Friday, December 26, 2014

7 Questions With Author Gregory Flemming

Gregory N. Flemming spent more than three years researching At the Point of a Cutlass, a nine-week Boston Globe bestseller in nonfiction, which tells for the first time the complete and true story of a young fisherman named Philip Ashton and the horrific pirates who captured him. Greg is a former journalist with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A New England native, he is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire. He lives with his family in New England. At the Point of a Cutlass is his first book. Read more at

1.      How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
From a young age I have always loved reading history, especially histories relating to stories of exploration and survival. I was fascinated by the rugged determination depicted in books about Captain Cook, Lewis and Clark, the early American pioneers, and the fictional Robinson Crusoe. Growing up in New England, I was also surrounded by history -- old buildings, cemeteries, and site markers are everywhere. Although I probably did not pay as close attention as I do today, these historical reminders colored the landscape where I lived.

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
I read history almost exclusively in my free time. My family and I also enjoy traveling and we often make the exploration of historical sites and museums a part of our trips.

3.      How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
Despite my personal passion for history, I did not expect to write a true historical narrative. But when I discovered the true story of Philip Ashton, I had no choice. Philip Ashtonn was a young fisherman from New England captured by pirates in 1722 who then escaped and lived as a castaway on an uninhabited Caribbean island. Ashton’s narrative still exists today, I discovered, and his story appealed to every bone in my body.

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?
Imagine looking at something -- a sculpture, a piece of clothing in a store, a new car, an unforgettable play at a sporting event -- but only from a single perspective. That would be frustrating, at best, and potentially misleading. And given a choice, we don’t do that. We move around, we shift our location and perspective, we touch the object if we can, and we watch replays shown multiple times and shot from many different angles. This helps us fully understand what we’re seeing.

Studying history is like this -- history is a new angle on our world. Where and how we live, our culture and laws, and our maps and boundaries have all been shaped by our history, and when we learn new history we see our world in a different, and more complete, light. The skills learned in studying history are also incredibly relevant today in all walks of life: how to search for hard-to-find evidence amid mountains of information, and thinking critically about information to evaluate the motivations of the author and the reliability of the source.

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I spend the most time reading and writing about the period from the 1600s through 1850, with a particular focus on maritime history and adventure. This period encompasses an extensive period of exploration, as well as the settlement and founding of the United States. Both as a reader and a writer, I am particularly drawn to the stories of the individuals who played a role in history. Sometimes these are well-known figures, but in other cases they can be ordinary men or women who experienced first-hand important events in history Exploring history through the lives of individual actors helps make the past more tangible to us today.

6.      Your book, At the Point of a Cutlass, has two major themes, the golden age of Atlantic piracy on the American coast and the religious struggle in New England as old-line Puritans struggled to maintain control that they saw slipping away.  How are those two topics interwoven and how did they shape America?
One of the fascinating aspects in my research on Philip Ashton’s amazing voyage was discovering how important a role the spectacle of piracy played back home in colonial New England. Coinciding with a spike in Atlantic piracy during the early eighteenth century, religious leaders were preoccupied with the erosion of religious faith in their communities. By the 1720s, after nearly a century of steady growth, Boston was a bustling city of twelve thousand people and Puritan New England had changed. As the appetite for non-Puritan activities grew, Cotton Mather and other religious leaders issued warning after warning about drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, church skipping, and other aspects of wayward lifestyles within their communities.

The spectacle of piracy provided the perfect vehicle for delivering these fiery warnings. Stories about condemned pirates, their executions at public gallows, and the adventures of young men captured by pirate crews all made for attention-grabbing sermons and broadsheets. More importantly, in the minds of religious leaders, they held an important message. Mather himself railed against the evils of piracy for decades. He’d personally gone to the Boston jailhouse in January 1700 to meet with the infamous Captain Kidd and he delivered a blistering sermon at the execution of crew members who’d served under the pirate John Quelch in 1704. Thirteen years later, when six members of Samuel Bellamy’s crew were condemned in 1717, Mather made the “long and sad walk with them from the prison to the place of execution,” where he delivered final words before the pirates were hanged. And Mather took up the story of the twenty-six members of Low’s crew hanged in Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1723. The corpses of the executed pirates strung from the gallows became a gruesome symbol of how badly things would end for those who gave in to the vices of the pirates. It was a similar motivation that prompted Marblehead minister John Barnard, a former student of Mather’s, to preserve the story of Philip Ashton, which remains today a rare example of a first-hand account of life aboard a pirate ship.

