Category Archives: Travel

The telling works of Phillis Wheatley


Phillis Wheatley statue in the Old South Meeting House (Boston)

While in Boston earlier this August, I had occasion to pick up an Applewood Books publication of Phillis Wheatley’s poems, Poems of Phillis Wheatley, A native African and slave.  The significance of this particular publication over other collections of Wheatley’s poetry is that Applewood Books specializes in reprinting historical American works, so not only do I have the poems themselves, but also the editor’s note emphasizing that the poems are indeed the work of an African-born American slave–complete with the names of notable Bostonians who will vouch for her and the promise that a copy of their Attestation with their original signatures may be found by applying to “Archibald Bell, Bookseller, No. 8, Aldgate Street.”

I enjoy these features.  It gives context and color to the poems included in this collection.  Beyond this, I am impressed with the range of themes and intertextual allusions in the poetry itself.  It is clear, that while she was a slave, the relationship between slave and master is very different from the one we often hear or think about.  It is also clear that the same relationship and Wheatley’s success could be used to justify slavery as a liberation from savagery [in Africa].  Indeed, some of her own poetry might be used as ammunition for just that.

I want to set this particular aspect of the discussion aside, for now, as it is illuminated much better by the more capable hands of other scholars.  I want to look at her poetry from the long perspective of a Western Civilization professor.  In this long view slavery has played a consistent role, but there other features revealed in Wheatley’s poetry that speak to the strength of other long-enduring legacies, clearly prioritized in her education.

Phillis Wheatley

To Mæcenas

     MÆCENAS, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds play’d.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?
Their noble strains your equal genius shares
In softer language, and diviner airs.

     While Homer paints, lo! circumfused in air,
Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear;
Swift as they move hear each recess rebound,
Heaven quakes, earth trembles, and the shores resound.
Great Sire of verse, before my mortal eyes,
The lightnings blaze across the vaulted skies,
And, as the thunder shakes the heavenly plains,
A deep-felt horror thrills through all my veins.
When gentler strains demand thy graceful song,
The lengthening line moves languishing along.
When great Patroclus courts Achilles‘ aid,
The grateful tribute of my tears is paid;
Prone on the shore he feels the pangs of love,
And stern Pelides‘ tenderest passions move.

     Great Maro‘s strain in heavenly numbers flows,
The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows.
O could I rival thine and Virgil‘s page,
Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage;
Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn,
And the same ardors in my soul should burn:
Then should my song in bolder notes arise,
And all my numbers pleasingly surprise:
But here I sit, and mourn a groveling mind,
That fain would mount and ride upon the wind.

     Not you, my friend, these plaintive strains become,
Not you, whose bosom is the Muses’ home;
When they from tow’ring Helicon retire,
They fan in you the bright immortal fire;
But I less happy, cannot raise the song,
The fault’ring music dies upon my tongue.

     The happier Terence* all the choir inspired,
His soul replenish’d, and his bosom fired:
But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,
To one alone of Afric’s sable race;
From age to age transmitting thus his name
With the finest glory in the rolls of fame?

*He was an African by birth.

     Thy virtues, great Maecenas! shall be sung
In praise of him, from whom those virtues sprung:
While blooming wreaths around thy temples spread,
I’ll snatch a laurel from thine honour’d head,
While you, indulgent, smile upon the deed.

     As long as Thames in streams majestic flows,
Or Naiads in the oozy beds repose
While Phœbus reigns above the starry train
While bright Aurora purples o’er the main,
So long, great Sir, the muse thy praise shall sing,
So long thy praise shal’ make Parnassus ring:
Then grant, Maecenas, thy paternal rays,
Hear me propitious, and defend my lays.

This is a complex poem.  Lacking a knowledge of classic literature, however, would make it far more complicated, still.  In the opening pages of the book, her slave master John Wheatley, acknowledges that he bought her when she was brought to America in 1761 at age 7 or 8.  In sixteen months time, she had a knowledge of English, “to such a degree as to read any, the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her.”  (John Wheatley, a letter to the publisher included in the first publication of Wheatley’s poems, dated in Boston, Nov. 14, 1772)  He further acknowledged that she acquired no schooling outside what the family provided her, led by her own curiosity.

