Our Best Loved History Resources

As I explained (or, you know, shamelessly bragged out) in my last post, we finished all the history recently. I wanted to make a list of the big resources we loved most over the last five years.

Story of the World
This series of classical history books for elementary school often takes flack from all sides. To Christian homeschoolers, it’s not religious enough. To secular types, it’s too religious. I have to admit that I have been disillusioned with it at many points on our journey, in particular the way it began to feel disjointed and left out any inkling of social history to the point that even the social structure of the middle ages and the rise of towns was omitted. It stopped being our primary resource a long time ago, but it has stuck around as one of the only solid books with any level of worldwide scope and we have turned back to it again and again for individual chapters about topics that had precious few books for this age range. So while I’m critical of many aspects of this series, in the end, it has been extremely valuable for us.

Builders of the Old World
I so wish we had discovered this book a little sooner. And a part of me wishes we were embarking on a second history cycle now so we could use it again and really get more out of it. This vintage text covers the earliest civilizations through the dawn of the Enlightenment with solid writing and loads of social history. It really gives a sense of the sweep of history. It’s a solidly western civilizations perspective, so it can’t be the only resource since the history of the Americas, Africa, and Asia get only cursory attention, but for anyone looking for an old fashioned text without too much of the vintage text baggage that often comes with older books, this one is a real gem.

The American Story Series
This series of long form picture books by the Maestros is a real gem. They’re both in depth and accessible to younger children. The illustrations are rich and beautiful and the Maestros do such a good job of covering early American history. If only they would hurry up and make more! This series became our US history spine for the period that it covered. It’s perfect for doing American history for elementary schoolers.

Liberty’s Kids
This cartoon about a motley group of kids working for Benjamin Franklin’s printshop during the American Revolution is surprisingly good. Different perspectives are worked into the story lines and most of the major events and issues of the time are explored. It bends credulity a little for the imaginary heroes to have met every famous figure of the age and a few things seem to have been rearranged for the sake of the show’s chronology. Still, one of the best resources out there for American history.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
This series, which is on Netflix streaming, first follows elementary aged Indy as he travels around the world with his parents and tutor, digging up Egyptian artifacts with Howard Carter, seeing Theodore Roosevelt on safari, and wandering the Russian countryside with Tolstoy. The second part follows a teenage Indy as he joins the Mexican Revolution, then the Belgian army, then becomes a spy for the French during World War I. The historical figures and locations covered will make a lot of parents even need to check their references. It’s a pretty amazing resource for studying the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Parents should note that there’s nothing inappropriate in the younger series, but teenage Indy flits from romance to romance and there are several scenes where sex is strongly implied. I was okay with it for my kids, but other parents may want to preview.

USKids History from Brown Paper Schoolbag
This series of history books, which goes through the end of the Civil War, is a really great supplementary resource. Each book includes projects and text which tells lesser known historical stories and snippets of historical fiction to help students picture the time period. They’re really focused on social history, but grounded in the details of individuals. They do a really good job of show diversity as well. This was one of my favorite resources for US history.

David Macaulay’s Buildings Series
These books are such a great, detailed look at architecture and building. I especially loved the Roman town one and the kids enjoyed the Castle one, for which we watched the animated video that was made for PBS many years ago. Reading the one about the Mill was also a fascinating little look at how industrialization changed over time. The drawings are so incredibly detailed and the stories that go along with each book helps it feel like a little slice of history, even though it’s a fiction.

David Adler’s A Picture Book Biography Series
These are mostly US history centric and there were so many great American history biographers and series that we used that it was hard to choose just one. However, the number of titles and the consistent quality of this series made it really valuable for us. The illustrations are a bit simple by today’s flashy picture book biography standards (that’s a funny sentence, but really, it’s true that there are a lot more stylized biographies out there now!) but I think their simplicity also made them more approachable. There was something almost magical about the text of these that I could never pinpoint that somehow helped the kids remember details better than from seemingly any other nonfiction resource.

History Activity Books
This one is a bit of a cheat, but it’s true that these were one of our most valuable resources. There are several different publishers of activity books for history. We especially liked three different series: the A Kid’s Guide series by Laurie Carlson, the Amazing Projects You Can Build Yourself series, and the Kaleidoscope Kids series. However, there are several others, including a second imprint by the Kid’s Guide series publisher that covers many more topics. One of the secret things about these books was that they usually had excellent, succinct text that covered their subjects. Often, having just read about ancient Greece in Story of the World or Leonardo da Vinci in an excellent picture book biography, we didn’t need that text. However, occasionally, such as for the Industrial Revolution, we really did. I think our all time favorite was Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Projects You Can Build Yourself.

