Tag Archives: US history

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.



Historical Fiction Overload

We’ve been a little overloaded with historical fiction read alouds for American history this year.  In the middle of the last book, both kids gave me a pleading look and declared that they were done.  They wanted something different so we’re reading Harriet the Spy followed by The Hobbit.  Still, it was a nice run while it lasted.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
Unlike the rest of these, which we read more of less back to back, we read this gem earlier in the year.  It’s the story of a young Objiwa girl and her family in the mid-1800’s.  Seven year-old Omakayas sees both beauty and tragedy in this story, which is one of the most beautifully written books we’ve read in our homeschool.

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I’m not personally a huge fan of the Little House books.  If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning, you may even remember a bit of a rant about how I do not get the fanaticism over them.  However, people convinced me to read this volume aloud, about the early years of Wilder’s husband Almanzo in New York.  It has lovely descriptions of food and farm chores.  While it’s lacking in much plot, my boys enjoyed the anecdotal quality of the story.  It was hit.

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick
This recent book about the Civil War won a Newbery Honor.  In Homer’s funny voice, it tells the rollicking adventures of a young boy from Maine on a quest to save his older brother from the battlefield by chasing the Union Army all the way to Gettysburg.  On the way, he meets with some tragic and many amusing adventures and tells numerous lies.  While we enjoyed it (and I really loved it), this was the book that broke the camel’s back for the kids, who are clearly done with historical fiction for awhile.  The kids laughed at Homer’s adventures, but they also asked to finish quick.

Bull Run by Paul Fleischman
This is a short volume about the Civil War battle of Bull Run.  Paul Fleischman tells the story in more than a dozen voices, from an elderly southern lady to a Union general to a young Georgia boy in the Confederate army band.  It’s very different from most of the historical fiction for children, but the writing in the different voices is so strong and the tiny chapters worked well for me to occasionally pass the book to the kids to hear them read aloud as well.

The Great Brain and the rest of the series by John Fitzgerald
We tore through these books about a Catholic family in a small Utah town near the turn of the century.  Younger brother JD tells the story of his con-artist brother Tom’s wild exploits and rescues. Sometimes there is genuine drama and tension, such as when a murderer kidnaps a young boy, but most of the stories are much more lighthearted and a lot less tragic than some of the other historical fiction books we read, which probably explains why we read so many of them.  These gave us a great opportunity to talk about how narrators don’t always give the whole picture, as JD is often fooled by Tom in ways obvious to the reader.

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer Holm
This is the story of a tomboy girl in an isolated Finnish immigrant community in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the century.  May Amelia has such a strong, funny voice, told in an interesting dialect that my kids found her very compelling.  This book swings from very funny to extremely sad in places, comparable with The Birchbark House in terms of tragedy and death.  Still, understanding that death was so much more common in the past seems like an essential part of history and I hope my boys have been benefiting from reading so much cathartic literature.

The Saturdays and the rest of the Melendy series by Elizabeth Enright
This charming series of four books about a set of four siblings was not historical fiction when it first came out.  However, the themes of buying bonds and planting Victory Gardens make it such.  Even just the old cars and the descriptions of New York before the war are great for historical setting.  In fact, all the descriptions in this series are beautifully written and richly detailed.  These books are often compared to the Penderwicks series, and the comparison is justified.  My kids enjoyed them greatly.

American History Field Trip Check In…

I committed last year to do a year of field trips for American history.  Um, sort of achieved and sort of not.  Here’s the post I made with the checklist last year.  Here’s how we’re actually doing with it.


Field Trips Achieved:

  • National Archives
  • Library of Congress
  • Smithsonian Museum of American History
  • Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian
  • Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Museum of American Art
  • Memorials walk – Washington to Jefferson, not skipping the overlooked DC World War I Veterans Memorial
  • Georgetown fun: Tudor House, Dumbarton House, Old Stone House, canal boat ride
  • Pierce Mill
  • Original District Boundary Markers
  • C&O Canal at Great Falls
  • Baltimore fun: USS Constellation, Transportation Museum, Fort McHenry
  • Mount Vernon
  • Claude Moore Colonial Farm
  • Williamsburg
  • Jamestown
  • Monticello
  • Montpelier
  • Richmond National Battlefield and Civil War Center
  • James River Plantations
Best Trip: Probably Williamsburg, but Monticello was a close second.

Longest Trip: We were in Williamsburg for three days!

Most visits: We’ve been to the Portrait Gallery seven or eight times at least.  I lose count.  We’ve also unexpectedly been at the colonial farm a lot.  I should have bought a membership.

Most unexpectedly fun: As I mentioned previously, we went in search of the original boundary markers for the district and that was like going on a geocache hunt.  Very bizarre but enjoyable to invade someone’s yard for a historic marker.


