Friday, October 4, 2013

Helping Us Think: Authors Promoting Historical Literacy

            When learning history, a major thematic understanding is time, continuity, and change. As those of us who work with elementary school aged children know, this understanding doesn’t come easily, and it does not come automatically. We teachers continuously point out changes over time, knowing full well that this understanding is slow to develop. Our students glimpse at the past, fining conditions there “strange and different” at best, and “weird and stupid” at worst. There is work to be done.

            Fortunately, there are nonfiction books to help us, and it’s important to seek them out and teach with them. One such book is Kathleen Krull’s Benjamin Franklin (Viking, 2013). Although there are already many fine books available about Ben Franklin, this book makes a unique contribution by showing readers how to think about Franklin in a way that promotes historical literacy.

            Krull helps young readers by sharing her thoughts about history and her unique historical interpretation. Here are a few examples:

·         Being explicit about the main idea of the book. In the introduction, she emphasizes Franklin’s passion for science. She tells us that even though he accomplished more as a politician, he had a lifetime fascination for science. According to Krull:

Certainly, a list of Franklin’s political accomplishments would fill a bigger book. And yet he viewed his career as a statesman as a leave of absence from his true calling—science.

… Ben Franklin never lost his excitement about science and injected it into everything he did for America.  (p. 16)

Unlike many other books about Franklin, this book, a volume in the Giants of Science series, focuses on Franklin’s scientific accomplishments.

·         Helping readers understand the historical context. Krull helps readers understand Franklin as “a man of his times.” When she tells us about conditions that readers are likely to find strange and even untrue, she underscores this information and explains it. Here’s what she says about Franklin owning slaves:

She [his wife Deborah] sewed his clothes, as well as the bindings on the books he printed, and did the bookkeeping and all the housework until they could afford servants and slaves. Yes, slaves. For many years, Franklin was a man of his times in accepting slavery, though unlike some other Founding Fathers he grew to abhor it later in life. (p. 35)

·         Comparing the something in past to something we know in the present.  Krull refers to Franklin’s access to information as access to an information superhighway. She writes:

Ben Franklin had succeeded in reinventing himself as something truly cool: the leading source of scientific information the America, how very own information superhighway. (p. 38)

There’s a lot more to this well-crafted, friendly, informative book. The style is friendly and interesting. The content is clearly organized into short chapters dealing with Franklin’s scientific endeavors. The pen and ink illustrations by Boris Kulikov capture the excitement of Franklin’s inventions and discoveries.

We often talk about helping kids “read like a writer,” an idea originally put forth by literacy scholar Frank Smith. To teach history, we need to read like a historian—thinking about such things evidence, point of view, and change over time. When authors share their expertise thinking like a historian and making their thinking visible, it’s a bonanza for teachers and children.



  1. Thanks so much, Myra. Was feeling blue because this book seems to have received no reviews yet, so, Googling myself, found this. I so appreciate your detailed focus.

  2. Great review! And terrific work, Kathleen! You've brought such life to this historic icon. I was not only fascinated by Ben's passion for, and contributions to, science, but was impressed by his generosity, curiosity, and practical intelligence as well. What a guy - someone I truly would like to have known.