Wednesday, December 7, 2016

7 Questions with Heather MacKenzie, Henry County (GA) Social Studies Coordinator

Heather MacKenzie is an Instructional Coordinator for Social Studies and World Languages for Henry County Schools, the eighth largest school district in the state of Georgia. She came into this position two years ago after 14 years as a classroom teacher, where she had experience as a Special Ed, Elementary, and Middle School teacher. During her career she has enjoyed presenting at the local, state, and national levels, as well as serving as a consultant and curriculum writer for the Georgia Humanities Council.

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
A love of and respect for history has been a constant in my life. Born and raised in Philadelphia, my earliest memories are weekend outings to Valley Forge or field trips to Independence Hall. In high school I used to spend all day laying out and studying on the Princeton Battlefields. I even remember when the Liberty Bell was next to a bus stop! However, I would say I truly became hooked on history in high school. Like most educators, I was inspired by an educator. Mr. Tom Wilcox was my US History teacher at The Hun School of Princeton. That man knew everything! I had always enjoyed and even exceled in social studies and history courses throughout my years as a student, but in 11th grade Mr. Wilcox engaged us in a way no other teacher had: he made connections. I suddenly saw history as a living, breathing discipline as opposed to the study of dead men and dates. Now, this was before the age of pervasive technology use in the classroom. This was when textbooks were akin to gospel and that was how you learned everything about the past. Except in Wilcox’s class (He was the cool teacher who went by one name like Cher or Beyonce; No formalities needed). Mr. Wilcox would dive into rich lecture and discussion and presentations would be peppered with slide shows of his personal travels and anecdotes. He made whatever topic we were studying relevant to a group of teenagers. His expectations for us were unparalleled and we each worked hard to meet them because he empowered us to do so. Years later when I became a history teacher myself, his teaching was the meter stick to which I measured myself against. This year I will return to Hun for my 20th Reunion and can’t wait to thank Wilcox for “hooking” me on history.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
My favorite thing to do in my personal time is to travel and over the years I have been fortunate enough to do quite a bit of it. The majority of my travels have been to historical sites or small towns that would bring history to life. While some places like Williamsburg, Virginia, have been maintained for tourism, the most fascinating places are those that time has seemingly forgotten. Places where I am studying the past but enjoying the present, like learning to two-step in Cody, Wyoming, or bringing the house down at karaoke in Frankfort, Kentucky (It was a mic drop moment). In addition, during my travels I have connected with other educators or lovers of history, and formed friendships that have lasted years. I’m truly grateful for how full my life has become as a result of those travels.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
I began my career as a Special Ed teacher where I addressed all content areas but specifically the focus was on reading and math. In 2004, I was accepted into my first of four Teaching American History Grant programs and it changed the trajectory of my career. Working with and learning from historians, professors, and peers provided a laser focus for me and guided me into positions where I was able to spend more time with social studies content. As a cheerleader for social studies education I have also worked closely with amazing organizations like the Georgia Council for the Social Studies (GCSS), Georgia Council on Economic Education (GCEE), and other national organizations, that promote history and social studies education and best instructional practices within the disciplines.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
I once read a comic/cartoon that said “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to standby helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” I feel that History is not only the study of the past but the application of the skills that we want all citizens to possess: critical or analytical thinking and the ability to investigate multiple sources or perspectives before forming judgements. While the cartoon made me giggle with the idea of ‘it’s funny because it’s true,’ I know so many amazing individuals who do something with their knowledge—they advocate, organize, educate. That is what gives me hope for the continued growth of history education.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
Asking for a favorite aspect of history is like asking who your favorite student or child is! Based on my upbringing I am partial to colonial or revolutionary history. Teddy Roosevelt is my favorite president so I am a bit obsessed with history of the progressive era and his global reach. Essentially, I tend to shift my preference based on whatever I am reading or studying at the time but if I had to select one aspect, I would say that I am captivated by the history of pop-culture and how music, films, spirts, etc., have influenced American culture. I think this aspect of history is of particular fascination to me because of its fluidity. It is ever changing and it has always been a great way to connect with others.
6. What are some high points and low points of being a district social studies coordinator?
The high points of this position occur any time that I have the opportunity to interact with teachers. I have the pleasure of serving teachers in Henry County but my role as a district coordinator has afforded me the opportunity to work with teachers from around the state and country. I am inspired by them daily and through my dealings with them, am consistently reminded of the great responsibility of this role and how important it is for me to be their voice. The low points of being a district coordinator is that I often miss the students!

