u.s. history

Great Books for Studying Native American History: High School

Great Books for Studying Native American History: High School

On the 150th anniversary of the Medicine Lodge Treaty (a trio of problematic agreements that forced the Plains Indians onto reservations) ensure that your high school U.S. history studies include the country’s marginalized original inhabitants.

A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Studying the Panama Canal

Celebrate the 103rd anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal this month by digging into the celebrated passageway’s fascinating history.

A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Studying the Panama Canal

People had been talking about building a canal through Panama since the 1500s, but it wasn’t until maverick President Theodore Roosevelt channeled his energy into the project during the early 20th century that the 50-foot waterway across the isthmus of Panama became a reality. Today, the Panama Canal is celebrated as one of the most innovative engineering projects of all time and one of the most costly, in terms of both dollars and lives.

 

WHAT TO WATCH

PBS tackles the canal’s history and significance in American Experience: The Panama Canal. This very watchable documentary is an excellent way to put the canal in its historic and modern contexts.

 

WHAT TO READ

What Is the Panama Canal? (part of the What Was? series) is a young reader-friendly introduction to the history and function of the Panama Canal.

Julie Green takes a different approach in The Canal Builders, focusing on the lives of the builders, most of whom came from the Caribbean to take the dirty, dangerous jobs that white workers didn’t want.

David McCullough’s sweeping history The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 is considered the definitive read for Panama Canal history.

 

CHECK THIS OUT

Harvard’s web-accessible collection Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics offers a compelling look at the African-American experience in the building of the Panama Canal. Other attempts at canal digging had failed in part because of the sheer prevalence of tropical diseases, but the U.S. effort enlisted the assistance of a chief sanitary officer to minimize diseases among its workers.

Learn more about the yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases that plagued work crews via the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections. Explore the Smithsonian Institution’s interactive Let Dirt Fly! exhibit online for a quick history of the canal. It’s pretty amazing to look at the capacities of some of the giant steam shovels brought in to work on the canal and to think that even with all that machinery at full force, it still took more than nine years of non-stop work to actually complete the canal, especially considering how tiny that strip of land looks on the world map.

The Panama Canal Museum has digitized many primary documents relating to the canal and has a useful timeline. You can also explore its online exhibition on the history and significance of the Panama Canal.

This list was originally published in our summer 2014 issue of HSL.


At Home with the Editors: Amy’s 9th Grade Reading List

At Home with the Editors: Amy’s 9th Grade Reading List

Our 9th grade homeschool reading list is heavy on U.S. history and literature, with an effort to bring in diverse voices and stories. (Plus lots of physical science and a Studio Ghibli lit class!)

Summer Boot Camp: 5 Ways to Get Excited about Teaching U.S. History

History is more than just names, dates, wars, treaties, and timelines. If your homeschool history class could use a boost of inspiration, use this summer to kick things up a notch with these history resources and ideas.

History is more than just names, dates, wars, treaties, and timelines. If your homeschool history class could use a boost of inspiration, use this summer to kick things up a notch with these history resources and ideas.

READ THIS

Go Beyond the Textbook: History professor Will Fitzhugh believes that history teachers and students should be reading good history books—not just textbooks. Some of his faves for your summer reading list: Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough, Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, and The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough.

 

WATCH THIS

History, Meet Technology: Historian Thomas Ketchell explores the complex question of whether facts matter in an age of instant-access information and how to use technology to make history relevant and engaging in this Ted talk. Ketchell’s ideas about Twitter and Minecraft in the classroom may not be a perfect fit for your homeschool, but they’ll definitely make you think about new ways of considering history.

 

EXPERT ADVICE

Rethink Where You Begin: If your U.S. History plans start on the Bering Strait bridge, historian Annette Atkins says you may be missing the chance to make history truly relevant for your student. In this essay, Atkins explains why she starts her history classes with current events—and how that gets students excited about diving into the past.

 

READ THIS

Shift Your Emphasis: The point of history isn’t to memorize a bunch of facts but to be able to interpret and analyze historical documents and events so that we can construct meaningful narratives about the past. Why Won't You Just Tell us the Answer?: Teaching historical Thinking in Grades 7- 12 walks you through how to shift your history studies from memorization toward interpretive and interrogative examination.

 

AIM HIGHER

Encourage Deep Research: The Concord Review publishes original historical research by high school students. For kids who are passionate about history, crafting a 4,000- to 6,000-plus-word essay in strict Turabian style to submit for publication can be a highlight of a U.S. history class. Browse some of the published work— it’s quite impressive—and consider encouraging your student to submit.

This list is excerpted from our Summer Boot Camp Guide in the summer 2016 issue of HSL.


HSL Book Deal of the Day 5.21.17: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

The original computers weren't machines, they were people—specifically women who, armed with slide rules and sharpened pencils, performed the complex calculations needed to get the space program (literally) off the ground. This book shines a long overdue spotlight on the women scientists and mathematicians who contributed to the early work of the space program, and it's a great read on its own or as part of a larger study with The Glass Universe and Hidden Figures.

