Tag Archives: history

GPS at the Rowhouse

GPS is Global Perspective Studies. My business partner at Simplify, Jill Harper, named it and I’m a little bit over the moon at how clever this name is. It’s the high school history and literature core that Jill and I planned and I wrote. The first year, or “Core” is being released soon and we’re running a contest for a free copy. You still have time to enter!

Some of the inspiration for this program comes from my own school experiences, where I took an interdisciplinary course in literature and history for my first two years of high school. In fact, vintage copies of the textbook I had in school, Prentice Hall’s World Masterpieces, is included and heavily used in GPS. The first year program focuses on Africa and Asia, so it includes things like short stories by Najib Mahfouz, Rabindranath Tagore, and Lu Xun and poetry by writers like Rumi, Hafiz, and Shu Ting. It also gives us excerpts from classical texts like The Rig Veda, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Bible. I get a little verklempt when I talk about the joys of this textbook.

Mushroom and BalletBoy have been my product testers. I don’t know if they’d say they love it as they’re not the literature lovers that I am. However, they’re in the midst of reading Siddhartha right now and BalletBoy sang its praises as one of the best books he’s read in awhile, so that’s a relief to hear. However, I feel good about how much they’re learning and how they’re advancing through it.

It’s not always an easy program for them. It pushes them in a variety of ways. One of my goals this year was to up our work level across the board. I wanted them to be writing more, reading more, and just doing more at a high school level. Having students who are really engaged with high level work is an important educational value for me in high school.

Most weeks have short answer history questions. They have to pull out a textbook or read a history book about the place and time period and answer complex, multi-part questions in a paragraph. BalletBoy has a tendency to wax grandiose about topics with no facts. Ancient civilizations in Africa were “the greatest” and had “many innovations” and “eventually led to other civilizations.” Um, way to tell us nothing. Mushroom likes to procrastinate and go over and over these repeatedly. “But what was the cause again? Where is it in the book?” Over time, they’ve been improving. BalletBoy wrote me a lovely explanation of why Aurangzeb’s leadership weakened the Mughal Empire last week. They’ve finally learned to rely more on the textbook and stop trying to furtively check Wikipedia for everything.

Mushroom has turned in a few great assignments for GPS. For his graphic memoir, he had to write about a time he misunderstood something as a young child. He wrote and drew a lovely comic about being a preschooler on a merry-go-round and then thinking that the bed was really, actually still spinning when he went to sleep at night afterward. He also made a hilarious video explaining all the Hindu gods.

I wrote the program to the student, but it’s definitely been a hands on teaching experience for me. Sometimes the kids do the work and I check that it happened and we let it go. Other times, they get stuck and I step in. One of my best moments was carefully dissecting a Hafiz poem with BalletBoy. We read through it, then read it again, and then again. We talked about the meaning of every line and discussed each metaphor and theme. After that, he was able to do the reading questions about it.

We’re currently wrapping up the unit on the Indian subcontinent. The history book we’re reading, The Ocean of Churn, focuses on the Indian Ocean, which has been interesting. Soon, we’ll move on to China and Japan to wrap up the year. I’m worried that we may not quite finish it all. But that’s okay. I packed it full. I know that I often tell people that if they finish more than 80% of a program, that it’s okay to call it done. I’ll definitely be laughing at myself if we have to skip a final reading, but it might happen.

I constantly second guess myself about things like this. Was everything culturally sensitive enough? Did I include enough guidance for students and parents? Could I have done more to touch on history topics I had to gloss over? Should I have chosen different books? But overall, I’m proud of this program. I’m proud to say my kids are doing it.


Anatomy of a Project: Houses

In the fall, I committed to trying out doing projects more with the kids and we tried a few things had one real success. With all out outside commitments, we have had to dial back and simplify and drop all the “extras” projects (we’re still doing some math and writing projects), but I wanted to back up and blog about our resources and the way this tiny germ spread down rabbit trails.

We started with a board of project ideas and “houses and architecture” was one of them. After some discussion, we picked it as one of the things we wanted to try out so I started gathering resources to try with the kids.

