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Teaching History by Sailing the Jericho River

January 30, 2017

How an Unusual Novel and an Ohio Teacher Are Repackaging History Education

I’m the author of a fantasy novel that teaches history, and a high school teacher in Ohio has done some smart, creative instruction with it. This post describes her lesson-building and offers ideas on teaching with my book — along with links to sample lesson plans — in high school and middle school and at the college level.

The book is The Jericho River, by David Tollen (2d. Ed.; Winifred Press 2014). It’s a fantasy novel, but it’s also a history. The plot turns a timeline of Western Civilization into a river in another world. The story’s teenage hero travels the river by boat, on a quest that takes him through Sumer, Babylonia, ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, and the other key societies of our past — in chronological order. The text includes short notes about the underlying history. They tell, for instance, how a humble French lawyer’s son became king of Sweden, as well as the origins of coffee, the cat, chivalry, and the Atlantis myth. The story also shows young readers the magic of history: the myth, the pageantry, the castles and temples, the glamorous royals, the downtrodden slaves. And it links history with the type of fantasy adventure many teens enjoy. The Jericho River has won several awards, as well as endorsements from historians and educators — and fortunately, it’s attracted the attention of a particularly creative teacher.

(c) 2012 by David Carthage

One of the maps in The Jericho River

Rudy Edwards teaches at Goshen High School in Ohio, which happens to be her alma mater. She also has a master’s in social studies education, from Miami University. She’s used The Jericho River for three years in a class on the history of Western Civilization, for juniors and seniors, as well as some sophomores. “I was actually looking to lighten up the subject,” Rudy explains. She also wanted to distract students from an unhelpful focus on dates. “I wanted my kids to follow the story, the progression. Dates are very hard for me … and for the students.” And after all, she points out, history isn’t dates. “History is a story,” or “a soap opera.” You might think Rudy’s goals would lead to historical novels, but that’s not what she wanted. “Teachers tend to back away from historical novels because they usually hit only one or two objectives, since they only cover one period.” Hoping for something broader, Rudy googled “fiction” and “Western Civilization” and, “[t]o my surprise, I got exactly what I was looking for. The Jericho River hits multiple objectives.”

During their first two quarters, Rudy’s students study Western Civilization up to 1492, and they read The Jericho River in the second quarter. “It’s a good culminating event,” Rudy says, and it “helps cement what they’ve learned in their minds.” Rudy also gives her class lessons related to the book. Last year, she assigned boat dioramas. Each student built a model boat and scene based on the culture, technology, and style of a historic society visited by the story. And each wrote a summary of the society’s history and its role in The Jericho River. Another year, Rudy assigned a suite of “choose-your-own” activities, particularly written work. The options included an editorial on a controversial issue in The Jericho River, an essay on the student’s favorite passage, a top-ten-list of facts learned, and a faux front-page news article on a scene from the story. “I like thinking exercises,” Rudy says, and these exercises call on the students to think about history.

A Biblical Cherub -- one of Maia Kobabe's illustrations for The Jericho River

A “lumin”: one of the mythical creatures from The Jericho River – art by Maia Kobabe

Rudy suggested another lesson to me, based on an idea from her students. “Lumins” are the mythical creatures of The Jericho River: Greek centaurs and satyrs, Egyptian sphinxes and mummies, Medieval European fairies, etc. Rudy suggested a lumin-creation lesson. For instance: Design a lumin for ancient Roman society, based on images in Roman art and literature. Draw it and describe it in an essay. What values does it stand for? What sort of conduct does it encourage? Is this a lumin for all Romans, or only for certain classes or other groups?

I’ve created lesson plans based on all Rudy’s ideas, and they’re posted (free of charge) at my author website. They incorporate multiple learning objectives — research, writing, technology, visual arts — and teachers can target them to fit their state standards for social studies and language, as well as their unique classrooms. The lessons also offer options for partner, peer, and small group work, and they support multiple learning styles.