We're highlighting our picks for best book deal of the day on the blog, but you can always find our favorite Kindle book deals here.


New Books: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives

The question that always comes up when we’re talking about people like the Founding Fathers is this one: How could the people whose legacy is the freedom and democracy established by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution keep slaves? This book doesn’t attempt to answer that unanswerable question. Instead, it shines a spotlight on some of the people enslaved by these heroes of early U.S. history—which, in the case of this well-researched and utterly compelling collection of mini biographies, feels like the only reasonable way to approach this not-so-beautiful piece of our history.

Davis focuses on the lives of five enslaved people (he specifically avoids calling them slaves because of the way that word can dehumanize people by reducing them to property): Billy Lee, who was George Washington’s valet; Ona Judge, another enslaved member of Washington’s household who the family pursued aggressively when she escaped to freedom; Isaac Granger, a skilled metal worked owned by Thomas Jefferson and given by him, along with the rest of the Granger family, to his daughter as a wedding present; Paul Jennings, who served as James Madison’s valet, and Alfred Jackson, who was an enslaved person owned by Andrew Jackson’s family. At first, these may seem like stories of ordinary, everyday people, but that’s the point: For every person like Billy Lee who left more than a bill of purchase in the annals of history, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, whose stories we just don’t know. Davis does a great job piecing together the scraps of available history into narratives that capture the experience of being a slave in the early days of the United States. Some of it is really hard to read—Washington’s dogged pursuit of his escaped slave stood out for me—but these feel like stories that need to be told. I also appreciated that Davis addresses upfront the problem of history and enslaved people—namely, that slaves are not likely to speak ill of masters with the power of life and death over them and that chroniclers of enslaved people might have had a tendency to pick and choose what they included in their narratives, often biasing their work toward positive comments. 

This book isn’t a hatchet job on our Founding Fathers, but it does point out the inherent contradictions between their ideal of democracy and their pragmatic approach to slavery in their own lives. I think this should be on every middle grades and high school U.S. history reading list. I had a few problems with the book—the author has a tendency to talk down to his audience and overexplain, which got in the way for me sometimes—but on the whole, it’s an excellent read on an important subject and well worth adding to your library hold list, stat.


At Home with the Editors: Amy's 3rd Grade Reading List

At Home with the Editor's: Amy's 3rd Grade Reading List

I’ve gotten a few emails about this, so here’s an annotated list of what I read with my 3rd grader this year. (Here’s what we used for curriculum if you want more context.) My son is not in love with reading, so we read most of these together. We always start the day with a readaloud, readalouds figure largely into our learning routine, and we have a bedtime readaloud, so it looks like a longer list than it actually feels like. I’m including books we read as part of our studies and books we read together for fun, but I’m not including textbooks. 

Tennis Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Just what you'd expect from a Streatfeild book: A family with a small budget and big dreams finds success, this time on the tennis courts. 

Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World's Favorite Treat by Kay Frydenborg
This book about the science and history of chocolate was so much fun to read—and it gave us an excuse to kick off the year with a chocolate taste test, so that was a pretty big plus.

Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
My son checked this out of the library so many times that I bought him his own copy. He thought it was hilarious.

George and Martha by James Marshall
I don't worry about reading levels, so I was just thrilled that my son had found a book he was interested in reading. But I think this little collection of short stories is so witty and charming, it should really be on more reading lists. We both loved it. (How did I miss it as a kid?)

The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron
Fun readaloud about a boy who loves to spin tall tales. 

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
I almost didn't read this with my son because we've read it before, but I really do want to encourage my children to be rereaders as well as readers. Reading it again actually turned out to be great—my son's such a better reader now, and he really got into the story and the vocabulary. (*BYL)

No Flying in the House by Betty Brock
Because we will read any story if it has a magical dog in it. (This one is really cute, though.)

Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson
I love these little poetry collections, and we really enjoyed reading Emily Dickinson together. I'm always kind of torn about explanatory prefaces to poetry, which I think can give people the idea that there's a right way to read something, but these are really well done and do a good job pointing out things to look for without implying that they're the only things to look for, if that makes sense. My son picked several of her nature poems for his weekly recitations this year. (*BYL)

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
I guess it's not just magical dogs—we'll read any book about dogs, period. This one is full of interesting talking points.

Action Jackson by Jan Greenberg
I don't remember why we started looking at Jackson Pollack paintings (probably somebody made a mess painting?), but we had a whole Pollack period earlier this year. This biography was really cool, and I love that it used Pollack's own words.

Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Ben Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos by Robert Lawson
I've always loved this book—the story of Franklin and, by extension, the early history of the United States told from a mouse's perspective—but my son was not impressed. Getting through this was a struggle. (*BYL)

Wolf Story by William McCleery
I love, love, love this book, and I was so glad my son loved it, too.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
Really, pretty much a perfect book. I lured him in with Sideways Arithmetic (because he'll read anything about math), but this was one of his favorite books. I sometimes catch him rereading it. (I also sometimes catch his big sister rereading it. And me. I reread it, too.)