Field Trips Not Achieved (at least not yet):

  • White House tour
  • Capitol tour
  • Bureau of Printing and Engraving
  • Ford’s Theater and Peterson House
  • Lincoln’s Cottage
  • Frederick Douglass National Historical Site
  • Mary McCloud Bethune House
  • Fort Circle Parks
  • St. Mary’s City
  • Riverdale Mansion
  • Antietum National Battlefield
  • Clara Barton House at Glen Echo
  • Manassas National Battlefield
  • Gadsby’s Tavern
  • Arlington National Cemetery
  • Appomattox Courthouse Battlefield
  • Cumberland Gap
  • Harper’s Ferry
  • Gettysburg
  • Valley Forge National Historical Park
  • Philadelphia fun: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center

We’ll Make It Soon: We’re just now up to the Civil War and I’m hoping we hit the Lincoln and Frederick Douglass sites, a couple of the Fort Circle Parks, plus a quick day trip to Harper’s Ferry and out to Manassas within the next month or so.

Additions: We’re also going to hit some Atlanta sites when we visit relatives later this summer.  Cyclorama here we come!

Big Regret: I really thought we’d make it to Philadelphia.  I suppose we still can, but with overnights to Williamsburg and Charlottesville, it just didn’t happen.


Westward Ho!

Forget the books.  Okay, don’t forget the books, but apparently we haven’t been doing enough projects for history lately.  Too many field trips and books.  So once we started learning about prairie schooners (that is, wagons), Mushroom and BalletBoy immediately demanded we make wagon models which could be then used by their minifigs and gogos, who were apparently about to stake out some territory out west anyway.

Here’s the result.

We used tissues for the roofs.

If you’re interested in more projects, the blog The Crafty Crow, which often has good kid craft links, has a nice long list of pioneer projects from across the blogosphere.


Of course, we did read books about the pioneers as well.  The best overview read was Don’t Know Much About the Pioneers by Kenneth C. Davis.  Davis’s popular adult and teen books of the same series apparently got translated into a picture book series at some point.  This was actually a good, quick overview.

The best fiction book we read was, by far, Dandelions by Eve Bunting.  Bunting’s books are often quite deep for the picture book genre and this story of a family who move to Nebraska was no exception.  Zoe, the family’s oldest daughter, describes her father’s can-do spirit and her mother’s growing depression at life on the prairies.  The dandelions, fellow transplants, become a metaphor for the family.

Getting Back to American History

We are resuming our study of American history finally.  We’ll be diving into a lot of good fiction that will cover the Civil War, Western expansion and general American nostalgia.  First up, I’ve been convinced we have to read Farmer Boy.  Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I’m not much of a Little House lover, but we’re going to give it a shot.

However, we began by reading the first few chapters in Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans by Kadir Nelson.

The book covers the arrival of the first Africans in America through the Civil Rights movement and I’m sure we’ll return to it and read the subsequent chapters as well as we reach the topics.  It’s a well-designed book, with illustrations worthy of the National Portrait Gallery, which is no surprise since the author’s background is as an illustrator.  The text, while still a history book, is in the voice of an African-American storyteller, including some dialect and many personal references.  The strong voice appealed to me as an innovative technique in a children’s history book and I was thrilled that it was narrative instead of blurby, but I wasn’t sure how well it would work with my kids.  After reading the preface, we talked a little bit about voice and the style of the book before reading on.  Quickly, I realized it was perfectly suited for young audiences.  Mushroom and BalletBoy immediately gravitated to the storyteller’s personal details, especially the grandfather called “Pap” in the first chapter on slavery.  These aspects of the narrative grounded the story in reality for them.

I strongly recommend this book for any family with elementary school children who are studying American history or simply for anyone who wants a resource to explore African-American history.  It’s not a terribly in depth resource, but it gives such a good overview in such a compelling way.

I Wish I Had a Big Bulletin Board

Oh, wait, I can do one better!  I have a pocket door.

Just sitting here at the dining room table, looking at our timeline of the Revolutionary War.

And now, as I put it away, I can see Mushroom about to jump off the overstuffed chair.

I’m sure that’s what they intended this beautiful hunk of wood to be used for when they designed the house a century ago.  Right?

Colonial Books

Did I mention that we’re drowning in the colonial and revolutionary books?  Well, we really, really are.  I felt like we managed to read all the things I wanted to read about Jamestown and Plymouth, as well as books about the beginnings of the colonies, but once we got into the colonial period, the biographies began to pile up.  There’s not time for them all!  Yet there’s so many good ones.  I’m sure this only even scratches the surface.  Here’s what we’ve done so far.

First of all, the series books:

A Picture Book of… by David Adler
This series of biographies covers many figures throughout history, not just during this time period, however there were a number of good people covered, including John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Hancock and others.  Most of the older entries in the series have cartoon style drawings, but a few of the newer ones have different illustrators.  One of the nice things about this series is that all the books focus on the youth of the figure, which makes them easy to relate to for children.  They’re easy to read and not too long.  They’re also really succinct without being too detailed.