John Wheatley also explains that Phillis was interested and had an inclination for Latin.  In “To Mæcenas,” she shares a great knowledge of Greek and Roman classical literature.  These references are made in Wheatley’s own request to be so gifted a poet as those she mentions and to receive the patronage of Mæcenas.  There would be a great deal to unpack in this poem to do it justice, so it is perhaps unfair (or unwise) for me to reference it, but I do so for these reasons:

  1. It is loaded with references to the origins of our literary tradition in ancient Greece and Rome–a tradition she gained in the household of John Wheatley;
  2. Thus, it speaks to the continued reverence for such works evident in colonial Boston (and, therefore, also England), while also attesting to the continued influence of these ancient authors on these Early Modern students, readers, and authors;
  3. It reveals a complex request from Wheately for patronage–a term loaded with meanings–from Mæcenas to receive the Muses, but perhaps also to receive liberty.

To the University of Cambridge, in New England

     WHILE an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
‘T was not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy! ‘t was thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.

Students, to you ‘t is given to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the etherial space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science, ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heaven,
How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.
See him with hands outstretched upon the cross!
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn.
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
He deign’d to die that they might rise again,
And share with him in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.

Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils; and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heaven.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shunned; nor once remit your guard:
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you, ‘t is your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And in immense perdition sinks the soul.

This is a challenging poem.  On the one hand, Wheatley appears to be castigating her homeland and the life she would have lived as an African among her people if  she had not been enslaved.  I think we must acknowledge that Wheatley was genuinely grateful for her education and her Christian faith, two things she would not have gained had she remained free in her African home.  The question must be asked, did she believe her knowledge justified her enslavement?

I am incapable of answering this question directly, but in my historical interest of the poem and its time, perhaps some indirect suggestions might be gleaned (and possibly dismissed, as I do not claim proficiency in the literary arts).

Wheatley’s poem to Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, New England (Massachusetts), makes reference to one of the intellectual pursuits of the time: astronomy.  That she chose this is assuredly not random, as “traver[sing] etherial space/And mark[ing] the systems of revolving worlds” is connected to the spiritual heavens, “And share with [Son of God] in the sublimest skies/ Life without death, and glory without end.”  That this poem reads in part like a sermon or a warning to the students that they cannot neglect to shun sin, “that baneful evil to the soul,” from an African–“the land of errors … those dark abodes”–is rather interesting.

Indeed, it is still more interesting that she links “the land of errors” specifically with “Egyptian gloom.”  The heavily Puritan population would no doubt be fully prepared to acknowledge that Egypt, known from the Old Testament, was a land of errors.  Would they have credited Wheatley for suggesting that its errors were those of slavery–namely enslaving God’s people, the Hebrews?  This would become powerful imagery and iconography among slaves in a later America, but is Wheatley calling attention to it, here?  Egypt, throughout most of the preceding centuries, is precisely referenced because of its direct association with the pride of Pharoah in refusing God in the signs of Moses when he demands in the name of God that the Hebrew slaves be freed.  The errors of Egypt are the sins of Pharoah.  The sins of Pharoah are the enslavement of the Hebrews and his pride in doing so despite God’s demands.

Why she includes this at all, and in her opening stanza no less, is certainly interesting since she intends to warn the students and scholars away from sin.  She admires the institutions of learning, she is grateful for what she has learned, and for Christian conversion, but does she imply that there is something more these learned scholars have yet to learn, specifically about her own social station in Boston?

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(Oh, to have “old” history…) Archaeologists may have found last “medieval” king

government,kings,males,men,monarchs,people,persons,royal highnesses,royalties,rulers

Archaeologists believe they have found skeleton of King Richard III – Telegraph.

