes using an exact-o knife.

Bins are easy to store and label. For the youngest readers, there may be a picture with the label. Older learners may have bins with written descriptions. You will have an idea of how to label the bins when you decide how you will organize your library.

Organizing by Author
You want to make your student aware that real people write and illustrate books. A child doesn’t automatically know that Eric Carle painted watercolor pages with many colors, cut them out with scissors, and made the pictures in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. But arranging books by author is the primary method of organization for many public libraries. If you organize your household collection by author, your child will feel at ease when they enter a school or public library.

Begin by grouping your book collection by author. Don’t worry if you only have two of Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat books. When your child checks out Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie from the library, you’ll know right where to put it! You’ll soon notice that your child will know just where to put the Clifford books you found at a local yard sale. He’ll put the vintage edition of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings that he received for his birthday right next to Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine.

Talk with your child about why she likes an author. Conversation improves comprehension, and helps young readers connect with authors. Find out if your child likes an author because he is funny, like Tedd Arnold (“Fly Guy” series), or because the author writes about important life lessons, like Anna Dewdney (“Llama Llama” series). The more you know about what your child likes to read, the better your recommendations will become. A fun challenge would be to set a goal to read all of the titles by an author your child is really into, like Mo Willems, Syd Hoff, or Jon Klassen. Organize by author until your child is confident searching and successfully finding authors on her own in a public library.

Organizing by Theme
Organizing by author has its limitations in a classroom or household library. You may not have 20 books by Rosemary Wells. And chances are the only Crockett Johnson book you own is Harold and the Purple Crayon. Another option is to organize your home library by theme.

It is easy to organize books by theme once you have a few books that are related to one another.

Some themes from my own classroom include “Humor,” “Non-Fiction Animals,” “Science,” and “Back to School.” In my “Humor” bin, I have David Shannon’s “No David” series, DogzillaDragons Love Tacos, and Dragons Love Tacos 2. In a tub labeled “Family,” I have Llama Llama Red Pajama, I Will Always Love You, No David, The Kissing Hand, and Goodnight Moon. All of these books are about family, comfort, and love.

Organizing by theme allows for a lot of flexibility. You can move books out of author bins that are related to specific themes easily. For example, you can take Clifford’s Halloween out of the Norman Bridwell tub and move it into the Holiday tub for the month of October. Themed bins can also reflect what is going in your kids’ lives. If you choose to focus on a particular character trait, like honesty, you can organize books representative of that behavior into a tub. A week or two before a family trip, you could organize books about travel (fiction or nonfiction) into a tub. This organizational method will then allow you to have a conversation with your young reader about why you chose to place a book into a specifically-themed bin, and what the author’s intent was for writing this particular book. This will also help your students in a future library visit when they move outside of the children’s section.

Here is a list of themes that you might try in your library:
Being Tidy
Counting (Early Math Skills)
The Earth/Environment/Nature
Overcoming Fear
Unconditional Love
The Word “No”

Pay attention to what your student is interested in; this will help you to create specific tubs that will thrill your child, like “Butterflies,” “Construction Equipment,” or “Making Pizza.”

Organizing by Academic Subject
The last organizational method that could work for you is to organize by academic subject. These titles would be tied to current subjects that the child is studying. If a student is beginning to learn about numbers, then counting and computation books like 5 Little Ducks, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or 10 Apples on Top would tie reading to early math skills.

Organizing by academic subject also leaves room for branching off into further study. If a student is learning about animals in science, you may discover that the student loves whales and dolphins. Then you, as the curator of the classroom or household library, could create a tub for ocean animals. Say your student is learning about how a town works, and you find that he is interested in public servants. You could create a bin centered on men and women who serve as police and emergency responders. If a student is reading about Thanksgiving and gets really into why Americans celebrate by eating turkey, you could create a bin for books about various food traditions.