Can't You Make Them Behave, King George? (Paperback) ~ Jean Frit... Cover ArtWhy Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? (Paperback) ~ Jean Fritz (... Cover ArtWhat's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? (Other) ~ Jean Fritz (Author) Cover Art

Jean Fritz’s Books
These are the classic books for this time period.  Jean Fritz wrote wonderful, readable books about nearly every major figure in the Revolutionary War, from Sam Adams to John Hancock.  We’re slowly working our way through them.  They have a sense of humor and nice, light illustrations, but are also filled with solid information told in a way kids want to hear.  They make good independent reads as well, though Mushroom isn’t quite up to these yet, so we’ve mostly been reading everything aloud.

Struggle for a Continent: The French and Indian Wars: 1689-1763 ... Cover ArtLiberty or Death: The American Revolution: 1763-1783 (American S... Cover Art

Betsey Maestro’s Books
The entries for this time period are The Struggle for a Continent, about the French and Indian Wars and Liberty or Death about the Revolutionary War.  Each book is detailed; we usually try not to read it all in one sitting.  There may have been too much detail about the French and Indian Wars.  They’re a sadly forgotten set of conflicts considering their importance, but in the end, I just want my boys to get the outline and I think they got a bit bogged down by this telling, especially in the complete absence of any other resources on the topic.  Our library literally had nothing else of note about the wars that so greatly shaped our continent.  However, overall, this is our spine for this time period.  I appreciate the beautiful illustrations as well.

Stand alone titles we’ve really enjoyed:

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson
This classic short chapter book has had such an effect on the kids and how they see Ben Franklin that they keep telling me Amos the mouse and narrator of the story is actually hiding in Franklin’s hat whenever they see him in a picture or on Liberty’s Kids.  Despite the bizarre premise that a mouse was really responsible for all of Franklin’s greatest triumphs, it’s an oddly sweet book as Amos and Ben reach old age having accomplished so much.  You can also find the short Disney film here.

George Washington’s Teeth by Deborah Chandra
This was so short and funny that it was hard to believe it was true.  However, as a timeline in the back details, Washington’s dental troubles were ongoing throughout the Revolution and he indeed helped design his own false teeth.  We laughed (and cringed!) about this one and read it again.  The illustrations are also lighthearted to go with the text and there’s a nice, clean look to the pages.

Take the Lead, George Washington by Judith St. George
This biography was detailed but focused entirely on how Washington grew up into the man he later became.  The storytelling style really appealed to Mushroom and BalletBoy, who were much more riveted by this one than the others.  The illustrations are bold and colorful and it makes Washington’s life into much more a story and less of a set of dry facts.  I think they really connected to him here.

Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak by Kay Winters
We alternated reading this book, which has several different tradesmen in Boston on the eve of the Boston Tea Party, all going about their business and preparing for protest.  Each page has a different voice told in free form poetry.  I liked the illustrations and the emphasis on how ordinary people, as opposed to the “great men” we often hear about, helped begin the Revolution.

Let It Begin Here! by Dennis Brindell Fradin
Would you believe we read two children’s picture books about the first battles of the Revolution with the same title?  Well, we liked this slightly shorter one, which had more detailed illustrations better.  Be warned though, it had some gruesome bits.  People are bayoneted and both the text and the pictures make it clear that people died in some sad ways.

John, Paul, George and Ben by Lane Smith
This book is obviously a lighthearted take, not to be taken too seriously, but you have to have a little of that, don’t you?  It’s a silly look at the childhoods of our founding fathers, imagining that the traits that made them famous as adults were an annoyance in their childhood.  For example, Paul Revere is shown shouting everything loudly in class as a child, only to find a good use when he has to warn everyone the Regulars are coming.  It’s one of those books that’s funnier when you know the back stories.

George vs. George by Rosalyn Schanzer
This book is from National Geographic, who have been issuing more and more quality narrative picture books in the last decade about science and history.  There are several good ones from them about the founding of the colonies as well, mostly using beautifully done photographic illustrations.  This book is a little shorter (though still a long read aloud) by their standards and uses nice cartoonish illustrations.  It alternates perspectives and gives a clearer picture for kids as to why the British did what they did without painting them as one-dimensional “bad guys.”

Colonial Times

We’ve been so immersed in books about the American colonies and the Revolutionary War that you might say we’re drowning in them.  I’m struggling to find time to read everything that appeals to me from this time period.  I’ve also been struggling to make time to do more projects.  More about the books later, but in the meantime, the project we did get around to was fun, so I thought I’d share.