Field Trips
Another cheat, but there was no one field trip that really helped us. However, whenever there was a field trip available for a topic, we always took it. The year we did American history, we took dozens of field trips, taking advantage of life in Washington by seeing Lincoln’s cottage, Washington’s home, Jefferson’s home, Madison’s home, the battlefield at Manassas, and countless other spots. However, we’ve also used art museums, archaeological sites, historical re-enactments, and many other places. Actually being in a place that witnessed history, or seeing the real artifacts, or interacting with historical re-enactors all helped the kids much more than any book to remember and enjoy history.

Historical Fiction
My final cheat, but again there’s no one book that helped us in our history journey, but rather just consistently reading historical fiction helped us to see different perspectives, learn about everyday life in different times, and put ourselves into the time periods we studied. I know historical fiction has a bad rap in some quarters for often being not true to the time periods portrayed, and that’s definitely a consideration, but from Magic Treehouse to Number the Stars, historical fiction has made history go down easy here at the rowhouse and much of it has been great literature to boot.

The End of History

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Mushroom tries on a Roman helmet at a Rome recreators event.

I would like to make an announcement as we head into our fall break: We have finished all the history.

Yes, you read that right. We here at the rowhouse have now, officially, done all the history from the dawn of man to the fall of the towers. What began on a whim in kindergarten with a copy of Story of the World has now been brought to a conclusion. Forgive me, I know I’m bragging, but I’m just so incredibly proud. This is definitely high on our list of accomplishments in homeschooling.

So I thought I’d offer a collection of reflections on this five year journey of ours. I also have waiting a post about our favorite resources, but I’ll save those for later.

I’m so glad we did this.
I really value the whole idea of interest led history as well as relying on my kids to tell me where their interests lie. However, there’s no way my boys, at age five, ever would have said, let’s study all of history for the next five years. And yet we did it, jumping into this idea of a classical history cycle. I now feel like it was the right call. And, perhaps a little ironically, it’s what makes me feel more confident about departing from formal history for at least the next couple of years if not longer. They have a really basic groundwork laid for people, places, and time periods in their minds. That’s both allowing me to relax about a perceived need to study history and fueling them with enough background knowledge to actually ask meaningful questions and know what they might want to explore in more depth. Plus, doing history when they were little was so easy. It was just fun and projects and stories. As the years went on, it became a lot more reading, a lot more discussion, a lot more expectations. That was appropriate, but I think if we had not spent that time doing all the fun stuff, they would have had any taste for the more in depth stuff.

The silhouettes the boys made of each other when we studied colonial times.
The silhouettes the boys made of each other when we studied colonial times.
Mushroom mans the canon at one of the DC circle forts north of our home.
Mushroom mans the canon at one of the DC circle forts north of our home.
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Pretending to listen to the fireside chat at the Roosevelt Memorial.

I’m so glad we took a year to focus on American history.
The Well-Trained Mind’s classical history cycle gives four years for studying world history, but after we wrapped up medieval and renaissance Europe, we took the opportunity to leap into the Age of Exploration and spent all of second grade studying the history of America, from the First Nations up to the Civil War. In many ways, that was our best year. The sheer volume of resources we had, both in books and movies and local field trips made it easy to teach and fun. It was easy to make that history come alive.

BalletBoy steers a tall ship during a War of 1812 commemoration.
BalletBoy steers a tall ship during a War of 1812 commemoration.
Recreating a Leonardo da Vinci invention. That did not work but was very funny.
Recreating a Leonardo da Vinci invention. That did not work but was very funny.

It was really through sheer determination that we stayed on track.
Recently, Mushroom asked me in low tones, “Why are we so far ahead of everyone else in history?” He was referring to the fact that we know a lot of families staggered from the ancients to early America but very few who seem to have made it into the modern world. Some of it is different styles and focuses and I really don’t mean to imply anything negative about any of the families we know who took a more meandering path. However, I am glad I simply refused to let us get stuck anywhere for too long. The boys never really wanted to spend “forever” on one topic. And while the idea of going in depth is positive, it has its limits for kids as young as six or seven. I never had a firm plan. Sometimes we fell behind (which is why we’re finishing up now in the fall instead of last spring or summer) but I whenever we dragged our feet, I either recommitted so we could get through it or I cut our losses and just moved on. When the year wound down, I would look at the topics we had left and make a clearer, though still loose, plan to finish. Basically, I just stayed on it pretty relentlessly. I have learned over the years that it is usually the teacher who keeps things on track by simply staying on it and being willing to keep recommitting. I found that to be very true for history.

BalletBoy paints the Sistine Chapel.
BalletBoy paints the Sistine Chapel.
Making nesting dolls when we studied Russian history.
Making nesting dolls when we studied Russia.
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Mushroom in Shakespearean garb.


When we first started, I’m sad to say I overthought it a little.
When we embarked on our study of history, I admit that I thought a lot about what resources were the “right” resources. I participated in more than one conversation about the “right” way to teach history. I have a history background and some of this does matter to me still. I have no desire to teach history that is racist or sexist or massively misleading and I can say that there are many history curricula that are all three of those things, especially in the homeschool world. However, hindsight being what it is, I can see that all the debates about minor errors in texts, the merits of historical fiction, the need for social history, various religious biases, and many other issues now seem so minor. In the end, the most important thing was that we just did something.

