Wednesday, March 22, 2017

7 Questions With Andrea Runnels, The Social Studies Whisperer

Andrea Runnels is a former classroom teacher from metro Atlanta turned full-time Social Studies consultant. She spent 16 and a half years in the classroom, primarily teaching 5th grade. She is ESOL and Gifted certified and also Montessori trained, which provides her with the experience and background to modify Social Studies for a wide range of learners. See her website at .

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I have been fascinated by American History ever since I was little. I remember being obsessed with The Oregon Trail in elementary school. I credit my interest in history to my parents and grandmother, who shared family stories and artifacts with my siblings and I which made that personal connection. We also visited Washington D.C. multiple times since my aunt lived in the area. I take a really vested interest because I can trace my roots back to the Mayflower on both sides of my lineage. I also come from a long line of military veterans which fills my heart with patriotic pride. Samuel Rogers, one of my ancestors, proudly displays his Union blues in a picture that hangs in my parents’ house and both of my grandfathers served during WWII! I was born at Fort Benning during my dad’s time in the army.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
History definitely plays a significant role in my personal life. I would say the majority of the books I have read in my life have been historical fiction. High school term paper? Gone with the Wind. Favorite movies? All historical fiction. I have visited many museums and historical spots in the south. As a parent I have tried to expose my kids to these experiences, too. Tried. Somehow I ended up with two math whizzes who barely tolerate my passion. For some odd reason, connecting with historical sights grounds me. When I lived in Snellville, I loved walking at the Yellow River Post Office Park. I would think about who may have visited that post office or wonder about the family that may have lived in the restored slave cabin.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
American History and writing have always been my favorite subjects to teach. I made it my mission to make instruction creative and engaging because I wanted students to have a mindset shift about history. I always integrated literacy into my content, too. I was super excited to serve on the Gwinnett County Social Studies Leadership Team last year because I already had the reputation as a “guru” at my local school. I began blogging and creating digital resources while still in the classroom. And along that journey I have built up a community of teachers through my Facebook group Social Studies Salute. After beginning live streaming, I watched my audience grow even more. I knew that teachers needed to hear what I have to say. I decided after a huge life epiphany that last year would be my final tour of duty in the classroom. Igniting a revolution to bring American History back is my calling and that vision spreads beyond four cinder block walls.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
To paraphrase the famous quote, “Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat it.” I think it is our duty as American citizens to understand the sacrifices and struggles that our forefathers have experienced to bring us to the way of life we are so fortunate to experience today. I feel that sometimes we take things for granted and complain about what I call “first world problems.” There are untold stories from the past that get left out of textbooks. Such regaling tales of overcoming adversity and perseverance and grit that students have no clue about. You can find inspiration for challenges you face by learning lessons from people in the past. Once on a Periscope broadcast, someone commented and said something about why history doesn’t matter and that we need to worry about what’s going in the news today. Well, his remark featured some far more colorful language. My response was that is exactly why we need to study history! Many of the issues involving race and civil rights are the remnants of decades of strife. They aren’t unique to 2016. I feel that if people really took a closer look at the struggle of Congressman John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. and the magnitude of what life was like in the 1960s their perspective would really change.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
WOW!! So hard to pick. I am definitely Team American History. I find the story of Pompeii really interesting but other than that I really favor my own country’s heritage. I LOVE learning about the Civil War and WWII and I don’t know if I could pick a favorite between those two. I think maybe it’s because I know my family members were a part of both. The movie Free State of Jones was such a powerful movie and just validated my mission. Sometimes I feel like I’m alone in spreading my love of American History (but obviously I’m not). I love learning about life on the home front during both time periods and getting to know the personal stories. The changing role of women during WWII and the gravity of the Tuskegee Airmen actually being in combat and the brilliance and bravery of the Navajo Code Talkers just floor me.

6. What makes you the Social Studies Whisperer? How did that come about?
I guess dubbing myself “The Social Studies Whisperer” sure means I better bring the awesome. My business and website used to be Running Things with Runnels, which was a play on words. To me it was a state of mind to help people run their classrooms more effectively. To others, it was a source of bewilderment for why I did not have tennis shoes and fitness tips. Well, as I left the classroom and got real with myself this summer about my clever pun I decided I should rebrand and clarify. What does the Dog Whisperer do? He takes challenging situations with sometimes insurmountable odds and reframes them into something that works for everyone. Well, essentially I know the odds are stacked against American History instruction. If there is one thing I am blessed with it is the ability to take an idea and spark another one. I know I can help teachers and homeschooling families fit in history when they feel like they don’t have time. Integrating literacy makes that excuse invalid. I always started my lessons in unique and engaging ways that really hooked kids and I feel like with a few tweaks other teachers can do the same. It is hard work trying to save the world but I feel strongly in my mission. I want to take what may seem like impossible odds and turn that around into something that teachers look forward to teaching. When I talk about American History and my passion my face lights up and people respond. When I write about it, words flow almost endlessly. I don’t want to tell people how to run their classrooms or homeschooling family. I hope that by sharing what I have done or resources I have created or found that I will inspire others.