Click on the above link to see The Telegraph’s coverage of the archaeological discovery that could be the last Plantagenet king of England, vanquished by the future Henry Tudor VII, Richard III.  Shakespeare paints an ugly picture of him–literally deformed and evil–but Shakespeare also wrote in the Reformation-Tudor era of Elizabethan England.  (It’s a good article with a video, too, so really go read it!)

Little is known about the man who was the last English king to die in battle (at the Battle of Bosworth) especially in the last two years of his life.  Public opinion has largely been fashioned by the victorious new dynasty, the Tudors, and literature.  Now, the English are asking themselves–assuming it is more conclusively demonstrated that the body found is indeed King Richard III, of course–about whether he should be given a state burial.

Wouldn’t it be nice to ask such questions about American history? We have a great deal of difficulty there.  Anything “American” is most definitely well after the medieval era, of which many scholars define as ending in England with Richard III’s death.  Given that the English are our progenitors, beginning in the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, we must acknowledge that there is no archaeology of western civilization to be found in our soil before the early modern era.

It kinda makes me jealous.

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Some quick advice for visitors to Washington DC


Let me begin by saying that nothing in this post is likely to be extraordinary or even unique.  The things I am observing about DC tourists are generally the same thing I observed about them 10 years ago.  But, bad habits persist.

Walk on the left, stand on the right
In DC, people are doing things, like going to work, catching transportation for medical appointments squeezed into busy schedules, and meeting over meals.  So, it’s fair to say that the least amount of tolerance is held for jamming up public transportation.
Obviously, you don’t always know where you’re going–and, that’s fine, Washingtonians vary in how helpful they will be and many are transplants, themselves–but the one thing you can always do is avoid blocking the escalators!  Stand on the right side so people can pass you on the left.  It’s a beautiful system and it works!

You always know someone in DC
Americans always know someone in DC!  Well, sort of.  Your Representative and Senators are here for you, though, and you should contact their offices if you’re heading this way.  They owe you this service whether you like them or not–and they’ll get you tours of the Capitol!  Say, while you’re at it, why don’t you talk a little politics with them, especially if you’re having problems under federal jurisdiction.  You don’t have to, of course, but you should–you’re an American!
If you are visiting from outside the U.S., you probably have an embassy in DC (and other cities, like NYC).  They can help you, too, but of course it varies.

Getting around
Metro has gotten more expensive, so you may want to look into buses and bikes.  Metro buses inside the city are pretty good.  Bikes are also increasingly available.  Bike and Roll offers rental in DC at Union Station and the Old Post Office Pavilion, plus  Arlington, VA.  They also do bike tours of the National Mall as Bike the Sites.  And, there are other options, too.  Just be aware that trying to bring your car into the city is a crap shoot and almost always pricey.

Get away from the shining white marble!
Over the last few years some great and vibrant neighborhoods have been revitalized.  Visit some of these!  Check out Eastern Market, and maybe get some groceries for the trip.  Go to U St., the former Harlem of DC, where the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington used play.  While there, head over to Ben’s Chili Bowl: great history, great food.  Adams Morgan is a sweet, happening place, with good food and hole-in-the-wall shops.  In the evenings, it has a big nightlife scene; you can even catch some free music in a handful of venues.  And, there are more!

Well, that’s my quickie list of advice for visiting DC.  I myself will be heading into the Library of Congress for some research, today, so if you visit and take a peek into the main reading room I’ll be wearing the bandanna and the Kermit the Frog t-shirt.  Forgive me if I don’t wave–I’m working!


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A Medieval Castle in the Making

A castle is slowly taking in shape in France.  It has taken 15 years to get this point, but then, you don’t raise a medieval castle in a couple of months outside of Hollywood, Disney World or Vegas–especially if you are building it the medieval way!  In fact, in this construction project, the lengthy duration of the project is a point of pride.  The results are also pretty impressive for those of us used to seeing those various Vegas/Hollywood/Disney models.

Guédelon, a castle growing out of the French countryside is the operation created by architect Michel Guyot who came across the original foundations of a 13th century castle, while rehabilitating its 17th century predecessor, the Chateau de St.-Fargeau.  He pulled together medieval experts and set about making his own 13th century castle 100 miles southeast of Paris.