7.      What history project or projects are you working on now?
I am currently working on a new piece on the survivors of a shipwreck in the North Atlantic in the early 1900s and doing a good deal of reading about early American exploration. I have not yet settled on my next book-length project.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

7 Questions With Khalil Chism, Education Specialist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

(Khalil G. Chism received his BA in History and M.Ed. in Secondary Education and Social  Studies, both from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He has taught American Studies, U. S. History, U. S. Government, English, and Writing, at both the secondary and post-secondary levels. Currently serving as an Education Specialist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library & Museum, Kahlil specializes in professional development training for social studies teachers, seminar facilitation, curriculum writing, document analysis, and historical writing and research.)

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

I became hooked on history in 1990, when a friend hired me to help run his book store on 2nd Street, in Richmond, VA. It was an African American book store, and I was responsible for ordering and stocking titles. The first of the life-changing books that I read, after selling many copies to various customers, all of whom highly recommended the book, was Assata: An Autobiography, which is the life story of 1960s era Black revolutionary and political exile, Assata Shakur. Reading that book made me feel like I was living in country, up until that point in my life, that I knew very little about, politically speaking.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

Personally, historical study has helped me to clearly define my own value system, it has increased my confidence and pride in self and family, and imbued me with a sense of responsibility to my fellow man and community. Professionally, it has become my bread and butter. I guess you could say I studied my past and in it I found my future.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in History and a Master’s in Secondary Education, since I went to school to become a high school social studies teacher. And I did teach U. S. history, American Studies, and advanced placement Government, but only during my graduate year. For most of the time that I was in education school, I was also employed as a historical interpreter at a historic house and plantation museum. So I’ve always had one foot in the traditional classroom world, and the other in the world of museum education. Professionally, those are the historic and educational spaces I’ve inhabited for the last fifteen years.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?

Well, as Marcus Garvey said, “A people without a knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” From the time I first read those words, many many years ago, I believed them and sort of set my course in life, accordingly. In order to know where you might want to go, or what is possible or necessary for you to do in life, you should consult the past to see where others have been, or what others have done, and what is left to do or even redo. I realize to some reading this that this all might sound a bit historically cliché, but trust me; people who know me will tell you that I really do think and talk like this. I’ve long since become comfortable with being a history nerd.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

My concentration while in school was the early American period, from the founding of the country through the Progressive Era, in particular. That’s my favorite period because it’s the era that most explains why America is the way it is right now, and what “America” means in the context of world history. Everything great inspiring shameful and horrifying about America has its origins in that time period: the establishment of the 13 original British colonies on the Eastern Coast of this country; the interactions with, cultural exchange between, and slaughter and displacement of the Native American Indians at the hands of the settlers; our revolution from England which gave birth to a nation founding upon the equality of man, freedom from religion, and republicanism. At least on paper, that is. The transatlantic slave trade and the birth of North American race-based chattel slavery, the evolution of the ideology of white supremacy, and our rocky yet admirable striving toward the expansion of citizenship rights to include poor white men, formerly enslaved Africans, women, and new European immigrants, all happened in that period. Westward expansion, manifest destiny, emancipation and reconstruction, the gilded age, industrialization… . Without an understanding of these early decades of American history the present state of affairs in our country must seem, at best, confusing, and at worst, utterly unknowable.

6. What is the mission of the Carter Library?

Generally speaking, all of the presidential libraries and museums of the National Archives & Records Administration, our parent agency, exist to promote understanding of the presidency and the American experience. As an archives, we preserve and provide access to historical materials related to the administration and persons of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, we support research, and we create interactive programs and exhibits that educate and inspire. The mission of Education Programs here at Carter, which I manage, is to provide quality educational materials and experiences to the students, educators, and public of the state of Georgia, the country, and the world. We do this by creating document-based curricular materials and offering educational programming and training rooted in current best teaching practices, all tied to state and national learning standards.