Literature often gives students the experience of connecting with a subject and a character at the same time. For example, a student may be learning about medieval times and also be into “Fly Guy.” When a student reads a book like Fly Guy presents Castles, her interests come together in a way that makes reading, and learning about history, even more exciting.

However you choose to organize your library, remember that the end goal is to help your student associate books with themes and ideas. Children who learn this skill at an early age will be able to choose books easily as adults.



Five Events That Began the Renaissance (Or Ended the Middle Ages)

The Middle Ages (the favorite historical period of 9 out of 10 young history students!) is generally thought to occupy the years between the collapse of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance—between, more or less, 400 and 1600 AD.

Most of us were taught, in history class, that the Middle Ages ended when the Renaissance began. But that’s not quite right.

In fact, it’s a little bit like saying, “My childhood ended when I started liking spinach,” or “He stopped being President when he got married.” It’s putting two completely different things side by side, and pretending that they are the same.

For one thing, the Renaissance isn’t a historical period, like the Early Modern period; it’s an intellectual movement.

And for another, the idea of the “Middle Ages” didn’t even exist until historians began talking about the “Renaissance.” In the eighteenth century, scholars increasingly focused on the reawakening of interest in ancient art, ancient philosophy, and ancient literature that began in the 1300s (or later, depending on which eighteenth-century historian you’re reading).  Once they began to identify this re-awakening, they had to find a name for the years that came between ancient culture itself and the return of ancient culture. These “in between” years didn’t have any quality of their own—they simply lay in the middle.

Hence, the Middle Ages.

So instead of trying to figure out what “ended” the Middle Ages, let’s try to identify what changed, between 1200-1500 or so—what actual events began to create something new in history.


I. The Failure of Holy War

To properly set the stage for the Renaissance, we need to start with the failure of the First Crusade (1095-1099).

You might think the First Crusade succeeded–it did, after all, recapture Jerusalem.

But it failed in another drastic way. The First Crusade fatally cracked the accepted Western consensus that the cause of Christ was the highest and most paramount loyalty on earth.

Those cracks had to widen and fracture apart before Renaissance humanism could establish new loyalties.

Here’s a quick review: Just before the First Crusade, the Greek-speaking Christian empire of Byzantium was under the rule of the emperor Alexius Komnenos. And Alexius Komnenos was alarmed by the gathering power of the Ottoman Turks over to his east.

The Turks were wandering tribes, originally from central Asia, who had been filtering westward for centuries. About fifty years before, they had united together into a coalition–and their unified power had grown. They conquered a good deal of Byzantine land in Asia Minor; in 1077 they took the city of Jerusalem away from the Fatimids, the Islamic dynasty that ruled Egypt;  and by 1095 Alexius was seriously worried.

So he sent a message to Pope Urban II, in Rome, asking for mercenaries to help him push the Turkish threat back.

Urban II had soldiers to spare–he was not only the head of the Christian church, but the political ruler of the Papal States, a chunk of land which had been given to the church bit by bit over the past 300 years by various rulers of Italy–and the Papal States had its own army.

Instead of sending mercenaries, Urban II decided to issue a call to every Christian man in the west. Here is what he said:

The Turks and Arabs . . . have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire….On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech…all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends….Christ commands it….[And] All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins.

 The goal of this Crusade, Urban II said, was to liberate Jerusalem, which Alexius Komnenos hadn’t actually mentioned.

When the western noblemen and knights summoned by Urban II began to show up in Byzantium, on Crusade, most of them paid no attention to what Alexius Komnenos actually wanted—help defending Constantinople. Instead, they started to take chunks of Alexius’s empire for themselves.

A Sicilian adventurer named Bohemund captured the Turkish city of Antioch, at the upper right hand corner of the Mediterranean Sea, and kept it for himself. He called it the Principality of Antioch.

Others followed his lead. Soon there were two other Crusader kingdoms in the east, the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the County of Edessa–all of them enemies of Alexius Komnenos.

In fact, it wasn’t long before Bohemund declared war on Constantinople.