Rudy’s used The Jericho River in several ways, and I’m hoping other teachers will too. The book has a five-point educational strategy. First, it teaches students that history is fun. Second, by serving up history as fantasy, it triggers the part of a young reader’s mind that retains the details of Harry Potter’s world and of fantasy video games, aiding retention. Third, story itself serves as a high level timeline for Western Civilization, giving young readers the entire 5,000 year arc in easily retained chronological order. Fourth, the book connects well-known icons from the past with the societies that generated them. That gives historical context to familiar images, like pyramids, knights, centaurs, and battleships. Fifth, The Jericho River offers memorable tidbits form the past, increasing interest and the connection between familiar icons and the societies that generated them. For example, the notes explain that those winged babies in Renaissance paintings aren’t actually cherubs. They’re called putti, and people confused them with cherubs during the last couple centuries. Biblical cherubs were actually gigantic, fearsome beings.

The Jericho River is particularly useful for high school world history, as well as for sixth and seventh grade core teachers, since it supports their dual responsibilities for history and English. And obviously The Jericho River works in Western Civilization courses like Rudy’s, as well at the college level. It’s particularly powerful in the hands of creative teachers, like Rudy Edwards.

The Black General in 18th Century Europe

January 12, 2017

Revolutionary France had a black general. His name was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, and he was born a slave in Haiti — then a French colony — the son of a French nobleman and his African slave. Dumas’ father had little money and actually pawned the boy in 1776, when he was fourteen, but then bought him back. Father and son moved to France, where Dumas gained his freedom and a gentleman’s education. He enlisted as a private in the army at age twenty-four and soared to the rank of general by thirty-one, thanks to courage, brains, and charisma — and thanks to the French Revolution, which created unheard-of opportunities for humble-born men. Dumas repeatedly distinguished himself in combat, and France’s Austrian enemies called him the Schwarzer Teufel: the black devil.


Read more…

The Roman Empire Survived Unbalanced Executives — Maybe America Can Too

December 12, 2016

The early Roman Empire survived two mentally unbalanced emperors: Caligula and Nero. In fact, neither seems to have harmed the economy or disrupted the lives of the common people, despite bizarre behavior. That’s encouraging in the age of Donald Trump.

Nero entertains the crowds

Nero entertains the crowds

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Here’s what I think progressives and moderates should do …

November 9, 2016


  • Get more involved in politics, not less. The country needs you now more than ever.

Read more…

Trump, ISIS, and the Tactics of the Weak

November 6, 2016

A prominent Trump supporter recently offered a view that seems to represent much of the nation. “When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS,” said Pastor Robert Jeffress, an influential TV host, “I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find.” Few would doubt that Donald Trump is mean, but what makes Pastor Jeffress thinks he’s tough? What makes millions of Americans think Trump is tough when, in fact, his behavior suggests he’s unusually sensitive? What, for that matter, makes us think ISIS is tough — so much so that “looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS” becomes the top priority? The answer is that Americans have been fooled by bluster and the tactics of the weak.

President Theodore Roosevelt: "speak softly and carry a big stick"

President Theodore Roosevelt: “speak softly and carry a big stick”

Bluster means loud, boastful, and threatening talk. It’s meant to give an impression of power. Terrorism plays a similar role, and in fact you might call it geopolitical bluster. It is devastating for its individual victims, but it has no military impact. So on a geopolitical scale, between nations, a terrorist attack is a loud, threatening statement. Read more…

This is How Democracy Begins to Die

November 3, 2016

You might think it’s aristocrats and the rich who most threaten democracy. But actually democracy tends to die the hands of angry working people, who turn against elites and their own constitution and follow an authoritarian leader. That leader destroys democracy, or injures it so much that it begins to die.

The Acropolis - Athens: mother of democracy and of tyrants

The Acropolis – Athens: mother of democracy and of tyrants

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Trump Threatens to Jail Clinton: An Authoritarian in America

October 10, 2016

George Washington’s legacy is restraint, particularly on presidential power. That legacy is threatened like never before.

Last night, Donald Trump told Hillary Clinton he plans to put her in jail if he’s elected President of the United States.

Dictators threaten to arrest political rivals. American presidential candidates never have. One of the central features of our democracy, since the Founding Fathers, is that we do not use the criminal justice system against political opponents. We separate the two realms as much as possible, to protect political freedom. Read more…