7. How can/does the Library serve educators, students, and the public at large?

We have an award-winning museum that educates general visitors about the life and legacy of America’s 39th president, and life in the U. S. during the Carter years. That is done via our permanent museum installations, but we also have a wonderful temporary exhibit gallery which allows us to host traveling exhibits that deal with a variety of non-Carter related topics, three or four times per year. We also have a very vibrant public lecture program that brings in world-renowned authors several times per month. That program is free, by the way, and we have plentiful and free parking, right in the heart of Atlanta. We provide bus transportation funding to visiting schools to encourage field trip visits from our state’s k-12 students. And we also create standards-based curriculum and conduct professional development training for social studies educators. All of the details of our numerous program offerings and educational resources can be found on our website, at And of course, we have a twitter and a Facebook page for those who want to keep in touch with us in real time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

7 Questions with Chef Virginia Willis

(Chef and food writer Virginia Willis hails from Atlanta and is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all.  Her latest book is titled Okra.)

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

One of my heroes growing up was Ben Franklin. I have always been a history geek. I loved Williamsburg, Virginia as much as Disney World as a child. I feel a real connection to the past.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

I was actually a history major at UGA, so this email request was so exciting! As a chef and food writer, I continue to educate myself about the history of food.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

Undoubtedly, my love of history has contributed to my affinity for Southern food and cooking. I like to look at the social and anthropological aspects of cuisine. I have a very strong belief that everything we believe in has something to do with what we eat and how we eat it. Our worldview of who, what, and how we are can often be summarized by what is on our forks. If we’re devout Jewish or Muslim, we don’t eat pork. If we lean toward the liberal end of the spectrum we may only eat locally harvested food and meat harvested under humane conditions. If we’re radical conservative, we may disavow all forms of government jurisdiction as related to our food and prefer to hunt our own meat and game. If we’re educated, we may have a tendency to eat more healthily. If we’re not educated, we may not.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?

We are apt to make mistakes; it is our nature as humans. If we see the past, we can learn from our mistakes and perhaps not repeat them. We can also be thankful of progress and change if we are aware of what existed in the past. History is a spectrum, and as soon as a moment has passed, it is history, but still has relevance both today and tomorrow.


5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

I concentrated on British history at UGA because I was an extreme anglophile. But now, I like digging deeper into American food and culture, specifically Southern food and culture. I devour nonfiction micro-views of subjects, as well. Books like Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World or Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky or Four Fishes by Paul Greenberg are a stimulating combination of history and  present. I recently read Sugar, Salt, and Fat by Michael Moss, which is basically the history about how food giants hooked us on, well, sugar, salt, and fat. It’s a very modern history – and is a theme that is very relevant and in action today.


6. Why are food and history so connected, especially in the South?

The study of Southern food and food history helps us understand more about what we eat and the foodways we embrace. Why do Southerners eat okra? How did it come to this country? The study of food and food history is also a lens to examine various human experience and provokes a deeper understanding of our overlapping and evolving cultures and societies. Traditionally, Southern cooking was actually a vegetable-based cuisine. This is the fertile land of okra, green beans, tomatoes, and corn. This diet was not remotely for health reasons. The plant-based diet was due to poverty for both black and white. That bit of fatback in the greens might have been the only meat in the pot. Southerners grew their own food and harvested wild game and seafood from the forests, rivers, and sea. Now, poverty affects us in different ways. Eating home-cooked fried chicken and biscuits isn’t what made the South so fat. It’s poverty. When someone is on limited income, they buy cheap food. And foods that are cheap tend to have a lot of sugar, salt, and fat. The South has some of the highest poverty rates in the nation. This is our history and only by learning from our history can we change.


7. Southern and soul cooking seem to be hot topics in foodie culture now. Why is that?

Because it tastes good!! First, however, I would say that Southern cooking and Soul food cooking are not interchangeable and are not the same. I would say that all Soul food is Southern, but not all Southern food is Soul food. Southern food is born from many areas, people, and economic levels. Southern food is not one food, but many regional foods combined. It originated from a complex combination of Native American, European, and African cultures. There’s the Low Country cooking of the Atlantic coast that showcases rice and seafood, Deep South cooking that makes use of corn, the mountain cooking of Appalachia, French and Spanish influences that permeates the cuisine of Louisiana. The food of the South is rich and diverse. I think that in these times of crisis that Southern food is a comfort food. People have simply wanted comfort. Our agrarian-based table has created a culinary tradition really like no other in the US, and that food is comforting.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

7 Questions With Brian Thomas, Teachers Curriculum Institute

(Brian was a middle school social studies teacher for twelve years just north of Cincinnati, OH.  In  the late 90s, he began using a program entitled History Alive by Teachers’ Curriculum Institute (TCI).  In 2002, he became a National Trainer for TCI, conducting pedagogy trainings around the country in the summer time while still teaching.  In 2004, he left the classroom to work full-time for TCI.  His current role includes sales, professional development, and content creation.  TCI website )

1.    How and/or when did you get you hooked on history? 

In high school.  My teachers inspired me to get into history through simulations and stories.