He planned to sail back to Sicily to recruit more soldiers from his homeland. Alexius got wind of this and sent Byzantine ships to hover in the Mediterranean, just off Antioch, to intercept him on his way. So Bohemund told his officers to announce that he was dead, and after a lot of very public hair-tearing and weeping they stuffed him into a coffin with air-holes in it, ostentatiously loaded the coffin onto a ship, and announced that they were taking him home. Alexius’s biographer, his daughter Anna, says, “[I]n order that the corpse might appear to be in a state of rare putrefaction, they strangled or cut the throat of a cock and put that in the coffin with him. By the fourth or fifth day at the most, the horrible stench was obvious to anyone who could smell. . . . Bohemund himself derived more pleasure than anyone from his imaginary misfortune.”

And that was the heroic ending of the First Crusade.

These Crusader kingdoms were the most lasting legacy of the Crusade. They were a constant reminder that whatever Christian unity had existed at the beginning of the First Crusade was no longer in operation. There was no longer a “land of the Christians,” as Pope Urban II had put it. The “consensus of Christendom” had been revealed as an illusion.

 II. The Rediscovery of Aristotle

Over on the Spanish peninsula, the Christian kingdoms of the north had been fighting against the Muslim dynasties of the south for centuries. By 1144, the Christian kingdoms of Spain had managed to push as far south as Seville and Cordoba. This gave them control of a score of major Muslim cities–and what they found in those cities were a lot of unfamiliar books.

In those books were Greek works of philosophy, medicine, geography, and science that the West had almost forgotten.

By 1200, Europe was largely ruled by monarchs of German, Frankish, and Roman descent. Their courts, and the scholars and noblemen who helped run their countries, spoke (and read, when they read, Latin), and also their own local dialectcs–the early forms of French, German, and Italian.

They did not speak Greek. And they also had a very different approach towards learning.

The Greek intellectual tradition, which had been kept up in Byzantium, was heavily tilted towards philosophy and natural science–understanding the universe for the sake of understanding it.

But the Franks and Germans were heirs to the Roman, Latin intellectual tradition–which was a very practical-minded one.  The Romans did not treasure learning as an end in itself. Natural science and philosophy, for the Romans, were leisure-time activities for the wealthy and the independent–hence the label “liberal arts,” arts for free men to indulge in as they were able.

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric, on the other hand, were highly valued by the Romans, because they were useful. You could win a case in the law courts, or get elected, if you were good with words.

So the Latin tradition was literary and practical, not philosophical or scientific. And the Franks and the Germans had no particular reason to keep up their Greek–or to translate Greek texts.

However, thanks to the proximity of Islamic lands to the Greek-speaking East, Muslim scholars did read the Greek texts.  Aristotle, Plato, and many other Greek authors had been translated into Arabic, and brought across North Africa into the Muslim lands of Spain.

When the Christian kingdoms took control of the Arabic cities in Spain, they opened up the libraries of Cordoba, Seville, and especially Toledo to western scholars–most of whom didn’t speak Greek, but many of whom could read Arabic.

Beginning in the middle of the twelfth century, Italian, German, and Frankish scholars started to travel to Spain, which they could now do, semi-safely, to read and translate these texts. There were dozens of them, but one of most prolific was Gerard of Cremona, who single-handedly translated over seventy Greek works of philosophy, natural science, and mathematics from Arabic into Latin.

And among the works translated in the twelfth century were many, previously very little read, of the works of Aristotle.

Why was the re-introduction of Aristotle back into Western thought so significant?

Because Aristotle offered a complete world-view, a way of understanding the universe, man within it, and man’s place within it, that was internally consistent, convincing—and had absolutely nothing to do with Scripture or with Church authority.

Whether or not you believed in Aristotle’s world view, his complete works demonstrated that it was possible to reach an understanding of our existence, without reference to revealed Christian truth or Church authority.