I kept emphasizing the sweep of history as opposed to the details.
This does get to the question of how to approach history. While I probably overthought it a little, I did have an approach. So many history texts seem to be all about the details. That can make sense for young children, but I kept presenting it as a continuous sweep. From cultivation of grains and vegetables to cities. From cities to empires. From close minded and superstitious in the middle ages to more and more critical and scientifically minded by the Enlightenment. From lots of different peoples in east Asia, to one, unified Chinese empire dominating. I just kept reframing all those stories of how the world has changed to give the details and stories a context and a meaning. I know there’s a line of thought that young children can only hear those details and stories and that the meaning is about interpretation that they have to do themselves. But without the meaning, I couldn’t see any reason for learning history, so meaning I have tried to give it throughout.

A tiny guillotine when we studied the French Revolution.
A tiny guillotine when we studied the French Revolution.

They have retained so little and yet so much. I’m okay with that.
When I say we covered all the history and that Mushroom and BalletBoy have this great map of history in their heads, please don’t assume that if you want them to remember which came first, Sargon or Hammurabi, they’ll know. I’ll be lucky if they even recognize the names. The vast numbers of details, names, and dates have all flitted away from them, I know. And that’s completely okay. That wasn’t the point.

On the other hand, they can recognize hieroglyphs and World War I uniforms and all kinds of things in between. They remember vaguely the stories and myths of history. Whenever I go to review something they ask, oh, was that before this or after that. Was it like that period or sort of like that place. They have points to ground them and compare for new information. It seems like such a small thing. It’s not like they could stand up and recite history or win a quiz bowl. But it really isn’t a small thing. It’s huge that they can do those things and that’s all that I really want for them at this age.

BalletBoy imprisoned in Colonial Williamsburg.
BalletBoy imprisoned in Colonial Williamsburg.
Faux stained glass when we learned about the middle ages.
Faux stained glass when we learned about the middle ages.
Making medieval books.
Making medieval books.

Week in Review

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I don’t usually do a week in review type post, but I thought I’d toss one out for this, the first week of school for many kids. We are back to school for a couple of weeks now after taking off several weeks in July and August for summer camp and family travels. It may be September, but it’s terribly hot, so twice this week we sought out the water. One of the many great benefits of our city is free water. All the public pools are free and there are many good free splash parks and fountains as well. The city extended their days thanks to the heat so we enjoyed two romps in the water this week.

Understanding the Holy Land: Answering Questions about the Israeli-Palestinian ConflictWe’re wrapping up history altogether and are trying to run ourselves up to the present day with just one depressing modern history topic left: the Middle East. Two books have been useful for this: Understanding the Holy Land by Mitch Frank and The Middle East: The History, the Conflict, the Culture, the Faiths by the editors of Time Magazine. Both are a few years old (2005 and 2006), which can make a difference for such an ever changing topic, but both have a nicely balance perspective. The second book has really great summaries of the issues and a nice photojournalism style introduction, which is always a good way to introduce a topic. The kids and I both have mixed feelings about all this depressing history. Mostly, I think it has really worn us down. We’re ready to take a nice history break.

Both boys wrapped up a quick and easy writing project from Brave Writer’s Partnership Writing by writing instructions and finishing their revisions this week. Mushroom wrote instructions for making a Wizard of Oz style tin man from foil and toilet paper tubes. BalletBoy wrote instructions for how to put on sunscreen effectively. We were a bit lackadaisical on our other writing fronts. No copywork got done, no poetry tea. Mushroom practiced writing down his grand ideas for inventions. BalletBoy worked on a story about a boy who finds himself stuck in a storybook world where Robin Hood and Merlin fighting a medieval war against each other.

For evening reading time, we started Alan Mendolson: The Boy From Mars by Daniel Pinkwater as a new read aloud. Mushroom read most of Road Trip by Gary Paulson and BalletBoy read Frank Einstein by Jon Scieszka. Additionally, Mushroom has gotten into a news app he found called News-o-Matic. While I haven’t been super impressed by the quality of some of the writing, it is really cool that he found it himself and he’s so into reading about the news. He reads it every day and discusses it with us. Since they had a piece about clean water and we’d been talking about giving to charity what with the ice bucket challenge so omniprevelent, he picked out a clean water charity to donate ten dollars to. So that was a cool thing that I felt pretty positive about.