This should give some comfort to the project-organizers at Campus Galli, building a medieval monastery in Meßkirch, Germany (see Building a Monastery the Medieval Way).  Both Guédelon and Campus Galli are open to the public and volunteers–the expectation is that these are learning opportunities both for scholars and lay people.

Guédelon, unlike most other building sites, is open to the public. One of the project’s principal raisons d’être is to demonstrate and explain to as many people as possible, the craftsmanship of our forebears.

For more information, visit the castle’s website: Guédelon, A Castle in the Making.

Guédelon in the news:

Smithsonian Magazine’s “Constant Traveler Blog” —

BBC News —


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Building a Monastery the Medieval Way

Plan of St. Gall

Talk about experiencing history!  In Germany, a project is underway to build a monastery in the medieval way.  This means no coffee, no engines, no modern cranes, etc.  It means wearing medieval clothing, working with medieval tools and staying in medieval-style housing.  The work will be done by laborers and volunteers and will take many decades, just as medieval monasteries took many decades to build.

To read more about the project, follow this link, Ox Carts and No Coffee: Building a Monastery the Medieval Way – SPIEGEL ONLINE, to the English article by the German magazine, Der Spiegel.  Visitors can see the progress in the south German city of Meßkirch, where Campus Galli is the site of the future monastery.  It is called “Galli” because of the “plan of St. Gall,” a monastic plan (seen in the photo, above) that was discovered in the library of the Swiss monastery of St. Gall.  Today, St. Gall’s library and church are decorated in Baroque splendor and the library is a UNESCO heritage site.  The monastery, however, was founded in the 8th century and influenced by Carolingian monastic reforms, though the monastery is not built according to the plan that bears its name.

Visitors can visit the project’s website, by clicking on this link:  (Note, it is in German.)

Despite the fact that the plan does not match the actual layout of St. Gall, it is believed that it was intended, nonetheless, as a general idealized design for contemporary monasteries following the great monastic reforms of Charlemagne and his successor, Louis the Pious (not to be confused with the other successors in the East and South), the first concerted effort towards uniformity and central control.  So, a legitimate question might be asked in how “medieval” the plan of St. Gall is given that it does not appear to have been replicated anywhere, precisely according to plan!  It is the brain-child of medieval authors who are grappling with the contemporary monastic reform movements, but this does not mean that the plan itself represents an authentic medieval design as far as monasteries were designed and constructed.  Still, the Campus Galli’s plan to do the construction and have the workers live and work according to contemporary medieval standards and technological advances is a valuable learning experience for both the public and scholars.

Carolingian monasteries during the era of reform.

Tension had developed between the Carolingian monasteries and secular influence on the monks.  This tension played a major role in the reform movements begun under Charlemagne and continued in the years immediately after his reign.  While Charlemagne’s motives were more on the order of uniformity and his unceasing need for control, the church officials involved in the reform were more directly concerned with their interpretations of the Rule of Benedict (RB), balanced by their responsibilities to the state.

The secondary literature has shown that Carolinigian monasticism had plenty of secular infusion.  If the monastery had once been envisioned as place of retreat—a desert[i] without distractions to focus on one’s contemplation of God—by the Carolingian period it was already highly communal with the world outside.  Various Rules were in use, with each monastery tending towards its own traditions, many abbots served political, even military, roles, and no uniform expectations existed regarding this level of interaction.