To many who had just seen the unedifying spectacle of the First Crusade, this was a welcome idea.

And Aristotle’s rules of logic pointed out something even more revolutionary. They promised that any right-thinking man could find and demonstrate truth. Peasant, knight, king, shepherd, priest, layman–it didn’t matter. The rules of logic yielded truth, no matter who made use of them.

III. The Black Death, 1338-1353

Bubonic plague began just west of China, which we only know from headstones found in a little village graveyard south of Lake Issyk-Kul. Hundreds of them date from the years 1338 and 1339, and they read, “These died of plague.”

After this, sickness seems to have moved silently west, along the trade routes between the Chinese cities and the markets of India. In 1344, an army from Delhi was wiped out by a “pestilence.”  Death moved steadily westward in 1345 and 1346. In 1347, an army laying siege to Caffa, a trading port in the north of the Black Sea, suddenly died; a chronicler says, “[They] died as soon as the signs of disease appeared on their bodies: swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating humours, followed by a putrid fever.”

And then plague entered the city of Caffa itself. From there seems to have spread by ship, by way of the rats that lived in the holds and ran in and out of cities unchecked. It burned across Europe.  Millions died, some from the bubonic form of the disease, many more when it settled in the lungs and caused pneumonia–often killing within 48 hours.

In Constantinople, at least half the city’s population perished. In Marseille, fifty-six thousand people died in a single month. Eight hundred souls died every day in Paris.

It crossed over to England and Ireland in 1348. Nearly half of England died. “Many villages and hamlets were deserted,” the Leicester priest Henry Knighton noted, “because everyone who had lived there was dead, and indeed many of these villages were never inhabited again.”

In 1349, a hundred thousand Egyptians died in Cairo alone.   In Sienna, Agnolo di Tura wrote,  “Giant pits are being excavated for the multitudes of the dead and the hundreds that die every night. And I . . . have buried five of my sons with my own hands. . . . Everyone believes it is the end of the world.”

The Black Death is often given too much credit for the Renaissance. I can’t tell you how many survey texts I’ve read that explain that the plague destroyed faith in God and that opened the way for humanistic thought to flourish.

I don’t see that. For one thing, a good part of Europe thanked God on its knees when, in the early 1350s, the plague finally slowed and stopped. What the Black Death really did was shake up the social structures of Europe. Given that so many noble families were dead, it became much easier to move up through the social ranks, from craftsman to minor nobility.

And, even more vitally, the working class of Europe started to gain a new power. There were a lot less of them. It was a lot harder, if you were a surviving nobleman with an estate, to find enough hands to tend your fields, milk your cows, and shear your sheep. Workers were suddenly in demand–and this gave more power to the people.

This leads directly to the next event…

IV. Power to the People

In England, something odd happened in the spring of 1381–tax collectors noticed that about five hundred thousand or so laborers, shepherds, and farmers seemed to have simply disappeared from England since 1377.

Proof of their existence was gone. No birth records, no baptism records. On paper they no longer existed.

There was, in fact, a massive tax revolt underway and it was widespread and organized.

In the wake of the plague, taxes had been hiked–fewer taxpayers meant less revenue–and the people of England were fed up.

At the same time that they were revolting, a Oxford professor named John Wycliffe had begun to argue that the Christian sacraments, protected by the church and administered by the church, were not necessary for salvation. A contemporary chronicler writes, “He publicly asserted…that the church of Rome is not the head of all the churches . . . that the pope at Rome does not have greater power than any other ordained priest . . . [and] that the Gospel is sufficient guide in this life for any Christian.”

These were messages that took power from the hands of the privileged and handed it over to the men and women in the pews.

Even more startling, Wycliffe began the massive task of translating the Bible from Latin into English– a shockingly anticlerical project that grew out of his conviction that “no simple man of wit should be afraid to study in the text of holy Writ.”

This was a conviction guided by Aristotle: that any man could come to correct conclusions on his own, as long as he followed the rules of logic.