For math, Mushroom wrapped up a section in Beast Academy and polished off a Key to Math book on decimals. BalletBoy struggled with long division with two and three digit divisors and really, really struggled with any long division with zeros in the quotients. I got some good tips on helping him and he seems to be getting through it. I printed off practice pages from the Middle School Math with Pizzazz series. This is the link to Book A, a search will show the books up through Book E and an additional Pre-Algebra book. If you have a kid who likes puzzle worksheets for practice, such as puzzles where you answer a joke by solving the problems, they’re an excellent resource. BalletBoy loves that kind of thing.

giant lego

We also finished up a set of lessons on ratio from the book Time Travel Math from Prufrock Press. The final project has the kids make a giant object with a ratio of 1:26. You can see Mushroom and BalletBoy’s giant Lego brick. It’s really big! That’s the real Lego brick they measured to build it sitting in front of it. This book has been really fun so far. A lot of the time books with a storyline to teach like this one are pretty cheesy. While this one isn’t going to win any literary awards, it’s really not bad. And we like the way the math activities build through questions and worksheets to projects and how the story integrates the math. Overall, we’re pretty impressed.

Finally, lots of activities got moving this week. BalletBoy went back to ballet where he got an invitation to join the cast of the Nutcracker for the first time! We’re getting back in the groove with piano and had the first soccer practice of the season. Destination Imagination also started back up and the kids started the process of hashing out which challenge to use. As usual, I cannot sing the praises of Destination Imagination enough. We’re looking forward to a good season.

Still, the highlight of the week was definitely enjoying those last bits of summer with friends, especially in the water.

Solace from Books

I almost never write about current events or politics here.  However, I have been feeling really helpless watching current events these days.  From Ukraine to Israel to Liberia to Iraq, the world has just been a harsh place this summer it seems.  I think I’ve been saddened most by events here in the U.S., where in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen, then responded with what most people feel was an overly militaristic, antagonistic response to protesters and looters.

Like I said, I feel powerless and angry about all this.  Sometimes, this country is not the country I want it to be, the country I believe it can be.  One of the only things, honestly, that I feel I can do is raise children who think about these issues, who question the status quo, who recognize their own privilege as white men and do their best to remember that in their dealings with others.

Since children’s books are where I tend to find my grounding, I’ll throw out there the one thing I know a lot about and tell you that the book that sparked the best conversations about race in our house was, hands down, One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams.  I have tried to bring diversity to the children’s literature we read – diversity in race, in culture, in geography, and in class.  We’ve read many great books about the African-American experience over the years, but that’s the book that really made my kids question how life is different when you’re black in this country.

One Crazy Summer, which won a Newbery Honor, takes place in 1968.  It tells the story of three sisters who travel from New York, where they live with their father and grandmother, to Oakland, to meet a mother they hardly know.  While there, they attend the Black Panther summer camp and free breakfast program and grow up a little.  They get to know their mother, a poet who runs a small press that prints flyers and newsletters to support the Panthers.

The first piece of the conversation that arose in our house came when the girls’ grandmother extols them to behave themselves on the plane.  If they misbehave, they’ll create a “Grand Negro Spectacle,” something the narrator, Delphine, realizes will reflect poorly on every black person.  “What does that have to do with being black?” my kids both wanted to know.  “Why would that mean other black people were bad?”  Then later, when the youngest sister is shamed for having a white doll, again the boys wanted to understand.  Why would that be a problem?  Why wouldn’t she have a black doll?  Several times in the story, well meaning white people try to give the girls small treats or attention, but Delphine learns from her mother why she should reject these and refuse to perform for others.  Again, the boys wanted to know, “What does that have to do with being black?”  These questions and the elements of the story went beyond simple discrimination to a much more subtle type of racism, but in a way that the boys could begin to think about.

Being white means all of these experiences were foreign to my kids.  They don’t know what it’s like to be a representative of your race, to not having the option to have a book or a toy that represents your skin tone, to have strangers assume you will be cute for them if they give you a piece of candy or a dollar.  Many of the other elements of the book – the sibling rivalry, struggling to make new friends at the summer camp, the joy of riding an airplane or visiting places on your own – were much more relatable to my kids.  The language in the book, filled with great metaphors and strong images, was beautiful and we all enjoyed the story and the relationships.

Literature opens the door to helping you see beyond your own experience in a way that so few things can.  It’s an imperfect door, of course, but it’s the best way I know to start conversations, to present moral questions, to get kids outside their own heads.  This book did it brilliantly and in a way that I hope stays with my boys as they grow up.  I hope it, and others we’ve read, plant seeds to help them think beyond their own lives to the lives of others.  It’s such a little thing, but it’s one of the few things I feel like I can do right now.

 

School Projects

Back more than two months ago, I promised the blog that there would be another post about projects and school.  Then, for some reason, I stalled.  It’s not that I didn’t think about it.  I started this post a half dozen times, but I have really struggled to figure out what I wanted to say about this exactly.

Here is what I know.  I know that we’re going to leave formal curricula behind for content subjects to be more project based.  That means math stays and if we decide we need to pick up grammar or logic or anything again, which we have done off and on, then we will, but goodbye to having history, geography, art, and science plans.  We’ve always been loose and living book based with those, but we’re headed out into the sea without a rough map for at least a couple of years.  Some of that will be more kid driven than learning we’ve done in the past, not so much because I didn’t believe in child-led learning before, but because I had two kids who were previously much less interested in engaging in it.  I think having a bit of that rough map in their heads now has made them feel they can at least pick a general direction in which to head.