The first thing I pulled out, which I had been hoping to try, was the book A Blueprint for Geometry about designing your own house and learning about geometry at the same time. I was excited by that, though the kids were less so. However, as I started trying to organize it, I also got less excited. The book, frankly, was terrible. We loved the ideas about math and playground design in Designing Playgrounds from the same series, but this one, by a different author, was just not enough information or structure. With the kids not at all keen to do it, we dumped it. I asked if they wanted to build model houses or design a house and they weren’t interested. It turned into a dead end.

Next up, I brought home a pile of library books and the first one we studied was Housebuilding for Children. This delightful book from the 70’s (and I mean, so from the 70’s) is like a free range parent’s dream with several plans for tiny play houses for kids to build themselves. We got the materials to make the balloon frame house and dove in. It was really hard. I think the type of wood we got splintered too easily. Some of the materials in the book weren’t available. But in the end, the kids, mostly on their own, build the frame of the house! For real. Then cold weather hit and we didn’t finish it. It’s so small that I’m not sure if they will finish it or not (we may try to donate it to a friend). But it was really a rewarding part of the project. It took a lot of perseverance to do all that hammering and building.


I took out a bunch of books about buildings and architecture. I started with David Macauley’s Unbuilding, in which he imagines the Empire State Building being taken apart. This turned out to be really disturbing as a concept so we didn’t finish the book. Not only that, but the kids both agreed that they weren’t as interested in big famous buildings like the Pyramids and the Empire State Building. Instead, they wanted to focus on houses. We talked about the House and Home exhibit at the National Building Museum, which we have visited several times, and began to think together about some elements of that, such as different styles of homes and different needs people have for their homes.

I returned the buildings books and got a second pile of books about houses. See Through History: Houses and Homes was the first resource along with some other books about the history of different houses and simple picture books with images of houses around the world. I read some aloud and the kids read others on their own and wrote narrations about the different kinds of houses through time. Next, I found what is probably one of the greatest books I’ve found for a topic, Old House, New House by Michael Gaughenbaugh. This was an incredibly detailed picture book published by the National Historic Trust. I mentioned it in our book round up a few months ago. It covered American architecture styles from colonial to the present and everything in between with great drawings and a really well-done frame of a story about a boy whose family is restoring an old Victorian. The kids were really riveted by the book.

That led us in a few directions. I looked for other books about homes and architecture. We got I Know That Building, which turned out to be a really cute book with some cool activities, but aimed toward slightly younger kids. I also bought the Dover Coloring Book called The American House on a whim. That was much more useful. The kids and I all enjoyed coloring several pages in it and talking about the colors and designs of the homes. Finally, one more book in our library pile, The House I Live In: At Home in America, had a cool set of narratives of kids talking about their homes all over the country. The kids read the book and wrote their own pieces about our house.

That led us to think about our neighborhood and home. We investigated our own century-old house and did some activities to think about the details. We drew the house and did some art activities. Then we played around with old online maps of the city. We found our block going back as far as we could until we couldn’t find our block anymore on the oldest set of maps. It didn’t exist! Then we went to the special local research library and found the “birth certificate” for our house and had it printed up, as well as the name of the original owner. Back home, the kids learned to use the online newspaper archives to look up our address and the original owner. We didn’t find too much, but we did learn that the original owner had been German and later became a middle school principal. It was really exciting for the kids to make their own discoveries as they searched and zoomed in on the old newspaper pages from nearly a century ago.

Meanwhile, I took out a pile of books about various architects. Most of them ended up unread, but BalletBoy read one about Frank Gehry and loved it (and asked to go to Spain… hm…). We also watched a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright and I promised the kids a trip to Falling Water that still needs to be delivered. I took out a number of books with activities about Frank Lloyd Wright as well as other architects, such as a book about Greene and Greene. However, none of the activities really resonated with the kids, so we didn’t do much of them.

When winter arrived, the project sort of naturally petered out. However, it was really neat to have this focus on a “big” topic for a solid couple of months. The project brought in some math, a lot of research skills, some hands on skills, a lot of teamwork, some reading, some writing, a surprising amount of history, and some art. The kids had to bear with me as I took us on some detours and assigned things like writing and reading to go with this project and I had to follow them and shut down some of my visions for what the project could be and follow the things they were interested in.