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski
Lenski does a great job here giving a balanced, nuanced, and (mostly) historically accurate view of Seneca life through the eyes of a (real) girl who was adopted by the Seneca after her family was killed by one of their raids. It's kind of heartening to think that it was published in the 1940s. (*BYL)

The BFG by Roald Dahl
I was pretty sure we'd done this one as a readaloud already, but he must have been too little to remember. It's never bad to go back to Roald Dahl, though, and we had to read it before we watched the movie!

Frindle by Andrew Clements
My son gave this five out of five stars.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Fudge's mayhem both delighted and stressed out my not-at-all-mayhem-inclined son. He wanted to read the next book immediately.

Superfudge by Judy Blume
See above. 

Squids Will Be Squids by Jon Scieszka
My son is always looking for excuses to put this book on our reading list. I don't mind.

The Worm by Elise Gravel
We love the Disgusting Critters series! For science this year, we did several worm-related projects, and this was a fun book to go along with them.

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George
We listened to this as an audiobook. It's never really been my favorite book, but my son enjoyed it more than I ever have. (*BYL)

The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns
Such a fun book! A triangle decides he wants to add some extra angles in this light introduction to basic polygons.

Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Silly fun. Cauliflower!

A Week in the Woods by Andrew Clements
I thought this one would be a slam dunk since he loved Frindle so much, but he never really got into it. (*BYL)

What's New? The Zoo: A Zippy History of Zoos by Kathleen Krull
I found this on a list of recommended science books, and it turned out to so interesting. It's a history of zoos, from ancient Sumeria and China to the modern day. 

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space by Dr. Dominic Walliman
We would have checked this one out just for the title, but it turned out to be a pretty engaging book about space.

Math-terpieces by Greg Tang
Somehow we missed this Greg Tang book, so we were pleased to discover it. If you have a kid who loves math, definitely put all of Tang's books on your library list.

Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney
I snagged this for Black History Month, and it's great for that, too, but honestly, its message of creating change through nonviolence was just what I wanted my kids to have right now.

Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great by Judy Blume
Sadly, not a hit. Sheila just couldn't live up to the Peter/Fudge/Tootsie legacy.

The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton

Eyewitness Explorer: Nature Ranger
I had almost forgotten about this book (which I guess is the point of book lists in the first place). It was great! It had really fun hands-on nature activities, like building a moth trap and making your own rainbow.

G Is for Googol by David M. Schwartz
We both loved this witty math primer. ("W" is for "When are we ever gonna use this stuff, anyway?")

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier
I remembered this book from my own elementary school days as being kind of depressing and slow, and rereading it did not change my perspective. We didn't actually finish it. (*BYL)

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol
My son loved guessing the solutions to the mysteries. In fact, he liked this book so much, he went on to check out all the books in the series that our library has in its collection.

Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey
I love when you learn something new from a book! I did not know about the Green Book, a book that told African American travelers in the 1950s which restaurants, gas stations, etc., on major routes weren't racist. 

Johnny Tremain by Esther Hoskins Forbes
This is pretty much classic historical fiction about the Revolutionary War. (*BYL) 

Magnificent Minds: 16 Pioneering Women in Science and Medicine by Pendred Noyce
This was such a cool book—it included new information about women in science we already knew (I did not know that Florence Nightingale was one of the pioneers in using statistics as a tool for public health) and information about women we were almost totally unfamiliar with. 

Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
My son became really interested in infections when our homeschool group got hit hard by a bug this winter, and I picked up this book about one of the most notorious infections of all time at the library. This was a pleasantly complex book that went into the science of pathology but also the legal and social issues at the center of her case. Really interesting!

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Lovely picture book—a nice accompaniment to nature journaling.

George vs. George: The American Revolution Seen from Both Sides by Rosalyn Schanzer
This book was a great tool for stimulating conversation about perspective—it's always important and interesting to look at who is telling a story and what biases they might be bringing to the telling. Plus you can make people listen to the Hamilton soundtrack when you are reading it. (*BYL)

The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Not a hit—I think the love story was just not interesting to my son. (*BYL)

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
Laugh-out-loud hilarious. Like Squids Will Be Squids, this book really inspired my son to make up his own stories.

Mummy Math: An Adventure in Geometry by Cindy Neuschwander
My son will read pretty much any book about math and any book about mummies, so it wasn't surprising when he grabbed this at the library.

11 Experiments that Failed by Jenny Offill
Fun, funny, absolutely terrific book about the scientific method. 

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
A classic. “It is not in doing what you like, but in liking what you do that is the secret of happiness.” 

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
My son was completely captivated by Sam's adventures living in the wilderness. (*BYL)

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
We didn't plan on this as a follow-up to Typhoid Mary, but they actually went really well together—and I think the connection made my son much more engaged with this book than he might have been otherwise. (*BYL)

Mischievous Meg by Astrid Lindgren
Lovely readaloud.

Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe
This was one of my daughter's favorite books, so she was thrilled when her brother loved it, too. But really, a story about a vegetarian vampire bunny rabbit kinda sells itself.

Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm
Lovely science picture book.

The Wonderful Adventure of Nils by Selma Lagerlof
A quirky Swedish tale of tiny boy who explores the world riding on the back of goose written by a Nobel Prize-winning author. 

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
We've read bits and pieces, of course, but this is the first time we read this cover-to-cover together. Not the last, though, I bet.

Dogku by Andrew Clements
Dogs + haiku. If there was ever a literary sure thing for my 3rd grader, this is it.

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano
Terrific science book—I love that it includes real telescopic images.

Secrets of the Garden: Food Chains and the Food Web in Our Backyard by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld
I found this book when I was looking for something about the food web for our nature studies. 

The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelutsky
One of our favorite collections of silly poetry. 

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
I love this book, which is a little like A Series of Unfortunate Events (though it was written long before that)—two orphans must survive an evil governess in alternate England where wolves roam the countryside. (*BYL)

The Celery Stalks at Midnight by James Howe
Continuing the Bunnicula saga. This series is definitely one of our readaloud faves.

Nothing But the Truth by Avi
Probably like everyone else, we've been talking a lot about politics this year, and this book added to the conversation in some interesting ways. It's about a conflict between a student and teacher that spirals out of control with a little help from the media, and it's almost guaranteed to trigger some interesting discussion.

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark
Ada Lovelace is so cool. (I was reading the Colors of Madeleine books on my own when we read this, and since Lovelace and her dad play a role in those books, it was fun to read more about her here.

Karlson on the Roof by Astrid Lindgren
A fun readaloud from the creator of Pippi Longstocking.

Calico Bush by Rachel Field
We picked this up during our conversation about indentured servants in the colonial world—it's one of those subjects that really comes to life with a living book. 

Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson
A great nature journal read.

American Tale Tales by Mary Pope Osborne
Fine but not exactly diverse. (*BYL)

Anno’s Math Games 3
We've loved all the books in this series. Highly recommended if you have a math-y kid.

Birdology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Birds by Monica Russo
This book was great for nature study. My son was really into have specific activities for nature journaling this year, and this book had some good ideas.

Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling
Don't be fooled by its picture book exterior: This chronicle of the Mississippi River Valley (told from the perspective of a snapping turtle) covers history, biology, anthropology, geology and more. 

Butterfly House by Eve Bunting
Another nature journal read—this one was a little mushy-gushy for us.

Dandelions by Eve Bunting
I loved the way this book captured both the vastness and the isolation of pioneer life with a fairly simple story.

Skating Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Probably my son's least favorite Streatfeild, which is a shame because it was the last of the shoes series we hadn't read. 

So many Geronimo Stilton books that I am not even going to try to list them individually

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty
We loved this picture book about a little girl living the science life (which often involves making messes as she experiments and tests hypotheses).

How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis and Clark by Rosalyn Schanzer
I have read SO MUCH about Lewis and Clark this year (partly because I am currently obsessed with Meriwether Lewis), but this is a good, engaging introduction to their expedition. I liked that it uses excerpts from the explorers' journals. (*BYL)

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
One of my all-time favorite readalouds. Both my kids have memorized "Macavity the Mystery Cat," and we often recite it (dramatically!) when we are stuck in traffic.

Rachel’s Journal by Marissa Moss
This scrapbook-style book about life on the Oregon Trail was a favorite of my daughter's, so I had a copy to pull out for our pioneer studies.

The Quilt-Block History of Pioneer Days by Mary Cobb
If you are studying pioneer history and enjoy crafty art projects, I cannot recommend this book enough. It explores pioneer history through the quilts people made, and it comes with ideas for paper quilting crafts. Really fun.

Justin Morgan Had a Horse by Marguerite Henry
My animal-loving son really enjoyed this book. (*BYL)

Daily Life in a Covered Wagon by Paul Erickson
This book has excerpts from letters and diaries and photos of actual tools and artifacts from wagon trail times. We really enjoyed it, and the specific details were fascinating. 

Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm 
Historical fiction based on the life of the author's real life great aunt, a Finnish settler in Washington state at the turn of the 20th century.

Which Way to the Wild West? by Steve Sheinkin
This is pretty typical Sheinkin, and that's always a good thing. I think this would be a great book to read at the start of a pioneer unit study, and it was great for that chunk of our U.S. history study, too.

Razia and the Pesky Presents by Natasha Sharma
Awesome book recommendation that came from a diverse books reading list.

They’re Off! The Story of the Pony Express by Cheryl Harness
We wanted to know more about the Pony Express, so we checked out this book. It was fine—I appreciated that it touched on the political and economic issues at play—but I suspect there might be better books.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl
Fun readaloud.

The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh
I thought my son would totally dig this book—pioneers on a new planet!—but he just thought it was OK. (*BYL)

 Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
I am pretty much always looking for an excuse to read this.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Such a great book, and it made a really nice counterpoint to Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
 OK, but I hate Tom Sawyer (the character, not the book) SO MUCH, and I was reading Huckleberry Finn at the same time and just being furious about how TERRIBLE Tom Sawyer is at the end of that book. (*BYL)

The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill
More people should read this! It's so funny and charming.