The early missionary excursions of St. Boniface on the European continent revealed that the monastic foundations he laid were intended to interact with the pagans who lived there for the purposes of conversion and parochial support.  Later, as administrators of large estates, abbots served in a military capacity for the Carolingian kings.  The issue of hunting and bearing arms among clergymen, particularly abbots and bishops, is consistently raised in Councils (three alone between 506-585).[ii]  At the Synod of Soissons in 744, the decree comes down that abbati legitimi, specifically, were forbidden to go to war.  Lay abbots are conspicuously omitted from the decision.[iii]  Under Charlemagne, in the Captiulare missorum speciale, October 802, bearing arms in war was expressly forbidden “only [to] priests in general, deacons, and the other [lower] clergy.”  Their trust should be placed more in God than weapons.  The higher clergy—episcopi and abbati—were  left out of the prohibition deliberately.[iv]

On the flip side of the coin, Mayke De Jong has proffered a convincing case for the use of monasteries as lay elite sanctuaries.  Rather than exile or other physical punishments, Louis the Pious twice utilizes the monasteries for relocation of certain rebels in his realm—an evolved practice dating back to the Merovingians.  De Jong suggests that those placed in monastic confinement were more likely complicit in their captivity.  Monastic confinement was an honorable alternative for the powerful, but more importantly it was a safe place of refuge to escape to an internal exile.[v]

Thus the monastery was important not just for its lands in an economic sense but was necessary for its royally protected space:

Royal immunity and/or episcopal exemptions helped to reinforce this sense of integrity, but before monastic communities could become the beneficiaries of such privileges guaranteeing the inviolability of monastic space, they first had to become identified with well-defined places that enjoyed a measure of stability through time.  A monastic community moving elsewhere to retain its ascetic standards, leaving its unsatisfactory abbot behind, was of no use to the Rulers and bishops granting such privileges.  They had sacred places in mind, not saintly people.[vi]

For political exiles, it was understood that this was only becoming like a monk.  Monastic exile was linked among contemporaries with public penance.[vii]

Through a growing convergence of two separate traditions, reliquaries and monastic retreat, the Carolingian monastery was a place to which entry was sought after by the pious laity.  It became a particular challenge for monasteries to deal with female pilgrims who were expressly forbidden from entering male monasteries in the traditions of the monastic Rules.  Julia Smith cites sources describing the accommodation of women by means of separate external funerary chapels as part of the monastic complex as early as the seventh century.[viii]  A practice which Charlemagne maintains in his reform legislation of 789.  Later in 794, it is further specified that the monks’ chapel should be intra claustra.[ix]

Benedict of Aniane (Carolingian monastic abbot and reformer) was probably not motivated by a concern for lay access to relics as his two famous monasteries had none, his work suggested a strong influence from the Late Antique writer Caesarius who called for a strict ban and his legislation, built so firmly on the RB, and who would not have encountered an obvious opportunity to consider such problems.  Neither Benedict of Nursia (the author of the RB) nor Caesarius could have foreseen the transfer of the cult of relics to the monastic setting.  Evidence collected by Smith suggests that the ban of women in monasteries was ultimately based on the disposition of the abbots.[x]

Aniane’s sentiments, however, were perhaps bolstered by new directions in monastic design.  Carolingian monasteries excluded women from relics because of their particular location in monastery churches—near the altars—a  challenge further compounded by a greater interest in maintaining separation from lay people and the suggested development of ideas like the Plan of St. Gall with central cloisters.[xi]  These changes may have affected not only women but all of the laity.

There was also the challenge of novices and child oblates in monasteries.  These individuals represented an odd group of “tweeners,” being part of the monastic complex, but segregated away from the monastic community until the time of full membership.  It is the express intent to bring in an outsider, for the purpose of growing in the community, and converting him to the life of a monk and insider.

The challenge of maintaining enclosure in the monastery was one of the pressing issues of the reforms.  Many of the problems arise from the looseness of the RB itself.  While not all of the concerns above are directly acknowledged by the reform, they do demonstrate the extent of the challenge posed.  Just as Benedict of Nursia could not have foreseen reliquaries in monasteries, neither is it likely that he foresaw the vast wealth that would become attached, nor the importance of the abbot in matters of both church and state.  When Benedict explained the procedure for monks who were going outside of the monastery and missing regular prayers he did not deign to give examples for why they may be leaving.  Such open-endedness became the source of debate and disagreement during the reform era as the push for a standard understanding of monastic behavior and life was sought.

