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An Interview with The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine Author, Mark Wilensky.
Mark Wilensky, author of The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine: An Interactive Adaptation for All Ages, recently discussed his new book with Sarah Keeney of Savas Beatie LLC and how he hopes readers will benefit from reading it.
: Mr. Wilensky, why did you choose to write a book about and around Common Sense? There are other, more recognizable historic documents from that time period.
MW: To me, Common Sense is just about the perfect early American document to use. It provides a dramatic framework of what was happening in colonial America at its tipping point. Plus, it's a complete rant, a biting list of complaints, and an overall amazing piece of persuasive writing. My students love that. They, like most people today, understand and enjoy complaining about what they see as injustices as much as people did 230 years ago. The document speaks through history.
: Being a fifth grade teacher, did you see a need for a book like this in the classroom?
MW: Yes, definitely. Colonial America and the Revolutionary War are taught in schools starting at the elementary level. The subject is so large and so complex, there are literally thousands of ways a teacher can approach the subject. Much of school curriculum centers on taxation as the main motivator of colonial dissatisfaction with colonial England, not on the restrictions of those freedoms which the colonists enjoyed. Not only that, much of the curriculum out there is just a lot of sanitized text books, work sheets, and overly fluffy material. I believe that if you really want students to know how our country began, they need to read the documents of the time.
: I imagine that reading these documents could be challenging for anyone, especially children.
MW: Yes. At best, they are problematic to read. Some S's look like F's, spelling varies greatly, and imagery of common everyday events of that time create other comprehension issues. There have also been some significant changes in grammar and sentence structure over the past two centuries. These obstacles understandably turn off a great number of people who genuinely would like to learn about and read the documents of our origins. (Laughing.) That's where The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine comes in.
: So your book provides a helping hand, so to speak?
MW: Yes, that was my goal. Reading older documents takes skill and help. And this is what teachers are trained to do: give learners a lot of help at first, and then slowly remove the help as the learned gets more self-directed. Moreover, if you don't adapt some of these texts from colonial times, or put a tremendous amount of context around them, students of all ages will struggle with them, set them aside, and probably just rent The Patriot video. That is not history education.
: Are you worried that some will criticize a "modernization" of the document?
MW: Perhaps, but I think it would be somewhat misguided criticism. Years ago, I read adapted versions of great literature. Treasure Island, books by Mark Twain, and other authors inspired my love of reading. They were a perfect introduction to great books, presented at a level I could understand at the time. It would be hard for me to imagine any historian or teacher criticizing anything that would spark a person's interest in our beginnings as a country.
: In a nutshell, can you explain what material you included in the book?
MW: That may require some time to answer. (Laughing.) There's a lot of information packed within these pages, but I will try. After setting the tone for the time period by explaining the events leading up to Paine publishing Common Sense and a brief look at the government of the time, I have included an adapted version of Common Sense that is easy for readers of today to understand. There is also a section about commerce in the colonies, coins in the colonies (with some cool pictures), and adapted versions and discussion of other important writings such as The Quartering Act and The Olive Branch Petition. After this I have included activities that can be done at home or incorporated into school curriculum. Finally, I have included the original text of Common Sense for those who may be interested in reading it or comparing it to the adapted text. I carefully designed it to include something for everyone.
: Will readers be able to read and comprehend the original Common Sense and other founding documents after reading the adapted version?
MW: This was my goal from the very beginning. The original Common Sense document is a national treasure and should be read by as many people as possible. No one can put a looking glass over past events and accurately theorize what would or would not have happened had the original never been printed, but I am willing to guess our country would be significantly different today. I believe my adaptation will introduce a great number of new people, of all ages, to Common Sense and then hopefully they will continue to read other historic documents. Democracy is a very fragile thing. Its future caretakers need to be nurtured from generation to generation. I think it is paramount that we all read our founding documents so we are constantly reminded of how lucky we are.
: Any specific examples of how someone reading Common Sense today can relate to Paine's writing?
MW: Here's one: Paine writes that colonial America was like a teenager ready to leave home. Who today can't relate to that statement?! Common Sense inspires great discussions and immediate understanding of why people of the time were motivated to deconstruct their cultural identity and break from England.
