Tag Archives: middle ages

Reassessing Story of the World

It’s spring and we’re getting closer to the end of our second year with Susan Wise Bauer’s popular history series Story of the World.  I have to start this by saying that last year I was practically a Story of the World evangelist.  We loved doing the first volume, which is about ancient history.  I never bought the accompanying activity guide, but we read multitudes of picture books and books of myths.  We also did many excellent craft projects.  Most memorably, we made a real model Roman road out of carefully gathered pebbles and a model aqueduct out of paper towel rolls.

I saw flaws in the book.  I felt like it flew from different types of storytelling too quickly, taking kids from myths, to history, to “imagine you were there.”  I could also easily see the biases, but I didn’t feel they were any worse than any other source.  It was all things I was willing to work around.

But here’s the thing.  Ancient history, while it’s fun and interesting, is not really my area of expertise.  I majored in history, but I never did much about ancient civilizations.  On the other hand, medieval history is something I know a little more about.  Now that we’re on to history I know more about, I’ve been more and more disenchanted with Story of the World.

I think my first mistake was to buy the Activity Guide.  On a couple of occasions, it has given me a good book suggestion or two.  However, overall, I’ve found better books on my own and the craft projects are frankly lame.  Again, a few of them are great ideas.  However, there’s far too much color tab A and cut out slot B sort of non-crafts for my taste.  I don’t think anything that involves scissors, photocopying and some crayons can actually be termed a “craft.”  Things like that make me respect a resource a lot less too.

Cutting this out and coloring it is not a real craft project in my opinion.
Designing and building a castle with stuff out of the recycling bin (and a green cardboard from the craft store) is a real craft.

My issues with the Activity Guide are just a side note to my discomfort with the text.  The question of emphasis has been gnawing at me since we wrapped up the middle ages.  All the things covered in the book are interesting and important.  The topics for medieval Europe cover the beginnings of nations with Clovis, Charles the Hammer and Charlemagne.  The book covers the beginnings of England and the Norse invasion.  England, not surprisingly, gets heavy play in general, as Richard the Lionhearted, the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years’ War, and even Robin Hood are all discussed.  The Crusades and the Black Plague both get a reasonable treatment.  There’s a broad look at many of the things kids associate with the Middle Ages, including castles, knights and monks.  In fact, the chapter on knights takes the opportunity to hop across the globe and compare knights with samurai.  As with all the volumes of Story of the World, the emphasis is on the western world, but there’s a concerted effort to broaden kids’ horizons, so China, Japan, Korea, India, Africa, the Americas and even Australia get at least small sections.  Some topics that are usually skipped over in history surveys, such as the rise of Russia, also get their due.

But what about the things that aren’t there?  Well, that’s where I keep hitting a wall.  Some of the things which I think are vitally important to understanding medieval Europe are completely left out.  She leaves out the guilds, the cathedrals, the Peasants’ revolts, and the founding of the universities, just to name a few.  But it’s more than any specific thing.  After all, we supplement with a number of things (check out our shelf of supplements below).  We read the section in Gombrich’s A Little History of the World about the guilds and the rise of medieval towns.  We read the section in Gertrude Hartman’s The Builders of the Old World about the peasants’ revolts (that was really detailed too).  Any history book has to make choices and leave some things out.  Gombrich’s history barely even covers China or India.


However, it’s more than just specific things left out.  Story of the World simply never emphasizes the class structure of the medieval world.  It never emphasizes the move toward nations or toward towns and cities.  It never really delves into the struggle between the church and monarchs over authority.  When these things are covered, they’re just part of stories of the “great men” and not highlighted as part of a greater trend or story.

I think for a lot of the truly classical homeschoolers, who really adhere to the idea of the logic stage being for straightforward memorization, this makes a lot of sense.  They would say that no matter what the overarching analysis or synthesis, it doesn’t have a place in the logic stage.  I’ve borrowed a lot from classical homeschoolers.  I agree that young kids are like sponges and that memorization has a place for elementary school.  However, I don’t accept the idea that young kids can begin to ask questions and think more deeply about what they learn.  But even if I were going to simply give them the stories without any sense of trends or rudimentary analysis at all, presenting Robin Hood and not Wat Tyler is still a choice and represents a perspective, one with which I’m not entirely comfortable.