7. What are the challenges in social studies educations today and why is it important to meet and overcome those challenges?
I often refer to Social Studies as the redheaded stepchild of education. And as a redhead myself, I can say that. There is such a push for Reading and Math, history gets lost in the shuffle. STEM is such a key component of instruction in the digital age. Don’t even get me started on testing being a problem. Teachers are forced to fly through curriculum to make sure kids are prepared for a test. If there is a shortage of time, what subject gets dropped? You guessed it. Many teachers loathe teaching history because they think it’s boring due to their connotation from their own schooling. Well, they are right! Just memorizing dates and places on a map using dusty, drab textbooks and mundane workbooks or worksheets is terribly dull. I believe in connecting the past to the present and infusing your own interests and passions into instruction. I really didn’t exactly love teaching Science so I taught it primarily through literacy. Kids can learn a lot writing song parodies about the Scientific Method. When teachers put their own spin on lessons and show enthusiasm kids will be so much more connected to the content. I know many teachers struggle with the wide range of learners in a class. That’s why I create a lot of products to modify instruction for English Language Learners so they feel included. That’s why I believe in incorporating music, pop culture, and the arts. If we don’t overcome the challenges and problem solve to make sure students learn history, I fear for the next generation. American History should be the first thing taught not the last.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

7 Questions with Jessica Spotswood, Author

Jessica Spotswood is the author of the historical fantasy trilogy The Cahill Witch Chronicles and the contemporary YA novel Wild Swans. She is also the editor of the historical anthology A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, and Other Badass Girls and the forthcoming The Radical Element (Candlewick, 2018). She lives in Washington, DC with her playwright husband and a very old cat named Monkey. Jessica also works for the DC Public Library as a children's library associate.

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I think I got hooked on history when I was in fifth grade and read Gone with the Wind. While I realize now that it's very problematic, at the time I was totally enchanted by Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. My grandmother was also very into genealogy at that time and compiled a family history that fascinated me. The summer I was twelve, my grandfather swam in the Senior Olympics in Baton Rouge and my grandmother took me along to tour historical houses and plantations along the River Road and in New Orleans. When I got home, I started writing the first of three sprawling GWTW knockoffs that I worked on throughout high school. They were all about headstrong girls who fought with their sisters and kissed boys and rode horses during the Civil War. (I fought with my sisters and rode horses and wanted to kiss boys?)

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
I grew up in a small town just outside Gettysburg, PA, site of perhaps the most definitive battle of the Civil War. As a child, my family took hikes and had picnics on the battlefield. As a teen, my friends and I hung out at Devil's Den and tried to take pictures of ghosts in Triangle Field. History felt tactile and ever-present to me. My father is an enormous history buff with a study full of books about generals and presidents and statesmen. I was fascinated with history, but I didn't see myself reflected in any of the history books or westerns on his shelves. Maybe that's why I fell in love so hard with Gone with the Wind; it was historical, but the heroine was a girl! 

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
My first published books, the Cahill Witch Chronicles, took place in an alternate version of 1890s New England where magic had been outlawed by the patriarchal priests of the Brotherhood. While it was alternate history, I did a lot of research into the fashion, home decor, technology, and etiquette of the 1890s and then shifted things a bit. And then in 2014 I had the idea to put together an anthology of historical fiction and fantasy about American girls throughout history, which became A Tyranny of Petticoats. 

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
I think it's important to know where we've come from in order to celebrate the accomplishments and triumphs -- and to realize the mistakes and injustices of the past so that we can hopefully prevent them from recurring. Plus, there are lots of awfully good stories.

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I'm pretty fascinated by the latter part of the Victorian era. I think there's something about the contrast of the old-fashioned romance of the Victorian upper class - carriages and gas lights and corsets - with the beginning of modern social movements, particularly the suffragettes!

6. You recently edited A Tyranny of Petticoats. Please tell us about it.
The contributions of women - especially women of color and queer women - have too often been erased from history. Tyranny is fifteen short stories about girls throughout American history, from an escaped slave girl posing as a sailor boy on board a pirate ship off the coast of the British North America in 1710 to a black girl who's protesting Vietnam with her girlfriend and gets caught up in the riots of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. 

The official blurb is: Crisscross America - on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains - from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today's most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They're making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell. 

7. What are the hallmarks of successful young adult historical fiction?
I think successful YA historical fiction gives a sort of wonderful texture to history by strongly anchoring it in the specific details (fashion, food, music, home decor, etiquette, politics) of an era while also showing how its themes are relevant today. A great example for me is Kekla Magoon's beautiful story "The Pulse of the Panthers," set in 1968 California, in which the Black Panthers' visit to a young black girl's farm prompts her to learn the truth about her grandfather's death. It combines the personal with the political and feels very firmly set in the 1960s but also (unfortunately) still very resonant.