: Why do you think it is important for readers to have access to all the content you included in the book, instead of just reading the adapted version of Common Sense by itself?
MW: I believed it was important to include other documents and information to give readers a sense of the everyday pressures during that time. The British closed Boston harbor after the Boston Tea Party, and that created a financial disaster for Boston and other colonies along the eastern seaboard. Paine writes extensively of the hardships, so I adapted the Boston Port Act to give readers a broader understanding of the situation. I also adapted the Olive Branch Petition to show that the majority of colonists still considered themselves lifelong British citizens and really wanted to make up with Parliament. King George III refused them, so I adapted his response to the colonists. The timeline at the beginning of the book creates a sense of urgency that Common Sense speaks to directly. There are also lots of humorous illustrations sprinkled throughout the text to make some of the more complex points more understandable.
: I found those entertaining, and I also enjoyed the activities in the back of the book. I imagine those are perfect for classroom, supplementary, or home-school use.
MW: Yes, these activities can be done in the classroom, parents can adapt them at home, or people who teach at home can use them. They are all fun, but each is education as well. I've also included facts about coins and the lack of pocket change, and much more. All of it accessible to all ages.
: I know you originally self-published a version of your book. What kind of feedback did you get from people who read it?
MW: Well, first and foremost, the biggest surprise was that I did get feedback. The book was only available on Amazon and at several local bookstores in Colorado. It was not by any means a traditional distribution, so many readers had to put in extra effort to let me know their thoughts. I was really appreciative that people took the time to write me, and their feedback was overwhelmingly positive and constructive.
: Did any feedback you received surprise you?
MW: I was amazed at the varied cross-section of people who bought the book. Generally, when writing a book you have in mind a specific audience you think will buy and enjoy it. However, my Common Sense book immediately crossed over to all age levels. I found myself filling order for professors, university students, our military, home-schoolers, classroom teachers, and youth groups, just to name a few.
: You mentioned that you use the book in teaching fifth grade, and that college history professors and students are interested in it as well. What age range is your book appropriate for?
MW: Every age group. And I mean that sincerely. I want everyone to read Common Sense and wonder, as I do, why an original copy is not in the National Archives right next to the Declaration of Independence. I truly think that it is on that level of importance.
: Can you tell our readers about the interactive portion of your book and website?
MW: This is something very cutting-edge and exciting. Thomas Paine's Common Sense brought together a great deal of information for his readers in colonial America. I realized while I was adapting it that there was a tremendous amount of information I could share as well. My publisher, Theodore "Ted" Savas, director of Savas Beatie, was unbelievably generous to allow me to include a tremendous amount of related and interesting material in the book. But I had many more primary sources and documents that teachers would appreciate for their classroom, and additional information for readers who wanted even more. Ted suggested the interactive aspect-he has and is incorporating that into several of his company's books. So, on my website readers will find pictures and video clips shot on location at famous pre-revolutionary sites, additional teaching resources, many of the activities in the book that can be performed online, or printed and used offline, and a lot more. And I will be regularly updating the site in this regard.
: I know readers will want to dig into your website after spending some time with the book. Where can they go?
MW: The address is www.newcommonsensebook.com
: Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine?
MW: I want a whole new group of budding historians to read it and think about all the discussions that took place in colonial America after the original pamphlet was printed. History is not a done deal. There will always be new questions to ask and to try to answer. Different people will always view history with different perspectives, and find the almost infinite number of stories worth telling and exploring. My hope is that this book continues to inspire great history discussions.
: I think Common Sense will do just that. Thanks for your time, Mr. Wilensky.
MW: You're welcome, it was my pleasure
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Colonial America was a continent with multiple cultures and customs spanning vast geographic distances. Tom Paine's amazing persuasive essay Common Sense unified these seemingly conflicting characteristics into an extraordinary vision.
Read the documents that set the world in motion.
Mr. Wilensky is a fifth-grade teacher in Jefferson County Colorado, where he has been accused of teaching his Colonial America and Revolutionary War classes with enthusiastic zeal. Read More...