I also know that pushing forward with some level of standards for learning is also important to me.  It’s important to me that the kids keep practicing writing, keep practicing revising, and keep improving their organization.  I know that while I want learning to be process oriented, I want it to have rules and boundaries.  Life has rules and boundaries.  I believe that “do whatever” is a dead end of a guideline for most people.  People on the whole do better with challenges and the greatest creativity can come from having more rules, not less.  So where this all leads me is that I want there to be a sense that some projects have to be revised and changed and remade sometimes to fit the rules.  Not that every project must fit in a neat box or even be completed, but that some must.  Stories must make sense, imaginary worlds must seem believable, science experiments must follow the scientific method, technology projects must have an end goal.

One of my biggest inspirations in heading more into projects for school has been Partnership Writing from Brave Writer.  It’s not so much more than suggestions for writing projects, most of which we’ve now completed.  However, in implementing these, we’ve always taken several detours and side trips.  The kids have had their own interpretations and we’ve had to negotiate the end products.  It’s been mostly a positive experience for all of us and I’d like us to be focused around that sort of learning, with the kids slowly taking the reins more and more, over the next couple of years.

photo (1)I’ve blogged about some of our Partnership Writing projects in the past, such as the secret codes, the timeline, the homophones, and the mythology lapbooks.  I’ll add here some images of the catalog sales project.  This was a perfect example of how the kids took the project and really took charge of it.  It was originally designed to be about an historical period, but Mushroom decided his catalog was going to be for many thousands of years in the future, when the sun was about to become a red giant and humans were fleeing to one of the moons of Saturn with the help of special portal technology.  BalletBoy decided to do his catalog for an undersea world where fish apparently shop in catalogs.  I was happy to accommodate these creative ideas.

photo 2 (10)On the other hand, the imaginary
islands project was actually much more difficult for us.  We used the book
Where on Earth?
as inspiration for drawing maps of the imaginary island chains the kids invented.  However, we repeatedly ran into trouble as the kids drew their maps.  You can’t have average lifespan be 25, or, at least, not without an explanation.  And you can’t have extremely rich areas woven in with extremely poor ones all over your island, at least, again, not without an explanation or a story to tell about why.  It’s your imaginary world, but it has to make sense and tell a story.  Getting to that story without feeling like I was just outright overruling them was incredibly tricky.  This was by far the most difficult of the Partnership Writing projects.  Not only was it a supersized one (the schedule allows for it to take an extra month) but it presented more thinking problems than any of the other projects.

photo 1 (10)

We encountered a lot of the same problems when we took on another project that wasn’t a Brave Writer one, this time focusing on math.  We drew from the book Designing Playgrounds from the Math Projects Series in order to study playground design, then propose and design our own playgrounds.  In the end, this was a really fun project.  I liked the build up steps suggested in the book, in particular going to an actual playground and keeping track of what types of activities kids engaged in most often as well as using pattern blocks to think about space on a grid before actually doing any freehand drawings or designs.  There was a lot of really great complex measuring involved in this project, as well as a lot of creativity.  It was really perfect.

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Except that we struggled again when things needed to make sense.  The final step of the project involved making models, but it was very difficult to understand that a tiny block was a pretty large piece of play equipment and BalletBoy in particular seemed to feel that building any element to scale was going to completely squelch his creativity.  But if the models didn’t represent semi-accurate scale, then one of the goals of the project, since it was so focused on math, seemed to have gone out the window.  I didn’t feel like letting that go was acceptable in this case.  I got a very good suggestion for guiding the kids through this in the future, which was to think of it like writing and do more first drafts before making the final project.  We did do a good bit of playing around, but more in two dimensions than with modeling, so I think we should have given more time for that.  In the end, we all came to agreement and the final products looked really impressive.  The kids wrote up project proposals as if they were the contractors submitting their bids and they made little drawings and wrote headlines for imaginary newspaper articles about the opening of their new playgrounds.  As you can see above, BalletBoy’s featured a play village, a shallow water play area, and a large climbing feature inside a pretend mine.  Mushroom’s, which is below, was focused on ziplines, a climbing feature, a sandpit in the center, and a huge maze which would have puzzles on the walls and multiple entrances.

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Summer Books

I’ve fallen behind on the book posts, so I thought I’d do a round up of some of our collective summer reads.  Summer isn’t quite over, but it’s winding down, library summer reading sheets have been turned in, vacations are coming to a close, and in some crazy corners of the world, kids have even started back to school already.