John Wycliffe gained a large following, and his theological teachings and the tax revolt came together in the preaching of the “mad English priest” John Ball. Ball began travelling through the countryside, calling for a radical reorganization of English society:

My friends, the state of England cannot be right until everything is held communally, and until there is no distinction between nobleman and serf, and we are all as one. Why are those whom we call lords masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better lords than us, except in making us toil and earn for them to spend? They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye, and straw that has been thrown away, and water to drink. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state.

This was a startling new message of egalitarianism and equality.

Ball gathered huge crowds. And meanwhile, the royal council which was ruling England for its underaged King–that was Richard II, who was 14 at the time–decided to go out and find and arrest all those missing peasants.

When the first arrest was made, in June of 1381, the English peasants armed themselves and went to war. Many of them had fought in France, as the Hundred Years War was still dragging on, and they knew what they were doing.

The revolt failed, of course; they did manage to capture London, but then were wiped out by the royal armies, and the teenaged Richard had some final words for them– “Peasants you were, and peasants you are. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but in an incomparably worse state. For as long as we are alive to achieve this and by the grace of God rule this kingdom, we shall work our minds, powers and possessions to keep you in such subjection.”

He didn’t know it, but he was fighting a losing battle.

Wycliffe’s teachings had spread; they were picked up by Jan Hus, who was the rector of the University of Prague; Prague was in the little independent kingdom of Bohemia, which was within the German borders, and sometimes was under control of king of Germany, and sometimes not. When Hus made his support for Wycliffe’s ideas public, he was fired from his job.

He went on teaching and spreading “Wycliffism,” and when he too began to accumulate a large public following, he was invited by Church authorities to come and explain himself to the Council of Constance, a massive church council which was meeting in the German city of Constance to resolve a number of issues, among them the embarrassing existence of three separate popes, which we don’t have time to talk about just now.

Hus was guaranteed safe conduct. Instead, he was arrested, tried, imprisoned, and then burned to death.

At this, his followers in Bohemia gathered up their weapons and went to war. They called themselves Hussites, and for nearly fifty years, the carried on a bloody, extended war against the authority of the Church, the emperor, the king and the pope.

It is out of this Renaissance happening that Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the Protestant Reformation (usually considered post-Renaissance), and ultimately the Age of Enlightenment grew.

V. The Fall of Constantinople, 1415-1453

In the 350 years since the First Crusade, the power of the Turks had continued to expand.

The particular Turkish confederation that was running the Turkish empire in the 1450s was known as the Ottoman Turks, named after the Turkish chief who had seized control of the Turkish cause back in the thirteenth century.

Turkish attacks had eaten away away at the Byzantine empire until it had lost everything  except Constantinople, a little bit of land around Constantinople, and the southern tip of the Greek peninsula.

The emperor of Constantinople had become so desperate that he had even asked the pope to send soldiers to drive the Turks away. This had never worked before but he had no other options.

It didn’t work; there were no more soldiers to send.

In 1453, the emperor of Constantinople was Constantine XI; the sultan of the Ottoman Turks was Mehmet II, a young, very aggressive sultan who was determined to finally end the Byzantine existence. He assembled a huge army to besiege the city–60,000 archers and 40,000 horsemen, cannon that shot out stones as heavy as 1800 pounds and as large as 7 feet across.

He began his bombardment on April 4, 1453, and for 55 days, the cannon battered the walls with up to 120 stones every day.

He couldn’t sail his warships right up next to the city, because the inlet there, the Golden Horn, was blocked off with a chain. So he outfitted 70 ships with wheels and took them across land to slide into the water, on the other side of the chain.

Early on May 29, just after midnight, he threw every single cannon and man he had against the walls, and broke into the city.

Constantine XI was killed–his body never found. An Italian soldier who was there said that there were so many bodies, both Turkish and Byzantine, that they floated in the Sea of Marmara “as melons float through the canals of Venice.”

