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THE JOHNNY APPLESEED OF HISTORY
This Thursday's second installment of the Respite By The River reading series features the popular educator/entertainer/historian Bill Coate reading from his book Twist In Time.
But "reading" might be the wrong word, since Coate's performances are more participatory and entertaining than the word suggests. He is a storyteller first, in the sense that through stories, he brings history alive and back into people's lives.
Coate, a former finalist for California Teacher of the Year who retired this year, has won many accolades in 33 years of teaching, among them the National History Teacher of the Year, and the Disney American Teacher Award for his innovative and creative approach to teaching history. His Madera Method of history education through interaction with primary source material is nationally lauded.
Community journalist David Hurst spoke with Coate about his teaching experiences, his unique performances of history, and his plans to bring narrative history alive all across the country.
Have you always been enthralled by history?
Yes, in a way -- it really took off in college. ... For the past 33 years, I've made my living from history. The thing that is propelling me, now that I have come out of the classroom this year, with retirement, is the very real possibility that America is losing its memory. I speak of historical illiteracy. So, I am taking this book [Twist In Time] to share in the hope that we can get somebody to read history who normally would not have done so.
You have said that you believe in "narrative history." What does that mean?
I'm not simply using storytelling or narrative history to promote history; what I'm doing is, I'm harkening back to something that is woven into the very fabric of our humanness. We are creatures of storytellers. We just have to hearken back to what makes us human and part of that is storytelling.
What intrigues me about your book and your presentations is the human element that seemed to be left out of the textbook and rote learning that characterized many people's history educations.
There is a tendency for many ivory-towered sophisticates to look down upon storytelling for being not quite as rigorous, not quite as true -- quite the contrary. You can take a good story and it becomes a vehicle for mediating history, whereas you can take a dry old monograph of facts and it doesn't do anything [to inspire].
Is that why sometimes you hear people say history is boring?
I think history is boring because it has been taught in an atrocious, abominably sterile manner. The reason we like a story is because we connect, and we realize after a while that we are connected to something internal. Storytelling can really bring you to grips with the human experience.
Perhaps because we connect with the emotions we have of an event.
Yes, that's a good point. The scholar is aiming for "objectivity," which translated means "lack of emotion and all linear thinking." Well, I don't buy that. We can write and research -- all of my stories are researched, and written from a human perspective and with human understanding, and we need to become more emotional about history.
So it would be safe to say that your performance for the Respite By The River won't be a dry reading of history.
No it's not. The audience gets involved. I will read at least one story, but I don't want to just read stories out of my book — that's not me. I like to move around, roam around, look them square in the eyes, and I want to connect with them.
How did the idea germinate for the Madera Method, where kids not only research local historical figures, but imagine themselves back in the life and times?
It happened in 1984; I can take you directly to the spot. I was told about three old graves on the banks of the Chowchilla River. Minturn was the last name and I knew they were important, but I went into town and nobody knew anything about them. So I got my class and we did the research from primary source documents, wrote a book, and we resurrected a forgotten family that had fallen through the cracks of our collective consciousness. And the kids (and I all of a sudden) found more -- one of the most compelling experiences of my life -- and I would not teach the same way again. We went back to the cemeteries every year since, until I retired this year.
What is the effect of that type of learning experience?
It teaches the students to assimilate the research: you take the facts that you've drawn and now you find out what else was happening in this area and in the nation that would have affected these facts. We move toward synthesis, where students write their own stories based on their research. I call it "brains and belly." Not only their minds, but their emotions are involved.
I get the impression that the history textbook is just a jumping off point for you.
I never used it. Well, that's not entirely true. I used it as a reference, but it was not the core; it was a tool that we used. ... It's probably a good thing that I'm retired now. I didn't leave education, education left me. History is just being squeezed out.
I wonder how much leeway an instructor has these days.
Well, that's just it. Administrators have to consider the [test scores]. They have benchmarks. So you ask, well, what's in the future? I don't know. That's why I'm going into the public arena. And when I go on a tour — I've got a tour coming up in September [for the second book in the Twist in Time series] -- I'll be doing book signings in Barnes & Noble and Borders and Waldenbooks and all those. But at the same time I'll be speaking to senior and junior high schools and I'll be speaking to service clubs about the need to sow the seeds of history education. My Hooked On History program, that's my baby, that's how I'm reaching kid by kid, twenty kids here, fifty kids there. ... My goal, really, is to be the Johnny Appleseed of history.
Why Johnny Appleseed?
When I go on these tours, my goal within a year is to have spoken and delivered books for kids to every state in the 48 contiguous states. That's my goal.
This, then, is a way to augment what you think is lacking in the schools.
That's right. And others may pick it up. It isn't that hard to find some blank spots in American History and write about them.
I wanted to ask you what's percolating for you future, but I guess the "Johnny Appleseed of history" says it all.
Doesn't that just ring true? You know, you go into Omaha, Nebraska, and you've got book signings scheduled, but then in between, you're going to go to this junior high school or this Rotary Club or this Lion's Club and you're going to tell them about Hooked On History and how you were just at such-and-such high school and you know some kids who will read that book if you'll buy it for them. ... Multiply that by 48 states and it's an absolutely titillating experience.
It's the 1984 cemetery all over again.
You're absolutely right.
Visit the KFSR website for details on Coate's appearance at Thursday's installment of Respite By The River.