What I'm Reading: Sarah Vowell's "Wordy Shipmates"


Margaret Smith Crocco



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That's me at AACTE a couple of years ago. It seems an appropriate photo for a "talking head."

Hi, readers! I do hope you’re out there and that things are fine with you as you read this.

 First, let me introduce myself. Then, I’ll share my plan for the blog.

 I’m a “seasoned” teacher educator who has worked in three colleges of education. I am professor emeritus at Teachers College, Columbia University, and am in my fifth year at Michigan State University, where I chair the Department of Teacher Education. I’ve also worked at the University of Iowa, and have taught American History and American Studies in several other higher education institutions, along with eight years teaching high school social studies in New Jersey. 

For this blog, I thought about what I might bring to the enterprise that is distinctive. As I reflected back about what friends and students have said to me over the years, I recognized that many people have commented on all the reading I do. Thus, I decided to focus the blog on “what I’m reading” and see if I can offer, besides a preview of the work, some ideas about how the book might be used in social studies.

On this maiden voyage, I’m going to start with a book that may be familiar to some of you, Sarah Vowell’s Wordy Shipmates (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), about the Puritans of 17th century New England, including John Winthrop. Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson.

Vowell has written a half-dozen books of non-fiction on topics related to American history and culture. The attractions of Vowell’s works are many. She is funny, irreverent, and thought- provoking, linking present-day concerns to history. In Wordy Shipmates, she takes the Puritans seriously; she has read Perry Miller, but doesn’t dwell long on his magisterial writing about them. She finds things to love and to abhor in who the Puritans were and the way they operated. If you’re teaching about early New England, and trying to recapture the always challenging character of the Puritans for 21st century students, the book – in whole or in part – has a great deal to recommend it. 

Vowell’s tone is amusing and amused, and even snarky at times. She lives in Brooklyn, so need I say more? Snark is a fine art in that borough. In fact, two of my favorite authors from this summer’s reading (Vowell and Robert Sapolsky—more on his book, Behave, in a subsequent post) both hale from Brooklyn. Given Vowell’s conclusions, doing inquiry-oriented lessons on the Puritans using the C3 Framework, perhaps contrasting her views with those in the students’ textbooks could be fun. And who ever thinks of fun when they think of teaching about the Puritans?

 Since my husband just reminded me that his favorite sermons at church are 3 minutes in length, I’m going to wrap this up with just one more quick comment: The book is highly readable, even with a length of over 200 pages. Reading Vowell is like reading Daniel Silva —something else I did this summer. It moves really quickly.

 Let me know what you think! I’d love to see your comments about Vowell, the Puritans, or your own summer reading.