2.    What role does history play or has it played in your personal life? 

There are so many examples.  One would be - my mother does extensive genealogy research.  In the process of watching her do this, I get the benefit of hearing the stories of my heritage.

3.    How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career? 

I entered college knowing I wanted to teach history, and four years later…that’s exactly what I started doing.  Working with young people and teaching them US History was a joy; never a job.

 4.    Why is studying/knowing history important? 

 The only way to see where you are going in life is to see where you’ve come from.

 5.    What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why? 

 I thoroughly enjoy the Revolutionary War time period.  Initially it was the Civil War but then I read Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Shaara as well as other books that slowly began to change my mind.  It’s still fascinating to read about our nation’s founders.
6.    What are the major challenges facing social studies teachers today? 

Teachers are ever-more pinched on time.  Standards, which should have a place, can lead to thin study if pacing just for exams.  Teachers are pinched by the encroachment of ELA and Math for PD and support.  Too long publishers have treated teachers as content dumps….they’d write thick books and just expect teachers to lecture and worksheet kids to death.  Technology has changed that dynamic.  Content is not difficult to find…you can just Google it.  The greatest pinch of all still exists though….time.  There’s never enough of it to plan a great lesson.

 7.    What is TCI’s mission and how is it serving teachers and students? 

 TCI supports the teachers overcome that pinch.  We create great, hands-on lessons that come with the content.  That makes adapting the lesson to personal taste and need a lot easier than coming up with it.  TCI creates lessons that use tools like technology not like other companies that use a tool in search of instruction.  In other words, we support proven instructional practice.  In that space, TCI does not have a peer among publishers.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

7 Questions with Peter and Meggen Taylor, Historic Real Estate Entrepreneurs

Husband and wife team, Peter and Meggen Taylor, are pleased to announce, Find Everything Historic: the first real estate, design, and travel destination that connects historic property enthusiasts with a way to visit, rent, buy, renovate, or sell the properties of their dreams. Find Everything Historic connects buyers with sellers, vacation renters with owners, businesses with innovation space, renovators with retailers, investors with opportunities, and historic hotels, resorts, restaurants, spas, and towns with consumers seeking unique historic property experiences throughout the United States, Europe, and worldwide.  Website:

1.      How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
We have always been hooked on history. Our love and curiosity for historic places and buildings has been intrinsic to our lives since we were both kids. Meggen grew up in historic towns her entire life. Peter grew up in a historic house and city, studied Latin and Greek, and went to schools that were 150 years old so history has been a constant woven throughout both of our lives and educations.

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
It grounds us and gives us a sense of permanence and continuity. It also inspires us. We love everything historic whether it be historic buildings, historic hotels and travel destinations or anything to do with design.

3.      How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
We have made history a part of our careers by starting Find Everything Historic, which we eat, sleep and breathe. In our previous business we worked with architects and engineers to preserve historic buildings. In Peter’s younger professional days, he wrote books and articles on history and historic travel and adventure.

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?
It’s a cliché but you can only contemplate the future by understanding the past. History gives us better perspective on the present. Many things in our lives are changing so fast but history has always changed at a rapid pace and in unforeseen ways. The Greeks, the Romans, and the Italian Renaissance in their times changed mankind forever in ways that no one could have predicted. What’s most important for us is keeping a physical connection to history through historic buildings, architecture, and experiences, and that’s one of the main reasons we started Find Everything Historic.

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
It might sound obvious but we’re most fascinated by world culture and the imprint every historical period has left on the planet from a building and design standpoint. How did the Egyptians build the pyramids? The Incas Maccu Pichu? The Mayans their temples? The list goes on. No matter what country you live in you will always be surrounded by the architectural history of the cultures that came before you.

