Lessons from the Field: Interview with Brent Colley

This post is part of the Teachers Certification Map’s “lessons from the field”, a series of posts featuring passionate, inspiring educators from across the country discussing some of the lessons that they have learned over the years that would help young teachers as they embark on their careers.

Brent Colley teaches both students and teachers about the historical fiction novel, My Brother Sam is Dead. Brent believes the best way to use this novel in the classroom is to explore the issues My Brother Sam is Dead highlights where each chapter is geared toward giving us a better understanding of the hardships caused by the American Revolution and the affect it had on individuals, their families, their churches, their towns, their neighbors.

Brent has been using the internet as a teaching tool for 12 years, and My Brother Sam is Dead came into play about 3 years ago.

Below is our interview with Brent:

How do you use internet analytics to cater to your students?

I use my web traffic reports to see what information students and teachers are most interested in then add content accordingly. The MBSD pages had over 300,000 views in 2009, so I focus quite a bit on the novel.

What inspired you to teach?

3 years ago I began receiving e-mails about William Heron, I didn’t think too much about it while replying to them, but then more and more came in…who was Ned? Where did Mr. Beach live? Where is Tim Meeker buried?, etc… It finally occurred to me that My Brother Sam is Dead was the source of the questions and I decided it was time to re-visit the story I had enjoyed so many years ago. The local librarian was a bit puzzled at my request (why would a 36 year old want to read this?), but a copy of My Brother Sam is Dead was obtained and over the course of two days I was enamored again with the brilliant narrative of Timothy Meeker’s trials and tribulations during the early stages of the Revolutionary War.

I quickly realized how much I had missed, historically, the first time around. Growing up in Redding I was surrounded by all that Tim Meeker spoke of in the book, there was so much I could have explored… but I was only 12 years old and I never made the connection. More importantly was the realization that an examination of My Brother Sam is Dead was an opportunity to prevent children of the current generation from missing out on all the great history around them, like I had. The focus of the online guide to My Brother Sam is Dead relates largely to Redding, Connecticut but it does also extend to topics, events and people outside of Redding.

What classroom methods are most helpful in pushing students towards their goals?

You need to get the students excited about the topic they will be studying and the best way to do that is to connect them to the topic. How I accomplish that is by explaining to them that their town was involved in the Revolutionary War too, I bring out journals of soldiers from their town and read them outloud, I show them town records that note the activities of their town during the Revolutionary War, I note if there was an Anglican Church, a Tavern, a local spy, a cattle thief, etc… The idea being they begin to see the story as more than just a story, they realize that these things really happened.

The Bus Tour of Redding is my favor method to achieve this goal because on this tour the children get to stand in a graveyard that contains the gravestones of several characters in the book, they see the location of Meeker’s Tavern, they see the Church that Mr. Beach preached in, the bullet logged in the wall where a Rebel shot at him, they see William Heron’s home lot, the field Sam and Tim raced across, a memorial stone dedicated to Ned…then it’s off to Putnam Park where they see a real Brown Bess, the huts the soldiers lived in that winter, the uniforms they wore, the conditions of the camps. By the end of the day, they’ve gone from a group of disinterested 6th graders to excited, surprised and enthusiastic-

“I can’t believe I saw what we read in the book. I thought that was very cool!! I had so much fun, especially when you showed us the graves at Redding Ridge. I never knew Tim and Sam were fictional. It’s so surprising that I never knew how involved Danbury was [in the Revolution], yet I lived there for so long.”

What is the one thing you wish you’d known when you started in the classroom?

I wish I’d realized how powerful a teaching tool historical fiction novels can be. Once students become immersed in the novel’s setting, character, plot and theme, they become interested and stimulated by the novel’s story. They begin to absorb the historical details in the novel without even realizing they are being instructed. In contrast, if these same historical facts were presented in a textbook and the teacher asked the students to memorize or know them, it is likely that little information would be retained by many students.