7. What trends or changes are happening in social studies education now?

I know that the saying goes, “The only thing is life you can count on is change” and feel confident that it must have been an educator who first coined the phrase. There are a number of things happening in education both at the state and national level but the trend I have seen pop-up the most is the idea of 21st Century Learning. This broad umbrella covers a number of initiatives including personalized learning, project-based learning, tech-enabled instruction, STEM, and so on. At the core of 21st Century Learning is the idea that we are charged with preparing students for jobs that have not yet been created. However, this also refers to preparing students to assume roles as citizens in a global community and that is where social studies education can be of the most support. This is daunting but also exciting because I immediately link it back to the study of history. This is not the first time that we have seen such seismic shifts in mindset or practice and my belief is that as long as we continue to build up great citizens and leaders, we will prepare our kids for whatever they choose to do after graduation.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

7 Questions with Lee Stuart, Army Aviation Heritage Foundation

Lee Stuart is a Native American Indian from the “Sappony” tribe in the North Carolina/Virginia area. He is a retired military officer with 30+ years of service. Drafted in 1967, he served in Vietnam and retired in June of 2002. He was an Airborne, Infantry, Ranger, Pathfinder, Master Scuba Diver, and Special Operations Aviator. During his career he was shot twice, grenaded once, accidentally bombed once and missed by the largest suicide bombers in Iraq, as a contractor, on 1 February 2004 when 114 people were killed, and 454 persons were wounded. “I survived all of those ordeals because of the strong prayers of my mother and grandmother.” He is now actively involved with the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation in Hampton Georgia.  For more information, see their website,

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?  
I never really took an interest in studying history when I was in high school because everything seemed so far away, irrelevant and not part of my little personal Jonesboro Georgia world. When I got drafted in 1967 and knew I was going to Vietnam, so I began studying the history of Vietnam. From then on I started intensely studying the different countries I would be stationed in.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?  
As a young Native American who was not raised on a Indian Reservation/Community like some of my other family members I was taught a different, (Non-Native American Indian), perspective/version of the United States and the History of Native Americans. Whenever I would return to visit my own tribe I started hearing different stories of our Tribal History than what was not printed and taught in the Non-Native American schools I attended. Since my generation knew that the various historical facts that were being presented about our tribe did not seem to jive with what we personally knew we applied for a grant to study and trace our tribal history to correct what was being published and taught/not taught in our schools.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?  
I learned very early on in my military career how important it was to understand the history of the region, country, culture and the people that I would be working with. This it made our abilities to accomplish our mission much easier.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?  
In my own personal career it was very critical to know everything we could about the history, culture, beliefs, values and mindset of those we interacted with. It was also important that we knew our U.S. History as well because many of the other countries have a different historical perspective/version of the United States of America. Being able to ensure they had a better understanding of our own history was critical to interacting with them.

In my own Tribe, (Sappony), it was very crucial for us to get the Truth and Real Facts about our own history in order to be recognized by the Federal and State Governments. Our history got very distorted over the years because nothing was written down or recorded so it has been a very intense tasking to research and recover the True History of our Tribe.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why? 
No matter where I was assigned or stationed I found it very interesting to immerse myself into that’s country’s culture where I learned a much better historical perspective than what was taught to me in the schools. I was known as the officer who would “Go Native” no matter where I was stationed which helped me have a much better understanding of what makes that country/culture tick. Which in turn it helped earn the respect of the people of that country because we understood their history.

My most favorite period or aspect of history is studying my own Tribal History. I have learned a lot about my Tribe through the use of new technology that was not available to my parents and elders back in their days.

6. What is the mission of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and how did it start?  
The Army Aviation Heritage Foundation (AAHF) is a national, one-of-a-kind non-profit all-volunteer organization composed of Veterans, their families, and civilian supporters.  The AAHF is acting to connect the American soldier to the American public as an active, accepted, and admired member of the American family by presenting the story of Army Aviation and the American soldier.  The AAHF is providing America an opportunity to hear its Veterans share their stories and see its military legacy in flight and in action.