6.      Your business is to match potential buyers and renters with historic properties.  Tell us how it came about?
Historic real estate is by definition a niche business. Buyers are specialized. Historic properties themselves are unique, and it takes a certain love and craftsmanship to maintain them. Find Everything Historic grew organically from our own experiences with our own historic properties. There was no central place to search for them when we wanted to buy, and no place to list them when we wanted to sell. We could also never find an integrated site to find historic hotels and vacation rentals when we want to go away, or retailers and contractors when we needed work or renovations done. In the process we realized that there was a hidden historic property lifestyle and economy built around millions of people, consumers, and companies who weren’t communicating and able to do business with one another.

7.      What should someone interested in buying historic property consider as he/she begins the search?
Owning a home is not for everyone and owning a historic property is no different in the regard that you need maintain the property while it is in your hands and this may require the need to call on professionals. People who live in historic homes or buildings are temporary stewards of the property and with that comes so additional responsibilities, but like anything in life that is good—it requires some work but the rewards are worth it. Historic properties are also more often than not located in revitalizing main street towns or historic urban districts, so interested buyers should think about what type of community they’re looking for as well business and job opportunities. Historic towns and neighborhoods are some of the most exciting places to live these days.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

7 Questions with Greg Chapman, Juggler, Entertainer, History Lover

Greg Chapman, in his Condensed Histories shows, books and podcast takes a look at different parts of history from the point of view of one juggler and entertainer. With shows ranging from his ,Silent Movie Live', a touching tribute to Charlie Chaplin, to his 'Completely historically accurate re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt as performed by one man on a unicycle', he offers his own take on all things history. ('Condensed Histories Podcast' available on iTunes, 'Condensed Histories Volume One, Histories From England' available from Amazon. Detailas of shows at


1.  How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

I would love to come up with a really smart answer to this, the first question, to show that although my claim is never to be anything more than a 'Juggler and Entertainer' talking about history, that there is an academic core to my life in history. However, I fear that anybody who has seen any one of my shows in which I take out the bullwhip will immediately see that here is a man who was first inspired to history by Indiana jones, and just never grew up. From watching the Indiana Jones movies I began to look at archaeologists and history, and I think it was the story of Howard Carter and the Tomb of Tutankhamen (discussed in the first Condensed Histories book) that made me realize this was a real thing. 

I was lucky that as a child, as well as today, I devoured books, and it was always the stories in history which held the ultimate fascination for me, and led me down the road to where I am today.

2.  What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

History was always something I loved, the stories fascinated me. I was lucky enough to have been born into a family who shared an interest, and growing up whenever we went on holiday as a family we would visit local castles, historic buildings and museums, and I guess that that only cemented my love of them. Until a few years ago,  history was very much something in my personal life. I was busy working as a performer, on tour a lot of the time, and I actually did a History Degree with the Open University, not because I envisioned history playing a part in my future career, but to give me something else to focus on when I got in from a day's shows. It helped give me something else to do in a time before I realized that doing my own shows and writing books could fill the time in hotel rooms on tour! 

3. How is history a part of your professional life/career?

I started my professional career when I left school, intending to be a serious actor - which very quickly fell by the wayside as I realized that juggling and entertaining without learning lines and playing a part were just more fun to me. About five years ago I first struck on the idea of writing a history book based on my own thoughts and life, and it was something I started and then let drift for a year.

A few years back I was then looking for a subject for my next one man show, and I found my History Degree still in an envelope in a drawer, and from there the Condensed Histories shows were born, and as a result the book was finished and became the first in a series. Since then the majority of my shows (which are my full time job) are my Condensed Histories shows, travelling around juggling, entertaining, and talking about history.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?

To be honest this isn't an argument I normally try to make. There are arguments that knowing history can deepen understanding of the present, and various others, but I try not to stress them, because for me stressing that it is important to know history is the wrong way of going about it. If someone had ever told me I should know history because it is important when I was younger, it might even have put me off a little (I'm a professional juggler - not one for following what other people tell me is important or I'd have listened to my teachers and got a 'real job'). I would much rather let people know how fun and interesting history is, let them know the stories, and discover history through that, rather than because it is important. 