By the morning of the twenty-ninth, Constantinople belonged to the Turks. And that was the end of the Byzantine empire.

With their city in Turkish hands. scores of Greek-speaking scholars fled away from the Turks and into the west.

The result was a massive acceleration in the knowledge of the Greek traditions.

They brought some of their treasured texts with them, but this wasn’t mostly a matter of new texts. It was primarily a matter of knowledge–and it was knowledge that particularly accelerated progress of science.

Since the twelfth century, the west had had access to many of the Greek science texts, such as Ptolemy’s Almagest, which explained how the universe was structured, earth at the center, heavens rotating around it.

But they hadn’t been able to do much with it. The calculations were too complicated. Centuries of language-centered education had resulted in a Europe full of scholars who weren’t practiced in the complicated geometrical skills needed to truly understand Ptolemy. The foundation of scientific learning had well and truly decayed, and rebuilding took time.

What the fleeing Greeks brought with them was mostly knowledge of the language, facility with the figures, mathematical and astronomical expertise, and also the conviction that the Greek intellectual legacy, little developed in times of security, was now endangered and in need of preservation. And their presence in the west brought a whole new renaissance in Greek culture to France, to Italy, and to Germany.


Bias, Compromise, and Teaching History to Children

In the fall of 2005, history professor Larry Schweikart was on the book-promotion circuit, talking up his “unbiased” history of America, A Patriot’s History of the United States.           

Schweikart wrote his book as a corrective: “I found bias, ranging from merely tolerable to exceptionally bad, in almost all of the major textbooks,” he told the Carolina Journal.  To find out whether a history text is “biased,” Schweikart suggested in 2010, apply the “Reagan test”: consult the index, and find out whether Ronald Reagan is given full credit for ending the Cold War. If he isn’t, the book is “politically slanted” and untrustworthy.

Whether or not you agree with him, Professor Schweikart was simply exchanging one set of biases for another. Yet he continued to insist that The Patriot’s History was entirely spin-free. “Ultimately,”  he wrote, in an essay about the book published by the Mackinac Center, “learning ‘just the facts’ of the American past leads a student to inevitably conclude that the United States is the best place on earth, and that it has acted…far better than any other nation at any other time.”

The popularity of The Patriot’s History (which temporarily topped best-seller lists) suggests that quite a few parents and teachers were searching for a “just the facts” approach to history—and took Schweikart’s assertions at face value.

 But history is never a simple chronological narration of “facts.”  Even when it claims to be “unbiased,” history always has an argument at its center: a basic assertion about how and why human events unfold as they do.

“The United States…has acted…far better than any other nation at any other time” is a fairly obvious argument. But a look at any history for young readers will turn up others—sometimes much more subtle. Consider, for example, this excerpt from Hendrik Van Loon’s classic The Story of Mankind. About the Phoenicians, Van Loon writes,

They bought and sold whatever promised to bring them a good profit. They were not troubled by a conscience. If we are to believe all their neighbours they did not know what the words honesty or integrity meant. They regarded a well-filled treasure chest the highest ideal of all good citizens. Indeed they were very unpleasant people and did not have a single friend….They were practical business men and could not spend hours engraving two or three letters. They set to work and invented a new system of writing which was greatly superior to the old one. They borrowed a few pictures from the Egyptians and they simplified a number of the wedge-shaped figures of the Sumerians. They sacrificed the pretty looks of the older system for the advantages of speed and they reduced the thousands of different images to a short and handy alphabet of twenty-two letters.

 Certainly this passage contains “just facts”: the Phoenicians streamlined the Sumerian writing system and created our alphabet. But it also contains an argument. When Van Loon writes that Phoenicians (all of them) “were not troubled by a conscience,” he is telling young readers that there is such a thing as a racial character. (The French are snooty, the British are drunks, Americans are rude.)