Walter  Horn, the great scholar of the Plan of St. Gall, makes a compelling case for an economic need to redesign the monasteries.  He hypothesizes that the Carolingian cloister grew out of the monastery’s greater economic value, revealed in the amassed land-holdings of the royal monasteries, and was thereby needed to protect the monks from the secular influence surrounding them in order to maintain the estates.[xii]  Space and its designation (such as “sacred” versus “profane”) was ever important and relevant.  Whether or not more evidence emerges from the archaeological record to support the hypotheses of Horn and Born remains to be seen.

Regardless, it is not hard to understand the conflict of relics and cloistered space mentioned above.  The designation of the space within the cloister is dominated by silence and oration, per the RB and reform movements.  The Carolingian monks needed to balance this with the cacophony of pilgrims.

[i] While the desert provides an evocative image of isolation, the amount of contact from various authors during the late antique suggests that even inEgypt there was less withdrawal than is normally assumed.

[ii] 303, Prinz, “King, Clergy and War.”

[iii] 305, ibid.

[iv] 316-7, ibid.

[v] 298, ibid.

[vi] 299, ibid.

[vii] 322, ibid.

[viii] 174, Smith, “Women.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] 177, ibid.

[xi] 175, ibid.

[xii] Horn, “Origins.”

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How to Raise a Marylander — a REQUEST for written guides to your state, city or region!

How to Raise a Marylander.

This article (linked above) was posted online at the Chesapeake Family Magazine’s website.  It covers the cultural “musts” for the children raised in the region.  This includes recreation, history, cuisine, and more.  We should all make such a list–maybe even more detailed–about our regions and states!  It’s a great help for transplants like my family, and also a point of pride for locals (although, I stray at the bottom when they start talking about sports teams, somethings are irreplaceable).

I would love to see your guides to raising residents of your state, city or region!  E-mail me ( 100-250 word guide about the food, places, history and experiences that are must for the place you know and love best!  Bloggers, home-schoolers and student submissions welcome!!  I will post them on the blog.  See the directions below:

  1. Put “How to Raise a ___” (using your state, region or city in the blank) into the subject heading.
  2. Type or copy and paste your submission into the e-mail body with any pictures.  DO NOT ATTACH ANYTHING TO THE E-MAIL.
  3. Include a brief bio about yourself, max. 50 words.
  4. Look for a reply from in your inbox to confirm receipt and to let you know if I will be posting it on the blog.  If I do post your submission on the blog, I will categorize it under “Guest posts” with your bio and give you credit.
  5. Have fun!


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Capitol Hill Close Up

At 8:30 am on Wednesday, supporters of Obamacare were already out in force, anticipating the day's arguments in the Supreme Court.

Hill Day.  One of the fundamental reasons Close Up exists is for this epic moment, this controlled collision between students and legislatures.  As it so often goes, this week’s Hill Day was one of the most vindicating experiences for program instructors.  It didn’t hurt that there was an historical case being heard at the Supreme Court, nor that the committee hearings were relatively light for a day so near Congress’s recess.

Senator Al Franken speaks to Close Up Minnesotans outside his office.

I was assigned three meetings on the Senate side of Capitol Hill to attend.  In this phase we program instructors are very much in the background, just facilitating the meetings, providing directions or suggestions, answering logistical questions, helping lost school groups find their way, and occasionally suggesting that a student with a question that cannot be answered take a business card to follow up.  Minnesotans met with Senator Al Franken (D) outside his office following his constituents breakfast.  He then took questions and explained on which committees he served, what Hill responsibilities he had, the national issues he is plugging or fighting, the state issues that he is supporting in Washington, the constituent groups with whom he meets, and bills or amendments his staff is drafting.  Each school got a few moments with him, including one of the schools from my hotel who got hung up in the security lines and arrived late.

Michiganders met with Senator Carl Levin outside the Armed Services Committee, which he chairs.