Fannie in the Kitchen: The Whole Story from Soup to Nuts of How Fannie Farmer Invented Recipes with Precise Measurements by Deborah Hopkinson
We love cooking together, and I thought this book was a great introduction to why recipes matter.

By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman
We'd read this before, but we were happy to read it again. (*BYL)

Poetry for Young People: Walt Whitman
(*BYL)
I was surprised by how much my son enjoyed Whitman. Pleasantly surprised but surprised!

Brady by Jean Fritz
Solid historical fiction about the Underground Railroad. (*BYL)

(We homeschool year-round, so I just picked the date I started this list as the cutting-off point.)

(*BYL) : This indicates books that are part of the Build Your Library reading list we used this year


At Home with the Editors: Inside Amy's 3rd Grade

He also took his first official standardized test (I gave it to him at the table in the art room).

Every year, Shelli and Amy open the door and invite you to step inside their homeschool lives. (Please ignore the mess!) We talk about the resources we're using in our own homeschools and how we structure our days. There are lots of ways to homeschool, and we don't think our way is the best—just the one that happens to be working best for our particular families at this particular time.  If nothing else, you will get a behind-the-scenes look in the homes of the editors of home / school / life, but if something here helps you, all the better! Today, Amy's talking about how she homeschooled 3rd grade this year.

Because there’s a pretty significant age gap between my kids (six years), I decided to do two separate posts to make things easy for myself. Today, I’m sharing some of the resources I use with my 3rd grader. (You can see what 1st grade and 2nd grade looked like for us in the archives.)

You would think that having homeschooled 3rd grade before (we pulled our daughter out of school in 2nd grade), homeschooling 3rd grade would be a breeze. You would be wrong. The part where you worry that you’re going to ruin your child’s life because you won’t teach him what he needs to know is mitigated a little by the fact that you didn’t actually ruin anyone’s life last go-round, but all the stuff you figured out by the end of 3rd grade with one child may or may not apply at all to your new 3rd grader. In our case, 3rd grade with my son looked completely different from 3rd grade with my daughter, so we were still figuring everything out as we went.

The part where you worry that you’re going to ruin your child’s life because you won’t teach him what he needs to know is mitigated a little by the fact that you didn’t actually ruin anyone’s life last go-round, but all the stuff you figured out by the end of 3rd grade with one child may or may not apply at all to your new 3rd grader.

I’ve read a lot about the “3rd grade transition”—the place where homeschool materials stop being “fun” and start feeling like work. We didn’t really have that problem—maybe because we haven’t really used a lot of traditional materials, so there wasn’t that moment where we opened a book and everything was black-and-white and tons of fine print and we felt like “what happened?” We did shift gears to a little more academic work, though—3rd grade is when I like to start Latin and more thoughtful writing and reading—which had some challenging moments. All in all, though, I’ve enjoyed 3rd grade with my son, and I think he’s enjoyed it, too, which is really one of my big goals for each year.

 

History

We started Build Your Library’s 5th grade last year, so we just continued with that this year. (I explain my reasoning here, but it’s really just that I wanted to do U.S. History so that I could sync up readalouds with my daughter’s Georgia history last year and U.S. History this year.) The slower pace worked well for us—I like taking my time with a subject—and we added a bunch of nonfiction books to our reading list. (That’s my one complaint about Build Your Library, which I think is a nice program overall—I’d love to see more nonfiction on the reading list, especially because there’s so much great nonfiction out there.) Before this year, we’ve just done the reading for history—my son had a main lesson book, and sometimes he’d draw pictures as we read, but it was just because he felt like doing it and not something I asked him to do. This year, we’ve tried to be a little more deliberate. I’ve mentioned a few times how I rely on Patricia’s dictation method (if you have a reluctant writer, it will change your life), and we’ve been using that pretty heavily. I’ll say “so what do you think is the important thing about what we just read?,” and he’ll answer, and we’ll talk about, and then together we’ll summarize the main idea in a couple of sentences. I might prompt a little—“So what did a state have to do to get readmitted to the United States after the Civil War?”—but mostly I tried to let him focus on what felt important to him. It helps to know that we’re going to be revisiting these parts of history at least twice more in his educational life—so why not let him be interested in the parts that interest him? I do most of the actual physical writing, but he tells me what to write. It’s working well for us.

 

Math

We’re still doing Beast Academy, and it’s fine. We loved Miquon Math so much that I’m sure any math we did after it would seem less great by comparison, but Beast Academy works reasonably well for us. I like that it focuses on mathematical thinking and understanding bigger concepts and not just on learning how to deal with one particular kind of problem. My son likes that there are usually some genuinely challenging problems in the mix and, of course, that it comes in comic book format. My daughter would have hated this program, but it’s proven to be a good match for my math- and logic-loving son.