This is an argument about human nature—and, as it happens, a particularly loaded and dangerous one. It reappears prominently in American white supremacist writings, such as Wade Hampton’s infamous 1890 essay “The Race Problem”:

[T]he white and black races are essentially different, not only in physical organization, but in mental characteristics. This assertion is not made by way of reproach or opprobrium, nor does it apply to those of the race in this country—and there are many of them—who have proved their capacity to be numbered among our reputable, estimable, and valuable citizens…they are the exceptions which prove the rule, which, from time immemorial, has shown that they are not fitted to govern that great race before which all others have gone down—the masterful, the conquering and the unconquerable Caucasians.

Reading Van Loon certainly won’t turn young students into white supremacists. But Van Loon’s casual assumption that “racial character” exists has the potential to make such arguments more convincing.

Consider another example: H. E. Marshall’s explanation for the founding of the League of Nations at the end of World War I, found in Our Island Story (a classic, and still widely used, history of England).

 It does seem as if the love of fighting was born in us. It is nothing unusual for a boy at school to fight. No one is surprised if he comes home with a cut lip or a black eye. Indeed it is taken as a matter of course. It is all part of the game of life, and a boy who can use his fists often gets on very well at school.

But when a boy becomes a man he changes. If he wants to get on well in life he no longer uses his fists but his brains. If in his profession or business he wants to get the better of another man he does not throw off his coat and offer to fight him. He sits down and thinks.

 And even as children grow so nations grow….

 Men are only now beginning to see that just as in the old days no baron had the right to break the peace of his country, so now no state has the right to break the peace of the world. And this has led them to the League of Nations.

Underlying this explanation (and most of Marshall’s history) is the assumption that humanity as a whole is maturing over time: that earlier societies were less advanced, more barbaric than our own, that the human race is moving, inexorably, towards greater and greater perfection.

This is an argument. Children who read Marshall are absorbing it, with or without their recognition.

 So how do we teach history to our young students? What should they be taking in, along with the “facts”? Do we continue on our search for bias-free history? Do we hunt for the history that coincides most closely with our own beliefs about human nature?

 No. Instead, we should compromise.

To understand my suggested compromise, take a brief side-trip with me into historiography.

The earliest forms of historical writing are the accounts kept by ancient kings—Assyrian, Sumerian, Egyptian—of their victories (not, generally, of their defeats). These military chronicles have historical value, but they resemble press releases more than historical accounts; they have a single, limited purpose, the immortalization of one particular king.

“History,” in the sense of a coherent story written to illuminate the past, first appeared among the Greeks, when the great ancient triumvirate of historians—Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon—began to write the story of men. These histories were hero-centered, much concerned with leaders and generals. “History,” for the Greeks, happened when great men exercised their ambition, planned, schemed, fought, and either triumphed or showed themselves wanting. There was an argument in this method: History happened when extraordinary men (and, very occasionally, women) acted.

This scheme persisted until Augustine, who led medieval historians into a new way of looking at the past. Augustine’s City of God approached history not merely as the story of men and women, but as the story of God’s eternal purposes being worked out on earth. Greek history had seen the past as a tangled linkage of related stories, each telling of a great man’s life, with no single overarching purpose that related these tales to each other.

But Christianity shook those tangled links into a straight chain, a line pointing forward, unbending as an arrow, to the End: the time when God’s will for His creation was finally completed.

This was enormously clarifying to historians, who could now make sense out of what had previously seemed shapeless. Faith in the eternal God led historians to fashion a story with creation at its beginning and the world’s remaking at its end. All of God’s acts in history pointed to the birth of Christ, and then past it to the time of Christ’s return. History was a progression forward.

By the Renaissance, this sense of history marching inexorably forward towards its predetermined end had led historians to develop the concept of primitive: undeveloped, because it took place earlier in time. As John Lukacs points out, the idea of “primitive” (inferior because it is far away in time) replaced the Greek idea of “barbarian” (inferior because it is distant in space, far away from Greek land).