When I tell people the story of Taillefer the juggler at the Battle of Hastings,  I don't think there is anyway it will be important to them to know it, but from the number of people who come up and talk to me about that fact after the show, I know that it has entertained them. I suppose it is the same thing as juggling - is it important? I might get myself in trouble at the next juggling convention I attend, but I think no, the act of juggling is not important. It is, however, entertaining when it is performed in the right way, in the same way that history is entertaining when imparted the right way. From what I gather, happiness is good for your health, and being entertained is good for happiness. So there you go, I guess the importance of history is that being entertained by it is good for your health (I must add at this point in time that I am NOT actually a doctor).

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

I don't know. Isn't that a terrible answer? But I fear an honest one from a lot of people. The whole reason I started doing the Condensed Histories books and shows is so that I could do stuff on as many different types of history as possible, because I've never found myself tied to one time period. So the only answer I can give is what I’m learning about today.

The answer today is Victorian Explorers, because I have just started work on a new project for next summer, including a new series of shows, and so I have a pile of books about all of the great Victorian Explorers on the desk in front of me as I work, and I am learning new stories with every page I turn. My favorite thing to learn in history will always be a new story, which is part of the reason why when I interview people on the podcast I ask them to choose a subject to talk to me about, rather than me choosing one I am already familiar with.

6. What Is the Condensed Histories project and how did it come about?

I've just realized I should have read through all of the questions before I started writing, because then I wouldn't have already largely answered this question in a previous answer. It is a lesson I never learned in exams either, along with re-reading your answers, and the fact that the point of an exam wasn't to finish and get out of the room as quickly as possible so that you have more time to do what you want. 

Really it began with the first show that I created, as mentioned above, when I found my history degree while searching for inspiration, and the response I received to the shows has been so warm and flattering, and the feeling of sharing the stories which fascinate me alongside the variety skills I use in the shows is something I really enjoy. I also feel it connects me to a long tradition of jugglers and 'fools' throughout history who shared tales while performing. I have often said that it is Shakespeare's line 'better a witty fool than a foolish wit' that keeps me going!

7.  Some really weird people don't connect history and fun automatically. How do you reach those people?

First off I find these people unfortunate, but by no means weird. Weird is not a word I'd be comfortable using when my full time job as an adult is juggling, unicycling, cracking a bullwhip and dressing up! 

Usually the failure to connect the two comes from the fact that they have never been shown that history can be entertaining while they were in school - something which I hope I'm helping with while touring the school versions of my shows. I was lucky - I had great teachers in schools but due to the curriculum there were still subjects I found boring - the French Revolution springs to mind. I had to study this for my A-levels at 18, and do for once I dreaded history lessons which were long and boring and about corn laws and the minutiae of the subject, never getting on to the heart of it. It was only years later when I tried to tackle this that I found Mark Steel's book 'Vive La Revolution' that I began to realize that most of the subject was actually fascinating!

But my shows are usually big, exciting events where people who don't like history are dragged in by the show, and I love it every time people come up to me and tell me they've never liked history before, and then spend ten minutes just discussing history with me. 

 If you've read this far through my answers, thanks a lot! For more ramblings about history you can check out the book. Many thanks also to the Histocrats for letting me answer the seven questions - not sure I've succeeded in answering them all, but I've got as close as I ever will. No time to re-read my answers, the exam is over, and if I hand in my paper now I can get a good half hour of juggling in before the academics finish checking theirs!


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

7 Questions with Sheila Arnold, Storyteller and Teaching Artist

Sheila Arnold Jones currently resides in Hampton, VA.   She is a Professional Storyteller, Historic  Character Interpreter and Teaching Artist.   Through her company, History’s Alive!, Sheila has given at schools, churches, professional organizations and museums around the US .   

     Sheila portrays ten different women in history ranging from the 1600's to the 1970's,including, Oney Judge, Madame CJ Walker and Daisy Bates.   She  also presents Professional Development sessions, Storytelling Programs and Character Presentations at educational conferences, including Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute, Valley Forge Teacher Institute, Mt. Vernon Teacher Institute, and Social Studies and Reading Association Conferences in New York, Louisiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi.   The  National Council of Social Studies and many Teaching American History Grant programs around the country have had Sheila present and perform on a variety of topics.   Finally, Sheila is called upon to be a Featured Teller at Storytelling Festivals around the country, including, but not limited to,  the National Storytelling Festival (Jonesborough, TN), Storytelling in the Carolinas (Laurinburg, NC) and Moonshell Storytelling Festival (Omaha, NE). Previously, Sheila worked at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as a Coordinator with the Teacher Institute, in Public Relations and Event Management , and as a Storyteller and Theatrical Interpreter.  Also, she was a Social Worker with aggressive adolescents having emotional problems, a Hampton City Middle School  Substitute Teacher, Manager with Information Technology Systems (ITS) and a Mary Kay, Inc. Independent Senior Beauty Consultant.   
For more information about Sheila Arnold Jones, or to schedule a presentation or professional development, you can go to, or email her at or call her at 7 57-725-1398.