 

Language Arts

Ecce Romani Book 1 and 2 Combined (Latin Edition)
By David M. Tafe, Ron Palma, Carol Esler

We started Latin this year, and I’m using the same method I used with my daughter: We use Ecce Romani and just work as far as get into it each year. In the fall, we’ll start over again at the beginning and do the same thing. My son hates writing, so I have him dictate his translations and I write them down—it’s slow going but not unpleasant. We do the exercises the same way, but he does write his own vocabulary cards. Studying Latin is my favorite way to learn English grammar.

We read all the time—mostly readalouds, since my son still isn’t a huge fan of independent reading. (He does read on his own more every year, and I love catching him reading in his room or in the backyard. I’m not sure that pushing him to read more would kill his potential love of learning, but I know that not pushing it seems to be—slowly—working out.) I don’t want to be the book police, but I will admit it was easier to manage this with my daughter, who always read so widely that I never worried whether she was reading junk or literature. It’s harder to be as relaxed with my son—since he’s such a reluctant reader, it’s tempting to force him toward the good stuff. But I remind myself that my goal isn’t for him to make it through a checklist of books but to develop an appreciation for the power and possibility of reading. Only he can decide what books will do that for him. 

George and Martha
By James Marshall

He did start his own official book log this year—again, he usually dictates, and I do the actual writing. Some of his favorite books-for-fun this year have included George and Martha, Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute, Frindle, and Peter Pan. And we’ve continued our weekly-ish poetry memorization, which I love and my children tolerate.

 

Science

We still do our nature journals pretty much every day. This is one subject where I don’t take dictation unless my son specifically asks me to—he’s usually happy drawing what he sees and writing the identifying labels or temperature or whatever. My son has gotten to the point where he likes to feel like there’s some “purpose” to his journaling, so we have projects: Right now, we’re checking the barometer every day and noting different cloud formations. I’m noticing that my son is the first person to pick up on when he’s ready for something more academic or more structured—this fall, he said he wanted his observations to “actually do something,” so we came up with a few projects we could do with our nature journals. (I borrowed some ideas from Handbook of Nature Study, some from Whatever the Weather, and a lot from the Nature Connection workbook.)

We also worked our way through Janice VanCleave's 201 Awesome, Magical, Bizarre, & Incredible Experiments, picking up books to go with experiments as they piqued our interest. Next year, we’ll probably do something a little more organized, but for now, I’m happy to be able to emphasize the scientific method and just follow our interests. I made up a very simple, minimalist lab report form and used my beloved padding compound to make it into a little lab report notepad for him. 

 

Philosophy

Philosophy has been my son’s “favorite class” for a couple of years now. He loved Philosophy for Kids at our homeschool group, and this year we moved on to more structured logic lessons. (Logic is his big philosophical passion right now.) My best friend is a philosopher and one of my son’s favorite people, so we’re kind of spoiled when it comes to philosophy—she does one-on-one lessons with him. 

 

My son does not always enjoy working on things like reading and handwriting, but this year, he’s started to appreciate the way that being able to do these things gives him more space to learn independently.

Our schedule has always been a work in progress, but we usually have a pretty consistent rhythm to our days. I don’t plan to start at any particular time—my kids wake up when they wake up (usually around 9 a.m. for my son), have breakfast and what we like to call “morning acclimation.” Then, when he’s ready—which might be at 9:30 or 11:30—he brings me his little stack of things he wants to work on. Usually, it’s history, math, and Latin, and I add whatever readalouds we’re doing together. He tends to be interested in science in bursts and starts: He’ll want to do it every single day for a week or two and then not be interested at all for a couple of weeks. Sometimes he wants to do just math or just philosophy. I try not to dictate what we do and to let him take the lead. (There are definitely days—usually a couple a month—where he just says “Can we do nothing today?” and I say “Sure.” I really don’t worry about that at all—there are definitely times where I want to take a day off, too!) We work together, usually on the couch or on the back porch but sometimes at the table. Some days we’re fast and get a lot done, some days we take a lot of time and end by putting in a bookmark for the next day. Usually two to two and half hours of hands-on, active time like this is a full school day for us. 

After lunch, we have our “crafternoon” projects. (I’m usually doing work with his 9th grade sister during this time, too.) My son enjoys soap carving, making art, crochet work, building marble runs, playing chess, and sorting his Pokemon cards, so he might do any of those things. Occasionally he reads, which fills my soul with delight. Often, he plays outside. I’m sure I’m forgetting things, but that makes sense, since this year he’s also been a lot more independent and interested in doing things on his own. My son does not always enjoy working on things like reading and handwriting, but this year, he’s started to appreciate the way that being able to do these things gives him more space to learn independently. There’s nothing dramatic to report with 3rd grade—no huge challenges or confetti-worthy accomplishments—just measured, steady progress. It’s been a good year.