The kids noticed the silhouette pictures at Monticello and Mount Vernon so I thought it would make a good, easy project.  You can do them easiest by printing out a digital photo, but we went old fashioned and drew our shadows then cut them out.  Here’s a link to instructions on how to do both kinds.   I helped with the drawing, but the kids’ scissor skills are looking good here, I think.  They looked so cool, we hung them in the stairwell with the family pictures.

BalletBoy also spontaneously photocopied a bunch of things for his “printing shop” where he works as a journalist and distributed them among the household.  There’s his warning that “The Regulars are Coming!” and a copy of “Common Sense.”  In case his spelling was too obscure.  This pretend game is surely influenced by the intrepid journalist children on the TV show Liberty’s Kids, which they’re more than halfway finished with.

Native American Books

We’re being a bit slow with history this year, so we’re still in our opening unit on Native Americans.  After we did explorers and pre-Columbian empires, we made our way up here to do a little unit study on first peoples here in the United States.  We’ve been reading piles of good individual books, mostly legends and myths.  I can’t include them all here (in part because we’ve read and returned dozens of them already!) but I thought I’d list a few of the resources we’ve really enjoyed.

Her Seven Brothers by Paul Goble
Goble’s picture books about Native American legends are beautifully illustrated and told.  As a child, I can remember being completely besotted by The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses.  After reading it a million times, I think it’s what drove me to force my parents into paying for riding lessons.  For our unit, we read a few of Goble’s works, but the kids especially liked this Cheyenne legend about a girl with a special connection to seven brothers who eventually become the stars in the Big Dipper.

When Clay Sings by Byrd Baylor and Tom Bahti
This book was a 1973 Caldecott Honor Book that I had never even heard of, but which just emphasized for me how quickly forgotten some of our best picture book treasures are.  It’s a very short, simple book told in free verse about shards of pottery discovered in the southwest and the various patterns and images on it.  The orange and brown tones of that pottery, which is still made today, dominate the book and the only illustrations are taken from the designs.  It’s completely different in tone and style from anything else we read, but it also is the sort of book that lights up the imagination in a different way.  I really appreciated it.

Echoes of the Elders: The Stories and Paintings of Cheif Lelooska
This oversized book supposedly comes with a CD (our library copy didn’t include it) but it was also just a treasure without it.  The stories all come from the Northwest Coast tribes of Native Americans and were told by a single storytelling chief then adapted into this book. The illustrations are beautiful and even the type and color scheme are sleek and appealing.  The stories are wonderful as well and just the right length.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdich
This amazing chapter book is our current read aloud.  It took a little while for the kids to warm up to it, but they’re slowly getting more into it.  The language is rich and descriptive, letting you picture the 1840’s setting of the Objiway people.  I especially love the way seven year-old Omakayas is both completely believable as a child of her time yet also completely relateable to a modern audience.

More Than Moccasins by Laurie Carlson
This book is a compendium of craft and activity ideas.  I was initially dubious about it, though I can’t remember exactly why.  It turned out to be worth the money.  The ideas range from simple to complex.  It makes an effort to cover different tribes and to specifically tell you which tribe the craft activity is based on.  There are lots of simple games you can make and an array of recipes as well as more traditional make a paper tipi and milk carton adobe house type of crafts.

If You Lived with the…
 Series from Scholastic
This series covers many aspects of American history, not just Native Americans.  However, I’ve especially valued the titles we’ve had about different groups of Native Americans.  Unlike so many other recent nonfiction titles, these books have a narrative structure and a great deal of depth.  They’re all about 50 pages long, mostly of text.  They tell about customs, food, hunting, clothing, houses, travel and basic history.  The illustrations are nothing special, but I like how each book honors the Native American tribes as individual groups with their own traditions.

Song of the Hermit Thrush: An Iroquois Legend (Native American Legends)Brave Bear and the Ghosts: A Sioux Legend (Native American Legends)
Native American Legends Series from Troll Book*
The concept behind this series is literally exactly what I wanted from a series about Native Americans.  Each book has bold, modern illustrations and a relatively detailed story from a Native American tribe.  An Iroquois legend tells about how the hermit thrush sings, a Cherokee legend tells how the first strawberry came to be, and so forth.  Then, at the end, a short but detailed history of the tribe with photographs and documentary images is given.  It’s the perfect combination for anyone doing a unit study on different Native American groups.

*One caveat about this last series.  It’s so difficult to find books that are acceptable to everyone when dealing with Native Americans in particular.  A history of stereotyped and offensive books for children makes it all the more difficult to find the right resources which are respectful of both children as an audience and Native Americans as a people.  This series didn’t have a lot of reviews, but they were decidedly mixed and several called out numerous errors (all small seeming, but enough to make it feel poorly done) in the history overview that’s given at the end of the volumes.  Still, with so few reviews, it’s hard to know how seriously to take criticisms.  For example, one reviewer actually thought the art style was offensive, which I couldn’t take seriously at all.