RevolutionRead Aloud
Revolution by Deborah Wiles
We loved Wiles’s Countdown so much that we immediately picked up Revolution when it came out earlier in the summer.  It’s the second book in her 60’s trilogy.  The first took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This one took place during Freedom Summer in Mississippi.  A minor character connected the two books, but mostly they stand on their own.  Both books contain documentary images and quotes from the time period, as well as mini-essays about people and events, all of which contextualize the story and ground it in history.  It’s a great format and I especially loved the song lyrics that ran throughout the documentary images in Revolution.  Since we were reading it aloud, I sometimes pulled up audio of the songs to pepper the background as I read these in between documentary sections.  The story is told mostly from the perspective of Sunny, a 12 year old white girl in Greenwood, Mississippi, who is struggling with her new step-mother and step-siblings, and her missing mother.  She latches on to an unexpected mother figure in one of the Freedom Summer volunteers who arrive to try and help blacks register to vote.  Some chapters are told in the voice of Ray, a black boy she happens to meet early in the story.  Others are in third person but focus on Sunny’s father or step-brother.  Mostly I loved the book.  All the characters are well drawn and the ways in which each one approaches integration is nuanced and helps give a snapshot of different attitudes.  However, while the boys liked the book, they did not enjoy it nearly as much as Countdown, mostly because that cast of characters was overwhelmingly large.  When coupled with all that detailed history, it was a difficult listen for them.  As well, all of us felt that Sunny’s latching on to the Freedom Summer volunteers felt slightly forced.  They weren’t bothered by the changing voices, but I found it somewhat jarring, though I did appreciate how it gave the reader a different look at Mississippi than only Sunny’s voice could give.  Despite those reservations, I really recommend the book and I’m already looking forward to see what happens in the final novel.

Dead End in NorveltAudio Book
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
This audiobook was greatly enjoyed.  It continued our 60’s book obsession, though honestly, it wasn’t much about the time period.  The autobiographically inspired story is about Jack, a kid with a perpetual nosebleed, who gets in trouble at the start of summer and ends up grounded for the whole time, meaning no baseball games, no outings, and generally no fun.  Fortunately, his elderly neighbor, one of the town’s original residents, recruits him to type the obituaries she writes for the paper, allowing him a way to escape the house and the unending hole he’s been tasked to dig.  She’s gleeful every time someone dies so she can investigate the death and write the obituary.  As the story unfolds, it becomes a mystery.  What exactly was happening to the town’s original residents that’s leading them to die off so quickly?  Was it Jack’s neighbor, her unlucky suitor, the Hell’s Angels, or someone else killing them off?  This book of misadventures had us in stitches.  The author does the narration, which we didn’t adore at the start, but as the story went on, we slowly got into his reading style.

Savage Shapes (Murderous Maths)School Read
Savage Shapes by Kjartan Poskitt
This entry into the Murderous Maths series turned out to be a really great read, though it took us awhile to get through it.  I often see Murderous Maths books recommended for younger kids and the first couple of books, about arithmetic and measuring, are pretty accessible to elementary school.  However, I would be hesitant to read most of them before about fifth grade level math.  The concepts in this book are actually pretty difficult.  It covers the properties and types of triangles in ways that is far and above what most kids would cover in elementary school.  It also introduces geometric proofs and a number of concepts with circles, as well as three dimensional solids.  There were a number of points where the book asked the reader to take out paper and pencil (and, often, a compass) and try something to show that it worked.  We did most of these and it really livened up the book.  This was definitely my favorite of the Murderous Maths books we’ve tackled, but it also gave me pause about trying to go too fast with them, since the math they cover does get pretty complex.

The Lemonade WarBalletBoy’s Read
The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies
BalletBoy latched on to this light, easy series about two squabbling siblings and their various adventures.  The first volume is about lemonade stands and business, which was a topic right up BalletBoy’s alley.  He wishes he could launch a more successful lemonade stand and has tried a few times to get things off the ground.  The next was about a classroom crime and punishment.  He just finished up the third book, which takes the characters away to their grandparents’ house for vacation, where they solve a mystery involving a missing bell.  Neither Mushroom nor BalletBoy tend to read past the first book in a series, especially not without a break in between, so it’s definitely a mark of enjoyment that he read three in a row.

11 Birthdays (Willow Falls, #1)Mushroom’s Read
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
I love Wendy Mass and was happy when Mushroom agreed to give this Groundhog Day like story a try.  It’s the first in Mass’s Birthdays series and I definitely like it best.  In it, two longtime friends who have always celebrated their birthday together end up repeating their eleventh birthday over and over during the year they’ve had a falling out.  Like most of Mass’s work, it’s a sweet story about growing up.  I had forgotten how much boy girl “stuff” permeates the book, but Mushroom wasn’t bothered by it.  The book was the exact right mix of everyday kid and slightly magical twist for his taste.

NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (NERDS, #1)Mushroom’s Other Read
N.E.R.D.S. by Michael Buckley
Mushroom dove into this funny book for his pleasure read earlier this summer and he really enjoyed it.  I had been after him to read it for awhile because I was sure he’d enjoy it, but the thickness of the book kept intimidating him.  While the pages were formatted such that the length was a little misleading, it was still a sign of how much he’s grown as a reader just in the last six months or so that he decided it was time to pick it up and give it a try.  If you don’t know the series, it’s about a group of kids recruited to spy for a secret agency, turning their nerdy attributes into superpowers with the help of high tech spy gear.  They fight the sort of evil masterminds you would expect in this sort of series.  It’s a fun, light read and hopefully Mushroom will pick up the next installments as well.

Star Wars: Jedi Academy, Return of the Padawan (Book 2)Devoured Read
Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan by Jeffery Brown
Don’t get me wrong.  Both Mushroom and BalletBoy enjoy reading and enjoy good books.  However, they don’t tend to choose reading as their first choice of activities.  They do it when they’re caught alone in the mornings without their twin or when it’s bedtime and they have their hour of mandated reading.  However, there are a few exceptions to this, including the Wimpy Kid books and the Origami Yoda series.  And now…  this Wimpy Kid-esque series that takes place in the Star Wars universe.  This is the second volume and continues the adventures of Roan, who gets to begin his pilot training in this book.  The boys fought over the single copy we had and BalletBoy, the faster reader, won out.  Mushroom is happily working his way through it now.

Farrar’s Read
The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan
A search for short stories appropriate for fifth graders led me to this collection by McEwan, who is much better known for his adult work, in particular Atonement, which was made into a movie.  I had read some of his books so it was with a little suspicion of whether it would be just right that I picked up this collection.  However, it’s delightful and totally right for upper elementary or middle school kids.  Sometimes when adult writers write for children, the stories miss the mark by being too simplistic or too complex, but McEwan doesn’t dumb down the language yet also makes the stories accessible.  The main character, Peter, is a daydreamer who is always imagining stranger and stranger situations, often with a slightly dark or sinister twist, such as the vindictive dolls belonging to his sister who attack him during one such imagining.  The characters are the same throughout, but the stories each stand alone.  I was originally looking for stories for a list of short stories for our upcoming school year.  My goal is to read one per month.  One of these, possibly “The Cat,” will be making it on the list.  The book would also make a good read aloud for kids.  I put it in the same vein as Salman Rushdie’s Haroun novels: a book that isn’t clearly for adults or children, but rather for anyone who might enjoy the stories.

Metro Solo

Celebrating once camp was over.
Celebrating once camp was over.

There have been a spate of stories this summer about parents arrested or in trouble for letting their kids go to the park alone or otherwise do things independently.  If you’re a parent who reads blogs, I’m sure you saw these stories or the many, many responses to them.

One of the things I’ve seen, which I’ve also written about a little bit here in the past, is that when we know crime has dropped, and we know that children are generally safe from strangers, one of the reasons that many parents don’t send their kids outside alone anymore isn’t fear of kidnappers or violence, but rather fear of judgement from neighbors and busybodies and the subsequent involvement of the government and the potential loss of their children.

I do worry about all these things – the bad guys, the busybodies, and the government – but I keep making the decision to not let it interfere with what I see as best for my kids.  And I think being confident, independent kids is what’s best.  They get so much out of being able to go to the park alone, to ride their bikes on the closed park roads alone on a Sunday, to walk to the store by themselves, and most recently to ride the subway solo.

For the last two weeks, Mushroom has gotten himself to and from his summer camp on the Metro by himself.  We had to get special permission from the camp.  who were initially aghast that we wanted to send him to camp on the Metro.  We live walking distance from the subway, and he routinely goes to the shops near there alone or with his brother.  The camp was right outside a station on the same Metro line.  It seemed like a no brainer, especially since I had to take BalletBoy to a completely different camp farther away in our only car.  Even so, we had to go back and forth with the camp several times and then write up our own liability waiver in order to get them to agree.  One of the camp employees said, “You can’t really mean a nine year old on the Metro, can you?”  But then, by the end of the conversation, when the judgement of parenting was past, he casually added, “Well, I took the Metro at that age alone and nothing happened.”

We actually based the liability waiver on the one from BalletBoy’s camp, which was in a walkable neighborhood suburb that just doesn’t happen to be near ours.  Hilariously, after all that back and forth with Mushroom’s camp, BalletBoy’s simply handed us the waiver the first day.  “Sign here if you want to allow him to sign himself out,” the camp director told me, with no further greeting or explanation.

We spent the first few days of camp getting Mushroom ready to ride alone.  We made sure there there was plenty of money on his card and made him a nifty necklace cardholder like the kind government professionals often wear to hold their clearance badges.  We practiced which trains were the right line and which way to walk and what to do if you accidentally missed your stop.  One morning I rode the subway with him then said goodbye at his station and turned around to take the next train back myself.  The next day, I walked him to the Metro and said goodbye at the turnstiles.  And then, finally, he walked up and went entirely on his own.  He texted me from his cheapie cell phone to say simply, “there.”