 1.         How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

     I became hooked on history when I was a little girl, because my father loved history.  Both of my parents read many, many books, often of an historical nature, and I followed suit in developing that same love of reading and learning.

 2.         What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

     My personal family history has been actively shared by mother and my aunts and the collecting of notes, letters and documents from family members is consistently done.  Also, in my junior year of high school, I was really impacted by "The Black Book", which showed photos, patent engravings, history notes.  When I read this book, it made me angry that I hadn't learned alot about black history in my predominantly white school (we only had 13 AFrican American students out of 800).  I took that anger and the book to my Social Studies Teacher, Mrs. Elliott, and found out that she had been taking Black Studies courses during the summer, but unsure of how to incorporate in the class.  My anger and true desire to learn, gave her an opening, and she changed the curriculum to be able to teach Black History as well.  She was my favorite high school teacher and made me love history more.  She also changed our class and we all became more aware of cultural history.

  3.         How is history a part of your professional life/career?

     So history is now a part of my regular every day life.  I am an Historic Character Presenter, presenting ten different women in history from the 1600's to the 19 70's.  I also present professional Development for Educators with a focus on Teaching African American History to Culturally Diverse Audiences, and using Storytelling in Teaching History.  I also am a historian, or at least, an active history learner.  I have to do research constantly on the women I portray and the time periods they live in.  I am involved in History Education groups on LinkedIn and interact often with other Character Presenter.  Proof:  My most recently read "pleasure" book was "Since Yesterday:  The 1930's in America" by Frederick Lewis Allen; a fantastic read, which sounded a lot like today.  

 4.         Why is studying/knowing history important? 

     Studying/Knowing history is important because when we know history we can see the patterns and maybe see the place to change the pattern.  I find it stunning when people look at a "developing" country and wonder why they aren't where "we" are, thinking we have always been where we are now.  Also, history teaches us to appreciate others outside of ourselves.  When done correctly, it encourages people to be more tolerant and even appreciative of other cultures.  

5.         What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

     My favorite period of history to learn about is the Civil Rights period.  I have always thought I could/would be one of the marchers in the South.  I love how people became involved and they made a change, they made a difference.  This period led to so many other "rights" being fought for.  And even more importantly, people of different races, religious beliefs came together and worked together; kind of my hope for utopia.


6.         What is the process through which you create your characters and presentations?

  First, I decide on which person (or time period) I want to portray or represent.  Then I go to resources, starting with youth and children's books.  I start there because I am presenting mostly to youth and children, because the books take lots of information and compact it, because they have easy timeline and they have photos.  Oh, and they aren't long books.  Based on those books (usually 2 or 3), I then write down the things that I found most interesting and most important.  Next, I make a copy of the timeline in one of the books, and I compare that personal timeline to a much broader timeline to find out what else is going on at that time.  This helps me to know what else I am going to have to know about in the person's time, and what I won't know.  

   Then I write an outline from my memory of what I've read.  These are usually the things I think are more important, have a lesson and just are interesting.  Finally, I start putting together the costume and collecting any props.  

    I wish I could say there was some final thing I do, but after I have the outline I practice what I will say, how I will say, and tighten it up.  Then I practice more, and I continue to research.  Then I practice more and continue to do research. 

7.         Why is storytelling still important in the 21st century?

     At a time in history where media and social networking is so prevalent, storytelling is more relevant than ever.  The need for face to face, ear to ear communication is so much more necessary to fulfill the need to have connection and purpose.  I perform in front of audiences, particularly youth, who are desperate for people to "talk" to them and engage.  People need to share, just see the growth in Massmouth and Story Slams on campuses.  

    Storytelling is also the best way to increase literacy in our youth.  It also enhances critical thinking and creativity in people.  It should be a an active part of STEM; making it STEAM.  (A = ARTS).  Plus, it's fun and entertaining, educational and inspirational, and who couldn't use a great story in their day?