I think of history at this age as being in part for fun and in part to introduce kids to these ideas so that it’s easier to go into depth later because there’s a vague sense of the flow of history already in them.  They have at least a sense of the names and stories.  Story of the World absolutely provides that.  However, some of the most important elements of that sense of the flow of history feel like they’re missing to me as I work through the text further with my kids.  I don’t personally expect that Mushroom and BalletBoy will revisit ancient or medieval history in 5th and 6th grade remembering names and details.  The best I feel like I can hope for is that they still enjoy history and have a sense of what it’s about and how the world has changed over time.  In that sense I’ve begun to wonder if Story of the World has educational goals that can mesh with my own.

We’re planning on taking a year off from world history to do a year focused on American history (and probably Africa as well since we’re planning a big trip in the spring).  When I first started envisioning a year of history without a spine as perfectly tailored to elementary age homeschoolers as Story of the World is, I was a little sad.  Now, I’m looking forward to taking a break from it and finding our own way.

Our Ten Favorite Books With the Middle Ages

I’ve been pretty remiss in blogging about our history journey this year, but I may catch up with a few forthcoming posts.  We’re about to wrap up our study of medieval Europe, loosely using Story of the World as our spine.  Just so you know, we’ve covered the Dark Ages, the rise of Islam, the Vikings and the whole medieval period.  However, we haven’t ventured to India, China, Japan or Africa quite yet.  That’s for the rest of the year.  I did a post at the end of last year about our favorite books about the Ancients, so here’s our favorites about the Middle Ages.  Our method of choosing books is mostly just to show up at the library and see what’s there, so they may not be the best books, but they’re the ones we’ve enjoyed most.

Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold by James Rumford
I just adored the book design on this one so much.  The illustrations are so intricate.  The style reflects the artistic knotwork of the Anglo-Saxons, which ties them to the story.  And, of course, the story is retold well, with just enough detail.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Michael Morpurgo
I winced at several of the scenes where the wife tries to lure poor Gawain to her bed, but the kids adored this lushly illustrated book and found the whole thing fascinating.  I don’t think they understood those parts at all.  Instead, they were focused on the strange goriness of the tale and the twists and turns that Gawain’s fortune goes through.  We read a number of various Arthurian books, but the kids clearly liked this one the best.

Muhammad by Demi
Of course Demi’s lovely entry into her biographies about the world’s great religious figures has to make my list.  The kids were fascinated by the gold illustrations and especially by the fact that Muhammad himself is shown only in gold.  The story is an excellent introduction to the subject of Muhammad’s life for young children.

The Arabian Nights by Neil Philip
We read a number of different versions of the various tales from the Arabian Nights, but this version was our favorite.  The illustrations are brightly colorful, with touches of gold.  The stories were lengthy enough to feel meaty and there was quite a lot of them included as well.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire
I have recently learned that some people don’t really appreciate the D’Aulaires’ artistic style.  I hope you’re not one of those people because I would have to bite my thumb at you with vigor!  The kids liked the weirdness of the stories.  I liked the introduction in this new edition by Michael Chabon, who is the subject of my literary crush.  We also really enjoyed the D’Aulaires’ book Leif the Lucky.

Castle by David MacCauley
We both read the book and watched the video version that MacCauley made in the 1980’s for PBS.  Together, they were an excellent pair.  The kids were fascinated by garderobes.  It was the same with MacCauley’s book about the Roman town last year when they spotted every instance of Roman toilets.  MacCauley’s Cathedral was another favorite read.  The video version of that seems to be unavailable, however someone has enterprisingly uploaded it here.

The Canterbury Tales retold by Marcia Williams
I’m not completely keen on Williams’s various retellings.  We did her Odyssey last year and have used some of her Shakespeare tales as well.  However, her irreverent, comic book style meshed so perfectly with the bawdiness of Chaucer’s stories that this worked really well.  I had a longer retelling out from the library as well, but we ended up liking this one more.

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz
I resisted this book for a long time.  I mean, an inaccessible reader’s theater book in verse winning the Newbery award?  When I read it awhile back, I didn’t think much of it.  However, when I read it aloud to the kids, we loved it and speaking the words do make the story come to life.  The spot the connections between the stories games were especially fun to play.  It gave such an amazing introduction to so many aspects of medieval life.