7. Why is it important to preserve this part of history? 
AAHF offers a unique one-of-a-kind opportunity to actually experience the feelings, sights, sounds and smell of what it was like to fly in vintage Army combat aircraft. Going to a museum or looking at an aircraft on top of a static pole cannot begin to compare with the experiential emotional feelings that one encounters flying in these unique aircraft. It almost defies description.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

7 Questions With Jamie Jeffers, creator of The British History Podcast

Jamie Jeffers has a Juris Doctorate and a BA in English.  You could say that his entire educational career has been focused upon researching and developing compelling narratives, and he makes use of that experience here. He was born in the United Kingdom, but he has lived in the United States for much of his live.  In spite of that, he grew up with an intense love of British history. The podcast’s website is

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
My grandfather got me started on history. While I was born in Britain, I was raised mostly in the US and so my grandfather took it upon himself to make sure that I knew the history of my ancestors. Luckily, he was a gifted storyteller and would bring history to life as he recounted it. The result of this was that I developed a deep love of history and of storytelling.

That approach to history... the attention to the human side of it and the dramatic story that's unfolding... is something that I've maintained throughout my life and is something that I certainly bring to bear upon The British History Podcast.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
Communicating history is my profession. I live and breathe British history. It is almost the only thing I read, it dominates the vast majority of my day, and it is something that I'm always thinking about. As I walk to get coffee, I'm thinking about how events and individuals interact. As I'm cooking dinner, I'm thinking about the cultural incentives that influenced decisions and outcomes. When I'm at the pub with my partner, we're often talking about how best to tell a story so that the details are included but they are also presented in a way that will enable the audience to attach to the people involved. For me, history is an all-consuming passion.

3. What is the role of history in your professional life? career? 

It already is. I produce The British History Podcast full time. It's the best job I've ever had.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
Knowing history gives us a sense of place, which I feel is important. But I also think it's vital to know the complexity and nuance of history. All too often people prefer to get the mythological version of history. Many history outlets like to tell simple stories of good and bad people. It's clear why they do this... it's easy. However, I think that's dangerous and leads people to strange notions about the past and present.

For example, if you don't have a nuanced understanding of the cultures and events of the past, then you might be tempted to believe that the way things are perceived today are natural and timeless. That the common sense of today is exactly the same as the common sense of the past. That your culture is the same as the culture of your ancestors, and that your views are the same.

But the truth is that the past is a foreign country and there is no such thing as true "Englishness" any more than there is a universal "common sense" and I think it's important for us to always remember that.

Learning proper deep history, with all its complexity, reminds us that no monolithic explanation of any group of people. Not now, and not in the past. Moreover, it shows us that the truths that we feel are timeless and certain are anything but I would say that proper history teaches critical thinking, and I believe that's absolutely vital for society.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I'm a sucker for cultural history. I like to know how people saw things, how they did things, and why. I like to study the sociological reasons behind the dry events that are chronicled in books, so as to provide them context and better understand the people of the time. The where and when of history is important... but not nearly as important as the how and why. And often times, the answers to how and why can be found in culture.

6. What is The British History Podcast and how did it start?
The British History Podcast is a chronological telling of the story of Britain. I started in the Ice Age, and I've been steadily moving forward ever since.

There are several reasons for why I started it....

The first is because far too many people think they hate history, and instead what they hate is the way it was taught to them when they were young. Almost everyone loves stories, and our earliest histories came in the form of stories retold in social settings. The Podcasting environment allows us to reconnect to that ancient tradition of oral histories.

Second, something I'm rather passionate about is the democratization of knowledge. There tend to be a great deal of barriers between information and the people who seek it, often those barriers are economic, social, or geographic. The internet allows us to break through some of those barriers. And since history belongs to all of us, I think it's important that we make this information available.

And finally, this is the best creative outlet I've ever had. I absolutely love doing it!

7. What kinds of stories can listeners expect when they listen to your podcasts? What stories have stood out in your mind so far?
So far, we have covered the history of Britain from the last ice age up to the crowning of King Alfred the Great. Listeners will hear of the time when the island was once dominated by giant deer, they will hear of the invasions by Julius Caesar, they will hear of the rebellions of the Britons including the rebellion lead by the famous Boudica, and they will hear of the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of Anglo Saxon Britain.

