Teaching Literature-Based History without a Curriculum

Teaching Literature-Based History without a Curriculum

I must have filled in so very many history worksheets as a kid sitting at a desk with a textbook, but I can’t tell you much that I learned sitting in that desk. The truth is that most of the history I learned as a kid came from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and historical fiction that I found on the library shelves. For that reason, I knew that I wanted to take a literature-based approach to history with my kids. 

The secular homeschooling community isn’t exactly awash in literature-based options, though. Last year when I couldn’t find anything that would work for teaching early American history to my 2nd graders, I decided to wing it. We made our way from prehistory through the colonial period, and this year in 3rd grade we’re attempting to read our way through the Revolutionary War through the Civil War. Given how many great books and resources are out there, it hasn’t been so hard to put it together myself, and, as so often happens in homeschooling, I’m learning considerably more than I knew before.

Truly, the biggest hurdle to cobbling my own history curriculum together has been organizing the resources in such a way that I know where they are, I remember all of the ideas that I had, and I don’t leave anything out. 

My solution to the organization issue is creating a collection of spreadsheets for the year. I divide the year up into units, with each unit getting its own spreadsheet. This year, my spreadsheets are titled Revolutionary War, Westward Expansion, Slavery, and Civil War. Those with older children studying in greater detail may also want to divide larger units into mini-units and give them their own spreadsheets. For example, World War II might be divided into mini-units such as The Role of Women, Allies and Axis Powers, The Holocaust, The Homefront, and Military Technology.

The spreadsheet has two purposes. First, the spreadsheet serves as a comprehensive list of all of the resources I’d like to use within a unit. It includes field trips, historical fiction selections, selected activities from supplemental resources like History Pockets, nonfiction literature, videos, poems, and audiobooks. 

The spreadsheet’s second purpose is to help me keep track of where things are. My columns at the top are On Hand, Library, Field Trip, and Activity. Given how many books we’ll use, it’s important to keep track of which books I have on hand at home and which books I’ll pull from the library shelves. This makes it easy, too, for putting together our list for the library. The Field Trip column serves as a visual reminder for me to make room on our calendar and take any necessary planning steps to pull off the field trip. In the Activity column, I mark the page on which the activity can be found and the acronym for the book it can be found within. 

In addition to my spreadsheets, the other organizational tool that keeps my DIY literature-based history curriculum humming is a milkcrate. I’ve pulled every history resource I’ll use for the year and placed it in the milkcrate for ease of finding. It helps to avoid all of those awful times when you’re meandering around saying, “I know we have it somewhere, but I can’t find it.”

Whatever period of history you’re studying with your kids this year, I hope that these organizational tips can help you feel more in control of the sprawl that comes along with studying history with literature. 

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