As you can probably predict, absolutely nothing bad happened.  He arrived there and home without any issue and without losing anything along the way.  He had a lot to say about the Metro ads, but not much about the people.  No one hassled him or talked to him at all.  The biggest excitement was that he once got on a train that didn’t come to the end of the line.  He had to get off when it shut down and catch the next one.  He adjusted accordingly.  In other words, it wasn’t much excitement at all.

In fact, I kept saying to him things like, “Wow, you’re so grown up!  Taking the Metro alone!” and, “I’m so proud of you!  You’re so responsible!”  And he practically rolled his eyes.  “It’s no big deal,” he told me.

Well, it shouldn’t be.  He’s absolutely right.

First Grade Flashback

The other day, Mushroom pulled out his first grade portfolio in search of something or other and we both got to flipping through it.

Things said by Mushroom included, “I was so young!” and, “My handwriting was terrible!” and, “Did I really write that?” and then, “I was so young!” over again.  Then, later when BalletBoy was home, they pulled them all out, pre-K to present and pored over them.  The table was a mess of old co-op yearbooks and Math Mammoth pages and art projects.  I’m telling you, nostalgia starts young.

I was especially struck by these two writing samples sitting side by side.  This was before we had discovered Brave Writer (though you’ll see we were basically doing it without realizing!), but sitting in the portfolio was this copywork from Charlotte’s Web, which was the book we were reading at the time, I’m sure.  My kids still occasionally do copywork (we do a lot more dictation now) but they almost never get anything wrong.  Seeing this one riddled with errors is like looking at another kid.  I can hardly remember teaching this stuff.

photo 2 (9)

And next to it was this “freewrite” type activity that comes from Games for Writing by Peggy Kaye.  I would write a boasting line and the kid would follow with a boasting line of his own.  He could copy my spelling and syntax and make it his own by changing the end, which he did.  I like the final line, which is, “I’m so strong I could crush the universe.”  Other Games for Writing exercises were in other sections of the portfolio, including the one where each person rolls the dice to see how many words to add to the story.

photo 1 (9)

I know at the time, I was worried.  I was worried that this wasn’t “enough” for writing (later that year I know we tried a couple of different workbook type writing programs, neither of which really worked for us).  I was worried about keeping this stuff up.  Yet somehow we managed and here we are.  I wish I could go back and pat myself on the back and say, “Hey, you did it.  They’re on their way.  It was enough!”

We just compiled the last bits of fourth grade’s portfolios this week.  Into those went a set of writings imagining they were characters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964, filled with rich words like “hollered” and “gaping” and all typed up with polished syntax and revised to add detail.  Just like the copywork that I can’t remember being so difficult, it’s miles and miles away from the joint boasting writing exercise from first grade.

 

Curve Balls

What I expected we would do during this gorgeous week of perfect, mild summer weather:

  • Pick blueberries
  • Go swimming
  • Go for a hike
  • See friends and run around
  • Go see the lotuses in bloom at the aquatic gardens
  • Go to the free Apple Camp
  • Wrap up some school

What we actually have been doing:

photo 1 (8)

That’s BalletBoy at the E.R. for a huge gash on the bottom of his foot that he got over the weekend playing at the splash fountain up the street.  So while we did Apple Camp and wrapped up school for the summer, we’ve been stuck inside for this beautiful weather, unable to get out and enjoy it!  BalletBoy can’t really walk and Mushroom refuses to go out in solidarity.  All my visions came crashing down!

But that’s okay, because instead they’ve done other things, including:

photo 2 (8)

  • Made up their own role playing game with a board and dice
  • Built three different variations of guitar games with the Makey Makey (one is in the picture above)
  • Lazed on the sofa and watched every single Regular Show (just trying to be honest here)
  • Invent a quiz show for the Husband and I to face off in (the Husband won, which is not a surprise since he’s an actual quiz show winner – he won the downpayment for our house on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire many years ago)
  • Played lots of board games
  • Made movies (the picture below is a still of BalletBoy’s movie featuring Mushroom as an inventor who makes a robot that goes berserk)
  • Added several hours to their summer reading charts for the library

robotmovie

It’s hard to be stuck inside in the summer, but I’m glad my kids can still make lemonade out of lemons.

Next week, they’re off to summer camp.  BalletBoy is starting to hobble a little better and his stitches will be out soon.  Hopefully I’ll have a nice break and they’ll have a good time at their camps.

Family

Just appreciating so much that my kids have two living great grandparents who they will know and remember.  What a great link to the past it has been during our year of studying modern history as well to be able to say, your Banny was just a toddler when the Great Depression began or your Banny got married during World War II.  How amazing it is to have that living, grounded link to the past and that multi-generational love.  It is a good bit of a drive to see my grandmother so we don’t get to go often, but worth every moment when we do.

banny

Sorry for the blog slowness.  We have been traveling and enjoying summer fireworks and family and swimming and so forth, as well as keeping up school the best we can (so we can take off in the fall).  I’ll have more to post later this week.