It is with Anglo Saxon Britain that the show really gets its stride. The Anglo Saxons are a group of people that most people are only vaguely aware of but they are an absolutely fascinating culture. You will learn about kings who were chastised by the pope for sleeping with nuns, threatened mighty Charlemagne, and who took part in some of the greatest comeback stories of all time. You'll hear about Queens who have changed the course of history and who refused to be confined to mere window dressing.

You'll also hear about the culture of the times. Have you ever wondered what daily life was like for the Anglo Saxons? What their medicine looked like? How much alcohol they drank? How their military was organized? How they handled trade? What their economy looked like? How their houses were built? If you listen to the British History Podcast, you'll have all of these questions answered... and more.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

7 Questions with Regina Holland, Social Studies Teacher on Special Assignment

Regina has worked for Henry County Schools for 25 years as a Social Studies teacher, but teaching is a second career for me.  In addition to her educational masters and specialist degrees, she has a business degree from Georgia State University  and worked in the field of personnel for 6 years prior to entering education.  She has taught grades 4, 5, 7 and 8 in the subject areas of United States History and World Geography and currently serves Henry County Schools (Georgia) as a Teacher on Special Assignment serving secondary Social Studies teachers.  Her professional goals include continuing to work in curriculum and instruction and obtaining my doctoral degree.

1.   How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I didn’t get hooked on history until I got to college.  At Georgia State, I had a history professor that taught history using an inquiry design model, and this truly changed the lens through which I viewed historical events.

2.   What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
History has become one of favorite past times.  During my off time, you can probably find me exploring museums, touring historic sites, researching at the archives, library, and/or internet, rummaging through attics and basements, shopping at antique markets, watching documentaries, movies and/or television shows about historical events, and listening to stories about the past from the elderly (my favorite).

3.   How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
As a Social Studies teacher for the last 25 years, I feel blessed to be able to incorporate my love for history into my professional life and share that same passion with students.  In addition, being selected to participate in the Teaching American History grants for over a ten-year period really increased my content knowledge and passion for teaching history.

4.   Why is studying/knowing history important?
Studying and/or knowing history is important because of so many interesting reasons, but I think the major ones are:
  • First and foremost, studying history is fascinating!  Learning the trials, bravery, convictions, courage, mistakes, motivations, hope and triumph of the famous and not-so-famous faces in history and how they have shaped what the world is like today is inspiring.
  • Studying history helps us to better understand why things are the way they are today.  By studying the past, we can observe change and continuity and also explore the rational for why things occurred throughout time.
  • Studying history increases our problem solving skills because we are required to use a variety of thinking skills as we inquire, research, and develop our own opinions along the way.

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 modern Civil Rights Movement.  I think this is because I was born in 1963 right in the middle of when the nonviolent protesting of this movement was gaining national attention.  As an adult, I have always been interested in learning more about this inspirational and conflicted time in history.

6.   What does your job as a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) entail?
My job as Teacher on Special Assignment involves providing professional development and instructional coaching support to secondary social studies teachers toward the goal of increased student learning.

To accomplish this, I am responsible for the following:
  • attending workshops to enhance my professional staff development foundational knowledge and skills.
  • coordinating and presenting relevant workshops and in-service training to Social Studies teachers.
  • making presentations at Henry County Board of Education staff meetings to facilitate our vision for Social Studies.
  • modeling and coaching research-based effective instructional strategies in classrooms including student engagement, classroom management, teaching to standards and competencies, integrating writing across the content area, assessment techniques, feedback, and intervention.
  • presenting model lessons in classrooms.
  • visiting classrooms to provide observational feedback and support to teachers.
  • engaging in discussions with teachers to encourage reflection on effectiveness of teaching strategies.
  • supporting and participating in the Professional Learning Communities process at secondary schools.