We the People: A Community Model for Exploring the U.S. Constitution

We the People: A Community Model for Exploring the U.S. Constitution 

One of the more rewarding learning experiences I’ve had with my 14-year-old son this year has been participating in We the People MN, a series of community teach-ins about the Constitution held at Solomon’s Porch, a Minneapolis gathering space housed in a former church. Run completely by volunteers, We the People MN bills itself as “A Community Conversation to Understand the U.S. Constitution.” I wanted to share a little about our family’s experience with the series in the hope of inspiring other programs like it across the country.

The idea for the series came from Cara Letofsky, a South Minneapolis resident who posted on her neighborhood Facebook group that the 2016 election made her want to learn more about the Constitution. About 60 people responded that they shared that desire to come together as a community to educate themselves politically. A small group of about ten volunteers followed up to plan the series, deciding what amendments they especially wanted to learn about and collaborating to identify community experts who might be willing to tackle leading a discussion of particular amendments. Working their community connections, they lined up a group of highly qualified presenters willing to volunteer their time, including a law professor from a local university, a Minneapolis city council member, attorneys, law students, and organizers from groups that are deeply involved in such contentious Constitutional issues as gun control laws, the right to vote, and reproductive rights.

The organizing committee decided on a format of 10 two-hour presentations, spaced out every two weeks from mid-January 2017 to late April 2017. The first program was a kick-off potluck (because everything always goes better with good food) and a public reading of the entire Constitution, with participants taking turns reading sections aloud at the mic. The organizers also distributed free pocket copies of the Constitution, donated by one of the organizers, Constitutional law professor Matt Filner. Finding free or cheap pocket Constitutions isn’t difficult, luckily. The National Center for Constitutional Studies, for instance, offers a bulk purchase of 100 pocket Constitutions for $40 on their website.

Cara Letofksy, the woman who’d sparked the idea, expected perhaps 20 people to show up to the first presentation. To her surprise, over 80 people attended that first event, and attendance has usually averaged between 100 to 150 participants at subsequent events.

In their initial planning discussions, the organizers knew they couldn’t cover the entire Constitution, so they decided to focus on Constitutional rights that might be most directly challenged under a Trump administration. Other communities might want to choose a different focus, such as looking at ways the Constitution directly impacts local issues and controversies.

The We the People MN series has covered such issues as the branches of government and separation of powers, as well as the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of expression and assembly and the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms (as well as the limitations implied by the wording of the amendment). One program was devoted to the right to privacy (and the limits on our privacy). Another event focused on the Fifth, Sixth, and Thirteenth Amendments and their relevance to criminal justice today. The series’ last presentation on the amendments will look at the right to vote guaranteed by the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments—and how that right to vote is being steadily eroded today. The series’ last gathering, planned for the 100th day of the Trump administration, will feature a community potluck and “next steps” discussion.

Each event has included a “TED”-style talk by an expert to set the stage for further discussion, followed by time for participants to talk in small groups and share their thoughts and bring up questions for the expert presenter. Almost every presentation has also included brief talks by local activists working in some way on problems raised by ongoing Constitutional debates. Often, these activists have given participants in the programs concrete ideas about how to get involved. For instance, at the event devoted to Second Amendment issues, a presenter from the group Protect Minnesota passed out factsheets about upcoming gun legislation and tips for creating effective talking points. The group highlighted that the most effective advocates usually find a way articulate their personal connections to proposed legislation.

Each presenter also typically sends out readings ahead of time through the We the People MN Facebook page for participants who want to take a deeper dive into topics, though the readings aren’t required to understand the presentations. The readings have ranged from excerpts from the Federalist Papers to summaries of key Supreme Court cases to up-to-the-minute news articles about contemporary Constitutional controversies.

For my son and me, attending these events has been a bonding, highly relevant way to study civics together. Throughout our week, we often find ourselves still talking about what we learned at the most recent We the People presentation. The series has given us new tools for understanding how the Constitution relates to our everyday lives and the lives of those around us.

I’ve also found the series personally helpful as I’ve stepped up my own game as a citizen this year. I’m calling my legislators and attending more public hearings, meetings, and protests than ever (and when I can, hauling my son along with me). Studying the Constitution in this way has given my son and me a clearer sense of what people fighting for change are up against and how we as citizens can make the best use of our time and people power.

Above all, I love that my son has seen people of all ages and backgrounds getting together every other Sunday afternoon to educate ourselves about our Constitution. To me, that’s been such a powerful example of lifelong learning and civic engagement, one I hope will stick with him the rest of his life. I think another crucial piece of the whole experience has been learning from people who are actively involved in the conversation about how to define our Constitutional rights and who are fighting to preserve those rights.

The volunteers who set up We the People MN are hoping to export the model elsewhere. They have plans to create a curriculum to help other people set up their own series, ones that will be relevant to their local communities. If you’d like to learn more, see videos of the presentations, and keep apprised of curriculum developments, you can visit the group’s public Facebook page.


Topics in History: Investigating Watergate

Topics in History: Investigating Watergate

How did a break-in at a campaign office lead to the resignation of the President of the United States? This list of resources will help you investigate this chapter of U.S. history.

