New magazines make history sparkle for kids


Malcolm Jensen sits in the publisher's seat of one of the most quietly successful educational magazines in America. And he does so with a dog at his feet and a charming New England town outside his office window.

Against this idyllic backdrop, he calls the shots for the Cobblestone Publishing Co., an outfit that's been in business since 1980 and isn't resting on its laurels.

The flagship of a growing fleet of award-winning magazines, Cobblestone aims its American history lessons at readers in Grades 4 to 9. Three related publications serve the same audience: Calliope on world history, Faces on world cultures, and Odyssey on science.

But as of September, Mr. Jensen and his team are sailing boldly into largely unchartered waters with a trio of new periodicals. One is focused on California's rich heritage, California Chronicles; another, Appleseeds, is geared at developing vocabulary, geography, math, and science skills among second-, third-, and fourth-graders. The third, about African-American history, Footsteps, is scheduled for January.

Cobblestone's staff has good reason to be encouraged. Last year, eight magazines made the recommended reading list for meeting the national middle-school language-arts performance standards, and half of them carry the Cobblestone name.

"We're pretty psyched about this," Jensen says. "It means that not just social-studies people, but language-arts and reading people will say, 'Hey, this is good stuff.'"

Cobblestone's magazines aren't on newsstands, but are well known in educational circles. Sales are largely to schools, with only about 20 percent sent to homes - often home-schooling families in need of alternative learning materials. Circulation ranges from 9,000 for Calliope to 32,000 for Cobblestone, which is sent to 30,000 schools.

Historical themes

The company looks at what is taught in the schools and how its magazines can impart the same basic knowledge in a different manner. Each issue of Cobblestone (nine per year) is built around a historical theme. Among the themes for the current school year: the Battle of Vicksburg, Andrew Carnegie, homesteading, and the Spanish-American War.

"The subjects we pick either complement or bear some relationship to what the kids have to learn," Jensen explains. Since this is often optional reading, much effort goes into presenting the subject matter not only with well-defined articles but also with photographs, original art, maps, activities, and contests.

Linda Boaen, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in California, discovered Cobblestone publications years ago while teaching in the inner city. Challenged to engage students performing far below their grade level, she used Cobblestone stories to bring history to life.

Today she is a mentor teacher at the Baird Magnet School in Fresno, where world cultures and agribusiness are a focus. In planning three annual school festivals, she uses Faces magazine on cultures as a major resource.

In the classroom, she loves the way Cobblestone allows students to "take a microscopic look into a pinpointed time in history."

For example, the Salem witch trials can be difficult to teach, she says. But by using three Cobblestone issues on the trials, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court, she has developed a unit on law and justice.

Jensen says that Cobblestone's expanded publishing footprint has been spawned by E.D. Hirsch's books about cultural literacy, which define what every child supposedly needs to know. "What core knowledge is all about," Jensen says, "is upping the ante in terms of expectations. Indications are that this kind of ramping up is going to continue, and if it does [Cobblestone's business] is certainly going to be OK."

Cobblestone's history magazines offer a fuller examination of events than textbooks usually provide. A fifth-grader's 500-page history book, for example, might only devote a page to Lewis and Clark. Cobblestone, by contrast, dedicates an entire 48-page issue to the subject.

Perennial favorites

Certain themes are perennial favorites and generate back-issue sales - a major source of income. Marketing manager Manuela Meier estimates that the Lewis and Clark issue, which first appeared in 1981, has been reprinted four or five times.

"Every year they teach this in fourth or fifth grade," she notes, adding that Cobblestone benefits from renewed interest in nonfiction for young readers.

Cobblestone's various magazines are compact (32 to 48 pages), but solid scholarship goes into each issue. Recognized experts (often professors) are named as consulting editors for every magazine. They basically steer and backstop the production and help identify writers.

They do it "out of the love of the subject," Jensen explains. "We don't pay them because we can't. If we did it would blow our budget for the the whole issue."

* For subscriptions call 800-821-0115; write: Cobblestone Publishing Co., 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, N.H., 03458; or e-mail

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