7.   What are some high points and low points of being a social studies TOSA?
High points of my job include being able to assist teachers throughout our district in a variety of ways (sharing teaching lessons and strategies, supplying materials, and providing support and encouragement), serving as a liaison between our district and schools,  communicating what’s working and not working within our schools, and representing Henry County Schools to other districts in our state and nation.  The downside of my job is when I’m not able to provide materials and/or support to teachers because of budgeting reasons, time restraints, or nonalignment with the overall vision for Social Studies in our district.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

7 Questions with Eddie Bennett, Executive Director of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies

Eddie Bennett, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies. Dr. Bennett is a retired Cobb County Social Studies Coordinator and educator. 

1. How and/or when did you get hooked on history?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in history.  As a child our family vacations always included stops at state and national parks/historic sites.  On Sunday afternoons, our family drove around our community and my Dad would talk about the people and places he knew as a child.  Also, I was fortunate enough to live near grandparents and would listen to their stories of life before cars, planes, TV, radio, etc.  With great interest I looked at old photographs and asked a million questions.

2. What role does history play or has played in your personal life?
I travel just as much as possible inside and outside of the U.S.  On these trips I always visit museums and sites of historical interest and significance.  My summer 2016 major trip was to Cuba.  When people visit my home in North Georgia, they walk around and look at “stuff” just like in a museum because of the collection of old objects from both sides of my family.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
I majored in history at Mars Hill College.  I taught middle school for almost 9 years.  I taught social studies for all but the first year when I taught reading.  Of course, I found an old set of history books that were ideal for reading, so in reality I taught history the first year as well.  When I went to Pioneer Regional Educational Services Agency I was the social studies specialist in addition to being the Director of Staff Development.  After almost 2 years at the Georgia Department of Education as the Program Specialist for Social Studies, I was the Social Studies Supervisor in the Cobb County School District for 10 years.  After retiring in 2011, I went back to work in Cobb County in the ESOL/Foreign Language Department as a Graduation Specialist working with ESOL and immigrant students helping them to complete high school and get into college or technical college. I have taken advantage of many opportunities to travel and to work in various educational programs in the area of history and social studies.  I have been the Executive Director of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies since 1998.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
I believe that studying and knowing history helps me to understand my place in time.  I look back at the lives of my grandparents and parents and understand that who they were helped me to become who I am.  For example, my grandparents and parents lived through the Great Depression and World War II.  I come from a long line of farmers who struggled during the Depression to make enough money to raise their children, pay property taxes and hold onto their property.  Also, my Dad lost his younger brother in the South Pacific during WWII and my Mother lost her older brother in Germany during WWII.  All of these historical facts have shaped the way I think about the world and my place in it.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
My favorite period changes according to what I am reading or where I am traveling.  When I was at Mars Hill College, I accompanied a group of fellow students and our history professor Dr. Jolley (who at 96 is still reading, researching and writing) on a couple of trips.  The first one was “The Winter of 76”, north to Williamsburg, Philadelphia, Boston, Monticello, Vermont and various stops along the way.  The 2nd trip with Dr. Jolley was “Wonderlands South”, all the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyland Drive, Monticello, Mt. Vernon, Williamsburg, Jamestown, Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine, the Everglades, and Atlanta.  Just before I retired, I was able to participate in several outstanding Teaching American History grant trips including many periods and places in American History.  Those included the American West, the East as well as people and places in our own state of Georgia.

6. What is the mission of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies? 
The Mission of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies is to advocate for, support, and celebrate the advancement of quality social studies teaching for Georgia Students.

The Vision of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies is to prepare students to be knowledgeable, effective decision makers and engaged citizens in a globally interdependent world.

7. How is social studies education changing and how does GCSS reflect and support these changes?
For many, many years, history was taught as something that students should sit quietly, listen to the teacher’s lecture and take notes.  Of course, this is not the way we teach history any more.  Today, the best teachers look for ways to directly involve their students in learning about history through technology, primary source documents, travel to historic sites, etc. GCSS supports the work of history teachers by providing opportunities for teachers to learn new things at the GCSS Conference as well as allowing teachers to share the good things that they are learning.  Also, GCSS members were very involved in the work of standards revision this past year.  Also, GCSS keeps its members informed about professional learning opportunities as well as changes on the legislative and state board levels that affect the work of teachers.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

7 Questions With Chris Keating, Popstorian

Chris Keating runs the Facebook and Twitter accounts Popstorian and Historian. He also has a blog called The Weaving Chronicle where he discusses history and museum work. He graduated from Liberty University with a BS in History and is currently working on his Masters. He and his wife have been married for two years and are preparing to add a little girl to their family. To pay the bills, he also works as a tour guide at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, VA and James Monroe's Highland in Charlottesville, VA.