The next meeting I had was with Michigan Senator Carl Levin (D).  He met with students in person outside the committee room he for which he is chair in the Russell office building.  He, too, discussed the state issues for which he is advocating in Washington–Asian carp in the Great Lakes, for example, is a big concern for both Michigan and Minnesota.  Senator Levin further elaborated on some of the issues related to energy and oil speculation that he has been working on.  He came from the Senate floor to meet with students and rushed off (late) to get to a meeting he was suppose to be leading after his opening remarks and answering a handful of the students’ questions.  His staffer continued the meeting, even handing out his business card to a student who asked a question he could not answer (I did not hear the question, sadly, otherwise I would brag about it).

Alaskan students met with both of their senators, Senator Lisa Murkowski and freshman Senator Mark Begich, on the Senate-side eastern steps of the capitol.

While it was a little breezy and bit loud and busy on the steps, the small contingent of Alaskan students nonetheless had a pretty intimate meeting with both of their senators, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) and Senator Mark Begich (D).  While they waited for them to arrive, a nearby press conference was held by the Democratic leadership regarding the Supreme Court case being argued in the background.  Once the senators arrived the questions began.  It was a slow start, but questions about oil and energy, transportation costs, and the health care law soon followed.  The two senators spoke to students for about 20 minutes, if not longer, and urged students to be ambassadors for the state and its issues that are relevant to the national stage.

Here is the most important take-away:

Each of the senators took the students seriously as constituents; they did not talk down to the students; they did not trivialize their presence with softball, time-sucking questions about the tourist sites in town that they might have visited; they did not expect to lecture, but anticipated good policy questions and answered them without talking down or patronizing them; they fielded questions about the state issues that were relevant on the national stage that they were working on for the benefit of their state and constituents.

Students have been encouraged all week to take agency, to increase their knowledge and to ask questions.  Beyond that, they have been given the opportunity to express themselves, to take the lead, and to influence their peers and decision-makers–especially those working on Capitol Hill.  They have walked the halls of power in America’s democracy and owned them–as is every citizen’s right–sitting in on committee meetings, hearings, Senate and Congressional floor debates, and Supreme Court arguments and asking questions of those who represent them.  If they can do this, surely, the halls of power and authority at home are small potatoes: student councils, school boards, city councils, state governments, etc.  While each school was photographed with their senator, it is to be hoped that it is merely a reminder of their agency and not a mere picture of a brief encounter during their high school days.

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War memorials and mock congress Close Up

The Lincoln Memorial heading up the end of the National Mall with America's war memorials.

Tuesday was a busy day!  We started out the morning with an exploration of Capitol Hill (so students would know their way around for Hill Day).  We took a group picture in front of the Capitol before workshops 1-6 headed to a seminar with a speaker from AIPAC–the strongest Israel lobby in the U.S.  (He shared the importance of Israel as an ally, but did not mention the P-word, until a student asked point-blank about Israel’s relations with Palestine.)

A group of students meets to discuss the presentations made by the war memorials. The World War II Memorial is in the distance at the end of the empty reflecting pool.

Then, after lunch, we hit up the War memorials to discuss the theory of just war and the representation of American wars on the Mall.  Students debated the timing of our entry into World War II and reviewed just war theory in the cases of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  (At the Vietnam, one student got a rubbing of his family member’s name who died in that conflict.)

Students explore the iconic and controversial Vietnam War Memorial. Students explore with questions about the artwork and the concepts of just war in their heads.

Then we returned to the hotel for dinner and a student-run mock Congress in further preparation for their Hill Day. Students took on the roles of chairpersons, lobbyists and reps in the House. While the group on the whole is rather conservative, there was a lot of good debate on current issues and bills under consideration, today.

Students are grouped in their mock committee meetings discussing the issues, pros and cons of bills that relevant in today's congressional debates.

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Big government, small government, and citizen action Close Up


Talking about small government at the Jefferson Memorial

Beautiful day in Washington, DC, today!  A little blustery–most of the cherry blossoms have blown off and collected in petal clusters along the paths–but the sun kept us all warm and the climate was otherwise quite accommodating.  A great day to use historical examples to talk about civics and government!