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman
We reread a number of fairy tales for this unit because they seem to have their roots in folk stories of the middle ages.  I think this one was our favorite.  We had read it many times before, but I love Hyman’s illustrations, with their little borders.  I also love how matter of factly she tells this somewhat gory tale.  There’s something almost disturbing about how, after nearly dying for having left the path, the girl remembers that at least she said please and thank you.

Robin Hood by Paul Cresswick
I put this one on very hesitantly, but the kids loved it and they especially enjoyed the Robin Hood story in general.  The library didn’t have the version I really wanted of Robin Hood, so we read several others and the kids certainly gravitated to this one.  On the positive side, it was just the right length and the N.C. Wyeth illustrations are lushly beautiful.  I’m a huge fan of the elder Wyeth’s illustrations in general.  On the negative side, the version we had was a condensed book, something that I usually abhor.  Plus, it contains a very strange plot twist.  In this version, Richard the Lionheart goes away on Crusade while his father is still alive, something that is historically false and seemingly an unnecessary change to the story.


Medieval Feasting

For Twelfth Night last week, we gathered some friends and had a medieval feast to befit the holiday.  For anyone out there who might be planning a medieval feast, I highly recommend the book Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations.  It was extremely useful in suggesting activities for our holiday.  The book guided me in recreating such lost Twelfth Night traditions as the Oxhorn Dance, where feasters don a hat with horns and try to buck off a little cake shaped like a bagel.  We also went around the tree toasting it and played a tug of war game called Oranges and Lemons.  I found the book in the children’s section of our library, but it wasn’t really a children’s book.  I suppose it’s the sort of thing where they just assume only children and people with children might want to recreate medieval feasts.  Silly them.

Another book resource I found was the picture book A Medieval Feast by Aliki.  The art was some of Aliki’s best in my opinion and the food at the feast certainly freaked the kids out when I read the book aloud at the start of our feast.  They roast a whole peacock and put the feathers back on!

While the first book gave many suggestions about menus, I didn’t really follow them.  Instead, I turned to the website Gode Cookery which is a treasure trove of medieval recipes as well as pseudo-medieval recipes.  Because I don’t think it can be the middle ages without a pie involving meat, I made a pie with chicken.  I also made a mulled cider for our wassail that was extremely well-received.  Both recipes came from there.  Our feast was a potluck, so we got some other excellent offerings, including an egg pie with elderflower that did, indeed, taste like the middle ages.

Overall, it was a fun party.  I think it’s sad that the Christmas season has become so bent out of shape over time.  In the middle ages, I think they had it right by observing Advent as Advent and letting Christmas go all twelve days.  While we won’t be doing the middle ages next year, I think I may have a party that day anyway.  It was like a celebration of seeing friends again after the holidays for Mushroom and BalletBoy and a happy signal that it was time to get back into our routines.

As is often the case with events like these, because I was hosting, I didn’t get many pictures.  Alas!  If only I had a picture of us crowning the King of the Bean or of the kids trying to get that little cake off their heads!  But here’s Mushroom all dressed up for the day.  He said he wanted to be a “peasant” but we all told him he had way too many colors.  It was expensive and sometimes illegal to wear too many colors when you were a peasant, you know.

Bayeux Tapestry

I want to get back to blogging some of our lovely history projects and things for the year.  We’re loosely using the second volume of Story of the World. We had an especially good time with the Vikings, but we moved on to the Normans and have gotten into the middle ages properly now.  That meant time for some fake stained glass.

Now that we’re onto William the Conquerer, that rhyme with all the kings of England has been stuck in my head…  “Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste, Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three…”

Anyway, to make our Bayeux Tapestry, we used some heat transfer crayons I had and a scrap of fabric from my fabric bin.  Mushroom colored Edward the Confessor’s funeral as well as the arrival of the comet.  BalletBoy did William sailing across the channel and Harold getting hit in the eye with that arrow.  We enhanced it a little with some fabric markers.  Then, to finish it off, I let the kids pick a special stitch from my sewing machine to sew a border on the top and bottom.  I helped them operate the machine.

By the way, we found excellent resources for the Norman invasion online.  If you don’t already know the BBC Schools site, then it’s always a wealth of information.  We’ve used the Primary History section before, and we really liked all the resources about the Norman invasion and the Anglo-Saxons.  However, nothing topped this video I stumbled across on Youtube.  It’s just…  well, it’s pretty excellent.