Overall, it was a good experience. While we’re taking a hiatus from doing another big, all-encompassing project like this, I’m excited to try another one in the future.

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

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.
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.
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.

TV History

We always love having a television show to go with our history studies, being lovers of television.  I thought I’d list some of the best shows out there to be a nice go along for history.  If you know of any others, I’d love to hear about them as well.  Amusingly, more than half of these are European and two are French.  You don’t think of France as a powerhouse of children’s television, but clearly they love history.

Horrible Histories
This live action CBBC show has clips you can easily find on Youtube.  The episodes are available on Amazon to buy as well and if you happen to have Discovery Education Streaming, they’re available on some levels of that service too.  It’s a sketch comedy show that delivers bits of hilarity from ancient times to World War II, generally all jumbled up.  The songs and jokes are smart enough for kids who know some historical background and childish and silly enough for kids who don’t.  Note that there is also an animated American show with the same name, but which didn’t seem nearly as fun when I had a chance to watch part of it.

Liberty’s Kids
The history in this show about the American Revolution is detailed and complex enough that I was repeatedly impressed.  While younger kids can enjoy it, there’s enough information and subtly of presentation here for older kids too.  The story follows young characters who work for Benjamin Franklin’s printing shop in Philadelphia.  They represent different points of view about the war, points of view that change as the series goes on and they conveniently meet famous characters and learn about important events.  Episodes come on and off of screenings via Netflix.  You can also find them all very inexpensively as a DVD set.

The Mysterious Cities of Gold
This animated show was beloved by me as a child and I found it held up surprisingly well when Mushroom and BalletBoy watched it (then rewatched it) when we studied the Age of Exploration and the early Americas.  Three children – two Native Americans and one European – are united in their quest to find the cities of gold.  They follow a conquistador who is also looking for the cities.  While there is a fair bit of magic and fantasy in the show, much of it is rooted in real history and each episode ends with a mini-documentary about some aspect of culture or history from the show.  Last year, a long promised sequel to the original show began airing.  I haven’t seen these episodes yet as they haven’t been released in English yet, but they look beautiful (the old animation is a little cheezy now) and clearly hold to the original series while taking the trio to a new land (Asia!).  That’s the Youtube link above.  The original series is streaming on Netflix.

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones
This live action family show made in the 90’s is now available on Netflix streaming.  The episodes are arranged almost chronologically, which is useful for history teachers.  The episodes take place between 1908 and 1920, during which Indiana Jones (played by two actors, one a young boy and the other a teenager) travels the world and meets everyone from Teddy Roosevelt hunting big game in Africa to Krishnamurti in India to Winston Churchill in London and manages to be at historical events ranging from the opening of King Tut’s tomb to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  It’s a great show and perfect for modern history.  Note that some of the episodes may be too serious or dark for younger kids.

Once Upon a Time…  Man
This older French animated series is all on Youtube now (though occasionally you may have to hunt).  It follows the earliest history to the present.  Note that some of the early history is out of date or may not reflect your own family’s view of early man.  I linked the first episode above, but you may actually find later ones more useful.  Since it covers so much, it’s an odd show, but filled with unexpected detail.  If you like it, there are other Once Upon a Time entries, including one about the human body.

Mythic Warriors
This Canadian made animated series retells Greek myths animated style.  While there are a few deviations from the original tales and some character embellishments, most of the information is surprisingly accurate and detailed.  The way the stories are presented is memorable.  We’ve only seen a little, but Mushroom and BalletBoy asked to watch more and I think I’m going to have them watch them as part of their prep for the National Mythology Exam, to refresh themselves on all this stuff we haven’t learned in years.  The only source I’ve found for episodes is Youtube since the show doesn’t seem to be available on DVD.  However, they all seem to be there.

Kids’ Animated History with Pipo
This is a new show to me, but the first season, which covers a huge amount of history from ancient times to the middle ages, is streaming for free on Hulu (with ads), so many people may find it useful.  I only had a chance to watch a little of it, so I can’t give it a full review, but it seemed light and enjoyable.  There’s no story per se.  It’s sort of like a blurby DK book brought to life with a few side jokes.  The history seemed basic, but not every show can be as hilarious as Horrible Histories or compelling and creative as The Mysterious Cities of Gold.