FDR Memorial: big government, big memorial... also, a long presidency

I had an awesome day with my students.  Our workshop has students from Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, and North Dakota.  24 strong and mostly self-identifying as conservatives or “depends-on-the-issue” with a few genuine “I-don’t-knows.”  I’ve had to play a little liberal devil’s advocate to represent the “other side.”


Different backgrounds, different states, evaluating the "depressing facts" of the Great Depression and the government's responses.

We hit the Jefferson, FDR, and MLK memorials, today.  We discussed the merits and demerits of small and big government.  Then we discussed the role of the citizen–naturally, not restricted to government of one size or another.  Particularly, we discussed the methods of King in response to injustices entrenched in government policy, comparing and contrasting those with others, such as Malcolm X.


Entering the MLK Memorial and his quotes, evaluating citizen-responses to government injustice.

After we hit these memorials, our bus had lunch at the National History Museum.  Students had time to eat and explore before checking out the Hall of Evolution and how the concept is portrayed by public institutions–in other words, should it acknowledge debates–while drawing some parallels with public museums and public education.


Close Up participants get to be students and tourists while on program.

We finished up our Smithsonian visit and headed up to the Carnegie Institute for a seminar with Politico’s Senior White House Writer, who talked with students about media, driven by their questions.  Subjects covered the viral news stories, finding reliable reporting, following politics in today’s media world versus the pre-internet world, his belief in investigative journalism which he feels is on the decline, and the merits of major news outlets that are clear about the side of the aisle they stand on.  A useful seminar to follow the earlier issues raised in active citizenship as information is key to citizen response.

My workshop had another engagement covering federalism and the criteria students have for whether national or state governments should be in charge of specific responsibilities.  Then I was off for the evening, but  I am looking forward to hearing about the domestic issues debate between DC insiders Barry Piatt (liberal) and Ken Insley (conservative), debating the issues the students introduced, tomorrow morning!

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My National Geographic Magazine project

In this post, I am sharing my National Geographic assignment.  This is especially useful in generating multi-disciplined assignments and projects.  I use it for home school, but it could easily be adapted to history, anthropology, English, social studies, language arts, or related subjects–the reading level is higher, obviously, so if you are doing it with younger kids, enlist the help of parents or reading coaches.  It also makes a pretty good extra credit assignment, if you do that.

The purpose is to get the student to read one of the articles and then engage in the content at a higher level.  Whether the student reads further, creates fiction based on the article, or is artistically inspired, he or she is reworking the content of the article into his or her own project.

This is a great way to expose students to science, history, sociology, travel, and culture beyond their classrooms!  Once they’ve tapped into the pictures and maps, the story becomes hard to resist.  Each article is a kind of field trip (almost) and it should capture students’ imaginations and fuel their curiosity–for life.

(Additional tip for history use:  Assign older Nat. Geo. magazines from a period you are studying–the old Life magazines work well, too–so, students could, for example, read about the Space Race as it was unfolding.  Now, you’ve advanced it to a primary source project!)

National Geographic Assignment

Directions:  Read the current issue of National Geographic Magazine and do one of the following activities using an article of your choice from that issue:

  • Write a short story
  • Make a board game
  • Write a play
  • Do a related experiment
  • Further reading
  • Write a short report
  • Make a travel brochure
  • Do an art project
  • Invent a product or service
  • Write a blog post
  • Write a letter to the author or someone in the article
  • Make an informative map or chart explaining an aspect of the article
  • Create a storyboard for a short movie or documentary inspired by the article
  • Draw one of the photographs from the article
  • Write a speech
  • Make a cartoon strip
  • Write a song or poem
  • Make a PowerPoint explaining the article or an aspect of the article
  • Create a glossary or encyclopedia entries for the article
  • Design a craft project inspired by the article
  • Create a non-profit/fundraising service idea to address an issue raised in the article
  • Prepare a meal inspired by the article

These projects also make good “show” projects when highlighting the class’s  work or an individual student’s accomplishments.  Stories, artwork, and other projects may be used for contests or projects beyond the school or home school.

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