In the Scriptorium

Since we learned about the monks who kept a sliver of Roman learning alive after the fall of Rome, I decided we should make books.  Making books is a former hobby of mine, so this was fun for me.  We used one of the projects from the book Making Books that Fly, Fold, Wrap, Hide, Pop Up, Twist, and Turn.  I have a couple of books about bookbinding, but even though this one is for kids, it’s my favorite.  The projects are spelled out very clearly with photos and drawings.  The materials are simple.  Even though the book tries to dictate a purpose for each kind of project, you can easily imagine different ways to adapt each project, as I did to make our books when we imagined being in the monastery.

First, I cut two pieces of cardboard for each kid that was just slightly larger than a piece of standard paper folded in half.  The kids chose two colors to create the color.  The first color was wrapped over the cardboard.  We cut a triangle off the corners so it would glue down flat and neat.  Then the second color was used for the spine.  The kids cut that paper in half lengthwise then, leaving a space between the front and back covers, glued it on and folded it over to the inside.  You can see BalletBoy showing off his cover with a pink spine from the inside and the outside.

Next, we folded a small stack of standard paper in half.  With my help, we used an awl to punch five holes in the fold.  I helped the kids use dental floss to sew up the pages.

To finish the book, the kids choose two end papers.  They glued one side to the inside of the cover and the other side to the folio on the front cover then the back, attaching the folio to the cover.

Finally, I had the kids copy just one sentence from the bible.  I went with the 23rd Psalm.  Not my favorite bible verse, but I thought it made sense for kids.  I showed them how to make an illuminated letter and let them use the gold Sharpies, at great risk to my dining room table since they leak.  Then I let them use my calligraphy markers to write the bible verse.  They were impressed that the monks had to copy the whole thing, over and over again.  Also that the books were chained to the walls to protect them.  I told them if we had as many books as we do now back in the dark ages, we’d be bajillionaires.  If only it were the dark ages, kids.  I’d love to be able to make millions just by selling off the books.

After we finished our project, I told them they could do whatever they wanted with the books.  Mushroom immediately rewrote his bible verse in a blasphemous way.  It was very unintentional, so I find this pretty funny.  If you don’t, apologies.  The kid really didn’t know what he was doing when he inserted his own name in there.  Then he used the remaining pages to write a story about his beloved bath toys: Mary and the Frog.  The kids have been plotting out Mary and the Frog’s website empire for years, but apparently for now a book will do.

Medieval Midwifery

I first read this amazing little gem by Karen Cushman during my final year in college, when it was new and my interest in children’s literature first began to emerge.  For me, this book is nearly perfect, and not just because it brings together my love of midwives and children’s books.  It’s also just an amazing work of literature that introduced us to Karen Cushman, who has since written a number of other great works.

We’ll be doing the Middle Ages this year for history and I wanted to start the year with a medieval book for our first read aloud, to get into the medieval mood.  However, I hesitated before using this one.  It’s such a “girl” book in many ways.  Not only is the protagonist female, but the subject of midwifery is obviously female-centric.  Not to say that boys and men shouldn’t also take an interest, but it did make me pause.  The book is short, but I also worried that the plot and the language might be a tad sophisticated for my kids.  Alyce’s voice is a complex and compelling one.  It’s amazing to me that Cushman managed to capture this sense of self-pity and angst without it seeming whiny or boring like it can in many young female narrators.

It took us a couple mornings to get into it, but as Brat transformed into Beetle and finally into Alyce, the kids cheered to see her successes with delivering babies and calves.  But most importantly, the message of the story has become a mantra for us around here that I hope is sinking in with the kids.  At the end of the story, Alyce has run away after a disastrous delivery.  She realizes that her place is back with the midwife where she can learn her craft.  She returns, only be turned away.  She walks off despondently, but then realizes that the midwife has told her what she must do to stay.  Alyce turns around and bangs on the midwife’s door and tells her she refuses to go away.  She’s realized that it’s okay to fail as long as you try again.  Once she’s learned that, the midwife lets her back in.

For me, this is one of the central ideas of learning.  Things shouldn’t come easy all the time.  Learning is hard.  It’s failure after failure before the triumph of knowledge and skill.  To learn, you have to be willing to fail and try again.  I don’t want to be too harsh with the kids.  I think learning should also be fun, experiential, interesting and joyful.  But I want to gently push my kids and know that they can take that.  Occasionally we get tears when I say a first try at something new isn’t right.  Now, we’ve started referencing Alyce when that happens.  She tried and failed and tried again.