Other shows…
There are a couple of other shows I’m aware of.  One is the CBBC show The Roman Mysteries.  This is a live action show based on the children’s book series that is supposed to be excellent.  Unfortunately, there’s no way to legally get this show in the US unless you have a region 2 DVD player and are willing to buy the UK version of it.  Also, The Time Warp Trio, an animated show based on another book series, is now out of print on DVD and not available streaming anywhere that I’m aware of.  I’m not as fond of this series as the episodes I’ve seen introduce big historical names, but without as much context or other information as the other series mentioned.  Still, for history mad kids, it’s another option to consider.

Chinese Art

We’re still here, still schooling, still trucking on through summer.  We wrapped up our history study of China with a trip to the Sackler and Freer Galleries to appreciate Chinese scroll painting.  We also did a couple of projects.

First, we learned a little about the tradition of Chinese peasant painting.  You don’t see much Chinese folk art here in the West, but it’s out there.  When I lived in China, there was a terrific folk art center in my city with lots of artisans producing textiles, paper cuts, and the style of art called “peasant painting.”  I showed the kids lots of examples of these brightly colored paintings and then let them plan and try their own in the same style.

photo 1 (3)

We also went more traditional and imitated the Chinese brush paintings with some black watercolors to stand in for inks.

photo 3 (3)

Block carving is an old hobby of mine, so we happen to have lots of materials on hand.  When the kids asked if they could “sign” their paintings with a red stamp, I cut two tiny squares of pink EZ Carve for them and let them quickly carve something.  BalletBoy chose to do his initial and the Chinese surname I use.  Mushroom asked for me to pick a surname for him so I picked one as close to their last name as I could.

photo 2 (3)

Canal Life

We have been stuck a bit for historical fiction this go around.  Not only has it been difficult to find books that fit into the time periods we’ve studied this year, but a few of the choices I’ve liked haven’t been as well-regarded by the kids.  All this has been a disappointment for me after a year of so much American historical fiction.  However, there’s just a dearth for this period.  When we begin Asian history in a month or so, there will be a few more options.

The Gate In The WallOne exception has been the book The Gate in the Wall by Ellen Howard.  I had never heard of this book or author, which had very few reviews, but with so few options I bought it to give it a try and was very glad I did.  It’s not a long book and follows the trials of Emma, a young girl who must work in a city mill to support her sister, nephew and brother-in-law.  One day, Emma is locked out of the factory and wanders toward home, hungry and sad, and stumbles on an entrance to the canal towpath, where she steals a potato from an anchored canal boat and hides out in its warm hull.  The next day, she finds herself taken away from all she knows to work on the canal.  It’s hard work, but it may mean a better life.

This was a short and simple book with lovely descriptions full of little details that show a way of life that most of readers will know little about.  Emma and the canal boat owner, Mrs. Minshull, are great, believable characters.  While it might be difficult to have a story of the industrial revolution that both realistically shows life for working class children and ends on an upbeat note, this book manages to do it.  Best of all for our purposes, the story gives a clear picture of life in the industrial revolution through Emma’s eyes.  I haven’t seen this book on many lists, but if you’re doing early modern history, it really should go on your read alouds list.

Russian Crafts

Baba Yaga And Vasilisa The BraveI mentioned in a previous post that as we did history, we just kept skipping Russia over and over.  I decided to remedy that by backing up and covering Russia in one big go, which was probably better anyway since it allowed us to read a nice pile of Russian folktales.  The favorite there was definitely Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave as told by Marianna Meyer, but we read several others.

It also allowed us to do a couple of Russian based craft projects.  First, we made little St. Basil-like towers with paper towel tube bottoms and paper mache tops.  In the project instructions I found for this one, it suggested making the onion domes out of balloons that are just tiny.  I figured that wouldn’t be the best since balloons make it harder to dry.  We just balled up paper into basically the right shape instead.

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Then we painted them.  I think they look cute.

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The other project we did was to make faux-Matryoshka dolls.  Those are the Russian nesting dolls.  I think I saw this idea online somewhere, but I couldn’t find it to link it.  Since making actual nesting dolls would have been difficult, we made paper cones in different sizes then colored them.