Little Unit Study: Abraham Lincoln

He led the United States through one of its bloodiest conflicts, ended slavery, and gave some of history’s most memorable speeches. Celebrate Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 with these resources 

Homeschool Unit Study: Abraham Lincoln

“The Presidency, even to the most experienced politicians, is no bed of roses,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in his 1850 eulogy for President Zachary Taylor. Lincoln was a decade away from his own presidency, and he must have felt the truth of his own words many times in the years that followed, as he sat in the White House, leader of a nation at war with itself. Schools tend to gloss up Lincoln’s story, focusing on his plain-speaking, rail- splitting, self-determined path to the nation’s highest office, but there’s much more to the sixteenth President than a simple story can tell. Don’t be afraid to dig deep — Honest Abe is worth the effort.

Best Movie

Lincoln
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
 

Abraham Lincoln has featured in twenty-something movies since his first appearance in Birth of a Nation (1915), but Spielberg’s Lincoln (2013) is arguably one of the best. Much of the script is pulled verbatim from letters and memoirs, and though there are some historical details to nitpick, Spielberg’s efforts to be scrupulous pay off. This is the Lincoln movie to see.

Runner-Up: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

 

Best Scholarly Book

President Barack Obama (himself a former Illinois lawyer) has said that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is the book he’d want to have with him on a desert island. Historian Goodwin is at her best exploring the conflicting personalities and factions that defined the Lincoln White House.

Runner-Up: Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

 

Best Kid’s Book

Grace's Letter to Lincoln
By Peter Roop, Connie Roop
 

True story: When Abraham Lincoln was running for his first term as President, a little girl from New York wrote him a letter, suggesting that he consider growing a beard to make his thin face more attractive. Grace’s Letter to Lincoln, by Peter and Connie Roop, tells the lightly fictionalized story of eleven-year-old Grace Bedell’s famous letter. One of the more interesting things about this book is that it portrays a young girl’s obvious political interest during a time when women weren’t allowed to vote. 

Runner-Up: The Boys’ Life of Abraham Lincoln by Helen Nicolay

 

Best Virtual Field Trip

You can — and should — spend hours browsing the Abraham Lincoln collection online at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American history. Including Lincoln’s iconic top hat, the wool shawl he wore in the office, a copy of the original Emancipation Proclamation, and more artifacts and analysis, this virtual field trip may be the ultimate Lincoln experience.

 

Best Lincoln Biography

How does a man go from being “a piece of floating driftwood” to leading a country through a crisis? That’s the question historian Douglas L. Wilson attempts to answer in his biography Honor’s Voice, painting the many stumbling blocks and difficulties the young attorney ran into on his way to the White House.

Runner-Up: The Young Eagle by Kenneth J. Winkle

 

Best Collected Lincoln

Perhaps the best way to get to know anyone is through his own writing. The Portable Abraham Lincoln, edited by Andrew Delbanco, includes the speeches and letters that made Lincoln famous, as well as more personal, lesser-known writings. Compelling stuff.

 

Best Extra Credit

Lincoln's Grave Robbers
By Steve Sheinkin
 

Bet you didn’t know about the 1875 plot to rob Lincoln’s grave and hold his body for ransom — and that’s a shame because it’s a rip-roaring good story. Happily, Steve Sheinkin tells it brilliantly in his can’t-put-down book Lincoln’s Grave Robbers.


Book Review: The Birchbark House

 

THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE
by Louise Erdich

I discovered Louise Erdrich in college and quickly became a huge fan, collecting most of her books and following her career, which is studded with awards and honors. I think her prose is beautiful and her subject matter and characters fascinating, but what I have always liked best about her is her humor. When I found out that she had written a series for young adults, I knew I had to read it to my boys. And I’ve just finished the first book: The Birchbark House

Both my boys loved this book. However, they didn’t think they would like it. My 10-year-old son took one look at the cover and groaned. I let my 7-year-old play instead of sitting on the sofa to listen, but he was in earshot. About halfway through the book, he began to sit still and listen with his brother and me. I knew they were both listening when they burst out laughing at a very funny part near the end of the book.

They were captured by the main character’s spirit. She’s a young girl, named Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop. She has a special way with animals, befriending two bear cubs, and she even has a crow for a pet. We learn how her family, members of the Anishinabe (now called Objibwe or Chippewa), build their homes and feed themselves. We spend a full year with them, including the very tragic winter of 1847, but the beauty and messages in this book are uplifting. We are carried along as Omakayas learns important life lessons and discovers whom she really is.

This book had everything in it that I hoped for and felt was important for my two boys to hear. First, it helped them see how the Native American tribes were affected by the arrival of white settlers. (I trust we will continue to learn about this as we continue the series.) Second, it has strong female characters. Third, it allowed them to hear beautifully written prose—something that I haven’t found in every young adult fiction book. This book also deals with loss and grief and healing in a beautiful, sensitive way. 

This book would make a perfect readaloud in your homeschool because it’s a story that every age can enjoy, but even if you don’t have young children to read it to, you should read it. It’s that good.