My mantra as a nonfiction author has always been to have fun. As a mother navigating home schooling, my new mantra is to teach with fun. That doesn’t mean my house is the Wild West with kids flinging slime at the walls all day (that’s only part of the day). I’ve filled this new frontier with routines that keep us all sane and allow for wiggle room. Here’s where non-traditional textbooks can come in handy, including my own Changed History series.
History shouldn’t—and I’d argue, can’t—be boring. Boring is the death knell for an engaged mind. When I look for ways to bring learning to life, it simply means having fun with intent. Don’t worry, if you’re feeling frazzled, I have plenty of ideas and guides to help.
There are a billion distractions at home (approximately), so make it memorable. Rummage for a wig! Make an Elizabethan ruffle from a coffee filter! Draw fake wooden teeth and then hunt for the truth about George Washington’s bite. A historian is nothing more than a detective searching through the threads of time. Why not get out a magnifying glass to examine George Washington’s real dentures online at Mount Vernon. I even have a close-up in my book, Famous Phonies: Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History? While you’re creating and playing dress up, you’re learning. It’s thrilling to see these primary sources even from the comfort of home. Did you know that George Washington wore hippo teeth? Or that he had a traveling toothbrush kit that the British captured? It’s true! And then they wrote letters to the king making fun of the fact he traveled with his toothbrush. (Oral hygiene wasn’t a thing…)
My free teachers’ guide is easily transferred from the classroom to the living room. Each chapter presents tons of ideas for games involving critical thinking, but one of my favorites is about Prester John.
That’s right. Prester John.
While not a household name, he literally shaped our world. Even crazier—he never existed. He was a hoax, a ploy, a plot to get men to agree to crusade in the Middle Ages. Church leaders claimed he had the secret to immortality and rivers of riches in his kingdom just beyond the mountains. All they had to do was fight through the Holy Land to reach him. When the crusaders failed to find him, a new generation used a letter from “Prester John” to urge men to travel the world and find these riches, jumpstarting the Age of Discovery. Even Columbus mentioned him in his diary. From the 1100s to the 1600s, Prester John inspired men to seek, to travel, to explore.
Let’s all be armchair explorers today, in honor of the original, secret author of Prester John. One fun way to bring Prester John to life is to research the letters online and draw pictures of the kingdom he describes. Create a colorful travel poster for the “Far East”. Start a pirate diary complete with maps and entries from the point of view of a sailor looking for gold and glory—and Prester John. What were travel conditions like on a ship in the fifteenth century? And why did people continue to believe he was out there, even after hundreds of years of searching with no sighting of the Fountain of Youth or river of gold? (That we know of…)
Find the free guide with more activities as well as footnotes to my books on my website and make sure to tag me on social media when you’re done. I can’t wait to see what your explorers create!
Finally, in times of crisis, we turn to comfort. Self-care for me includes escaping into beloved books. I’ve always found a few hours in Narnia or Hogwarts helped to put things in perspective. When teaching feels too monumental, we simply take this time to nurture a love of reading in our little ones. This simple act of togetherness will resonate far longer than any social distancing.
Brianna DuMont rewrites history for middle graders in her humorous Changed History series. Her first book, Famous Phonies: Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History, debuted in 2014 and is featured in the Scholastic Book Club. Fantastic Fugitives: Criminals, Cutthroats, and Rebels Who Changed History was a 2016 Illinois Reads pick. Thrilling Thieves: Liars, Cheats, and Cons was chosen for a 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection. She teamed up with National Geographic Kids to write Weird but True Know-it-All: U.S. Presidents in 2017. She’s currently finishing up a middle grade adventure novel about twins accidently waking up the ancient (and grumpy) Mesopotamian gods. Look for it in Fall 2020! Brianna lives in Chicago with her husband, two kids, two cats, a fish, and a snail, but you can visit her at: www.briannadumont.com Find her online, download the free resource guide, schedule a Skype visit, or ask her a question@brianna_dumont