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Duo's book makes history anything but boring

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Sunday News

November 13. 2017 10:44PM

Emilia Whippie Prior of Westmoreland, co-author of "The Patriot Papers," talks to fellow teachers in Peterborough last June about how to integrate civics into the classroom. (MEGHAN PIERCE/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT)

“The Patriot Papers” introduces students to the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. (COURTESY)

Who says studying history has to be boring?

Certainly not the husband-wife team of JJ Prior and Emilia Whippie Prior of Westmoreland.

Both teachers, they’re the authors of “The Patriot Papers,” which introduces students to the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

JJ Prior grew up near Boston and was always interested in colonial history. When his wife got a call from a friend who works for a publisher, asking if they’d be willing to write a textbook about the founding documents, they knew right away they wanted to include the actual texts.

“That’s what makes the book different,” Prior said.

“We wanted to make sure these documents could be accessible to students, and not assume that they couldn’t handle it,” said his wife, who goes by “Ms. Whippie” in her classroom.

They worked hard to make the texts accessible for elementary-school kids. There are definitions of difficult vocabulary words, and a timeline of important milestones in the new nation’s development.

“Fun facts” liven the text. For instance, it notes that the signatures on the Declaration were arranged based on geographic location; so delegates from New Hampshire, the northernmost colony, signed first after John Hancock. And there are touches of humor and “kid-speak” throughout.

In the section where the Declaration lays out a list of grievances against the king of England, the authors illustrate an historical painting with thought bubbles.

“That might have been a little harsh, don’t you think?” one signer asks. “King George didn’t personally do all that.”

“Yeah, but this will really get people fired up!” another replies.

Those asides and explanations were Whippie’s favorite contribution to the work, she said. She takes the same approach in her classroom, using skits and funny comments to draw students into history.

She likens their division of labor in writing the book to how Thomas Jefferson and John Adams worked together to craft the Declaration. “I like to say I am the Adams to JJ’s Jefferson,” she said. “He did a lot of the introductions and analytical components; I really enjoyed doing the annotations and the thought bubbles.”

The book is a great fit for middle-school kids, Whippie said. “They have this great sense of justice,” she said. “In talking about injustice, they get really fired up.”

So when they study the Declaration, they’re intrigued to discover that the colonists’ beefs were primarily about unfair treatment by the king of England — and that the founding documents were created “to help things be more fair,” she said.

The book is finding favor with some high schools and adults as well, the authors said. “I had a parent of a student who read it and told me she had learned a lot from it,” Whippie said.

The Declaration is a little easier for kids to understand, she said, “because it was this breakup letter.” The Constitution is a bit denser for kids to absorb; in the introduction to “The Patriot Papers,” Prior calls it “an instruction manual for the whole government.”

“It’s important for kids to know that our country operates the way that it does because people designed it that way,” he said. “It’s not just by happenstance.”

The book features biographies of Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams; as well as lesser-known figures such as Emily Geiger, who carried secret instructions for the colonial army, and Crispus Attucks, an African-American sailor who was the first man killed in the Boston Massacre.

The couple met as counselors at a summer camp in Richmond. They both went to Keene State College and double-majored in education and social science. They’ve been together for 10 years and married for five.

Whippie teaches at Nelson Elementary School; Prior at Fuller Elementary School in Keene.

They don’t know how many schools are using their book. But they have found it for sale in such historical locations as Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and the bookstore at James Madison’s home. The “crowning glory,” they said, was getting word that their book is in the gift shop at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“Under the same roof as the actual documents themselves,” Prior said proudly.

swickham@unionleader.com


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