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the assumption that history is moving steadily forward, from primitive to modern times, from less developed to more complex, evolved into three different but related historical methods: providential, Whiggish, and Marxist.

Providential historians saw God’s hand at work in history; the ultimate explanations for historical events lay in the divine realm, not the human. History was moving from fall to redemption, from a less to a more perfect end.

Whiggish historians were secular providentialists, seeing history as an inevitable, evolutionary progression towards perfection, with no reference to God.

Marxists saw the past as a constant struggle between “the people” (honest workers) and “aristocrats” (corrupt and dishonest tycoons); after a time of fierce conflict, this clash would lead to a more perfect society.

All four of these historical methods (hero-centered, providential, Whiggish, Marxist) are still in use, and are particularly prominent in histories for children.

Greenleaf Press publishes Famous Men of Greece, Famous Men of Rome, and three similar titles; the Childhood of Famous Americans series, the Landmark Biographies, and Grosset & Dunlap’s Who Was…? series. All fall into the Greek great-man tradition. There is, in these histories, an implicit argument about what drives human events: the will of the extraordinary person.

Among Christian educators, providential history remains popular. “Throughout this time period,” writes Linda Hobar in Volume 1 of The Mystery of History, “the Lord was unfolding a great plan to Abraham.” The unfolding of God’s plan (“God used the Roman law to protect Paul…”) is the organizing backbone of Hobar’s curriculum, as it is in Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory for Young Readers: Discovering God’s Plan for America and Mark Beliles’s America’s Providential History.

We have already seen Whiggish history in H. E. Marshall’s Our Island Story.

 And Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror clearly displays the Marxist perspective. In only one of many examples, Zinn writes,

Bacon’s Rebellion came about because of a chain of oppression in Virginia. The Indians had their lands seized by white frontiersmen. The frontiersmen were taxed and controlled by the rich upper classes in Jamestown. And the whole colony, rich and poor, was being used by England. The colonists grew tobacco to sell to England, but the English set the price. Each year, the king of England made a large profit from the Virginia colony….[T]here was much conflict within the colonies. Slave and free, servant and master, tenant and landlord, poor and rich—disorder broke out along these lines of tension.[1]

For Zinn, those class tensions, and the struggles that result, drive every development in American history.

None of these histories are “unbiased.” All of them are making an argument about what moves history forward, why people act as they do: what we are.

I would suggest, first of all, that as we teach our youngest students, we should give up the search for “unbiased history.” Where a narrative exists, there are underlying assumptions, a particular point of view.

Nor, in my opinion, should we try to find materials with a bias that happens to match our own.

Children in the “grammar stage” of education—kindergarten through fourth or fifth grade—do not yet have a sense of the events of the past, the basic facts of history. Without this foundational knowledge, they will accept any convincing story; and the first story they are taught is likely to remain in their minds as the most powerful one. To teach them the providential, or Whiggish, or Marxist interpretation of history is to give them a strong, potentially distorting lens through which they will get their first look at the past—a lens which it will be almost impossible for them to glance away from, in later years.

Instead, I propose that the youngest students should be taught history by the oldest method: the Greek approach, devised during the childhood of history itself. This approach allows  the youngest history students to grasp onto concrete places, events, and people. The biggest philosophical flaw in the Greek method—the assumption that history can be explained entirely by the actions of kings, queens, and military leaders—can be partly circumvented by supplementing with some of the many elementary-level history resources that explore the daily lives of ordinary boys and girls, farmers and workers, peasants and miners. By sixth or seventh grade, a student should have a basic grasp of who, where, and when.

Even more importantly, his or her critical faculty should now be maturing. Now is the time to introduce the student to providential history, to Whiggish history, to Marxist history, and to other methods as well.

And as we teach, we must continually remind our young historians that no history is unbiased; that assumptions about what humanity is underlie every narrative.

A lengthier version of this article originally appeared in the thought journal Comment (9/4/14,

[1] Howard Zinn, pp. 42-43, 51.


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