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That’s mine in the front of this picture.  Sometimes I don’t do the crafts with the kids, but I know they really like it better when I do, so I try to participate when I can.  BalletBoy pronounced this one a hit because, “it didn’t involve any popsicle sticks.”  Uh-oh. I might need to rethink some of my ideas for our next unit on the Industrial Revolution.

Final Civil War Wrap Ups

The Rowhouse is on vacation for a couple of weeks.  We’re taking off for a little while, both from school and the city.  There was a final, furious finishing up of things before we left town.  Workbooks wrapped up and books finished.  As well, we had to finish up our American history unit with a final flurry of field trips, including to Lincoln’s Cottage (that’s above), Ford’s Theater, Clara Barton’s House and a number of other Civil War sites, including Manassas, where we attended some of the Sesquicentennial events.

For anyone not in the know and living on the east coast, the National Parks Service (America’s best idea, folks) has been giving out Civil War trading cards.  We collected about 40 of them from various sites.  The park service’s website (unfortunately not a website that lives up to the title “America’s best idea”) doesn’t seem to have a single site, but here’s a page for some of the ones we collected, which links to all the ones you can find in the northeast as well as all the ones you can find around DC.

We read more books than I could list without more time for the Civil War, but I thought I’d highlight one that we found especially useful.  Field of Fury by James M. McPherson had a detailed text and a spread about each major battle, as well as about the key leaders and some of the issues in the war.  The documentary pictures were very useful (and my kids kept noticing their use in museum exhibits as well).  Overall, this was the best single book resource we found for the war.


In Praise of Teaching Content Subjects

For the most part, math, grammar, spelling, writing, and reading are skill based while science, geography, history, literature, engineering, and so forth are content based.  You will often hear from homeschoolers that in the early grades, or even before middle or high school, that everything after those three R’s is “icing.”  In other words, it’s extra in a way.  Many homeschool philosophies, in particular classical education, though others as well, make those three R’s the center of everything early on.

That’s with good reason.  They are undeniably important.  A child can get to middle school not knowing the difference between an amphibian and a reptile and do fine if she has solid reading, writing and researching skills.  The inverse is obviously not true.  No matter how many amazing facts a child has crammed in his head, he won’t succeed if he can’t read and do math.

A few years ago, PBS canceled the longtime show Reading Rainbow.  The reason?  They wanted to focus on reading mechanics, like phonics, sight words and vocabulary building, things Reading Rainbow never touched.  The focus of Reading Rainbow was to present literature in all its glory, letting kids review books, reading books aloud to kids, teaching about science, history and culture you could learn in books, and generally showing how the content of books could spark your imagination and help you go places in life.  In other words, while PBS now airs shows like Electric Company and Super Why, which teach kids how to read, Reading Rainbow taught kids why you should read.

That’s why I think you can’t dismiss content subjects too quickly or give them too short shrift.  Yes, a child who can’t do math will never become an engineer.  But a child who doesn’t read about bridges, buildings, and robotics may not see the point to the math in the first place or ever want to become an engineer.  A child who can’t write will never become a lawyer, but a child who doesn’t read about governments and elections may not ever either.

Content subjects help kids see the why in the skills.  They inspire kids.  They afford more opportunities for fun, engaging learning.  This is not to say that skills subjects can’t be fun (we certainly play a lot of games for math, for example), but there is an engagement in the world and a way for even young kids to ask real, deep, open-ended questions in the content subjects that they can’t in the skill subjects.

That’s why we strive for a balance here.  Math, reading and writing happen every day.  They’re pretty much non-negotiable.  If something has to be dropped, it’s usually the content read aloud or history project.  But the content stuff gets long chunks of our attention as well, sometimes just as much time if not more.  Some of the better moments in schooling are things like history narrations, historical fiction read alouds, dictations about science, and measuring things for a science lesson that allow us use skill subjects across the curriculum.

School would probably be shorter if we didn’t do as much content study, and I have no idea how much of it the kids will specifically retain, but I do trust that it makes our homeschool a richer place and gives us a better purpose than just reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.

BalletBoy learns about tornadoes.