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I really enjoyed reading my history books in High School.  I enjoyed the trivia I could tell people and show how smart I was.  After school I had no plan for my life so I worked waiting tables and interned at a Youth Ministry.  While interning I began to pray about my life and what I should do with it, God reminded me of my love history and I went back to school.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
History should be studied by all because we all have a history. Understanding history in general can help us understand ourselves.  I would like to not hear how history is "sooo boring" and more "that was a cool story." 

3. Have you thought about your future career? Will history be a part of it?
Working at a museum is my dream job, whether that means curatorial or archival work I have not decided. My main mission is making history accessible to everyone.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
History reminds us of who we are and where we come from, this is the heritage aspect of history.  Even if you are not a history buff, history is worth studying to gain an understanding of human behavior and it develops ones reasoning skills.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I greatly enjoy early twentieth century American history.  That's when we can see the rise in some of our political debates and social thoughts that we go through today.

6. What is the focus of Popstorian and how did it start?
Popstorian is to look at the histories of our favorite films, music, comic books and anything popculture-ish. It's part of that plan to make history accessible to everyone.  I was working on my senior paper for college and I decided to write about the history of Batman during World War 2. It was difficult to find secondary sources (still is, not much scholarly work done on comic book history).  I thought other comic book fans would be interested in the history of the genre so I started a facebook page called Comicstorian. It was successful! I started getting likes and more likes but after a few folks complimented me on my Youtube channel (I didn't have a youtube channel) I figured out that "my fans" were actually Comicstorian fans (a youtube channel that reviews comic books). So I explained the mixup asked for suggestions on a new name and someone suggested "Pop-storian." The rest is history.

7. Why is pop culture an important part of history in general and how are comic books important to history in particular?

The study of pop culture is becoming more and more relevant to today's society.  from the newest comicbook movie to the Pokemon GO craze, it is still important to look and wonder how did we get here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

7 Questions with Jack Kelly, Author

 Jack Kelly is a novelist as well as a writer of popular history. He has published books about the 900-year history of the world’s first explosive (Gunpowder) and about the American Revolutionary War (Band of Giants). He lives near Rhinebeck, New York, a village founded in 1682. One of his ancestors fought in the Revolution. His latest book, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal, looks at the building of America’s most influential public works project and at the political and religious excitement that broke out in the canal region during the early nineteenth century.

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
As a kid, I visited Fort Niagara near Niagara Falls. I became fascinated by the reenactors in their scarlet uniforms, and by the guns and pageantry. Military history, then American history in general, has intrigued me ever since.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
I’m lucky to live in the Hudson Valley, where towns date back to colonial times and where many of the events of the Revolution played out. Every day I pass a house where General Israel Putnam made his headquarters. Up the road is the oldest operating American inn. I’m a strong advocate for historic preservation because I think the places and artifacts of the past are crucial to our collective imagination.

Have you thought about your future career? Will history be a part of it? 
Having written about the canal era, I’m moving on to write a book about the railroads and their role in shaping nineteenth century America.

Why is studying/knowing history important? 
Cicero said that not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child. Understanding the past informs each person’s judgment in ways that are elusive but very real. I think an understanding of history is a duty of citizenship.

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why? 
I am a fan of American History from the Revolutionary era through the nineteenth century. Whatever era I’m writing about becomes my favorite.

What is the story behind your new book Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal?
I grew up along the canal and very near Hill Cumorah where Joseph Smith found the golden plates that contained the Book of Mormon. The story of the visionary outbursts along the canal has always intrigued me. Researching the book, I developed an appreciation of the enormous impact the canal had on America’s history and character

Why is the construction of the Erie Canal such an important part of American history and why did it attract so many unusual characters?
The canal broke through the barrier of the Appalachian Mountains and speeded the settlement of the interior. It opened the Midwest and gave the nation easy access to the tremendous resources of the interior. The frontier – and western New York was the frontier in those days – attracted