Pretty much all our ideas about what the First Lady of the United States should be come from James Madison’s lovely and vivacious wife.
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
“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.
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
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
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.
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” Mandela famously said. Learn more about the life of South Africa’s celebrated leader with this little unit study.
Ellis Island may have been closed for sixty years, but you can explore its lasting impact with books, videos, and hands-on activities.
When Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892, it marked the beginning of a new phase of U.S. immigration policy. More than twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, many fleeing deteriorating economic conditions and increasing political instability in Europe. A healthy immigrant with her papers in order could make it through Ellis Is- land’s immigration processing and legally enter the United States in three to five hours. Though only two percent of immigrants were denied entry (usually because of contagious illnesses or low likelihood of finding employment), stories of families separated by the newly bureaucratic process are heart-wrenching. Ellis Island officially closed on November 12, 1954.
Dreaming of America: An Ellis Island Story makes a nice picture book introduction to the history of Ellis Island, relating the story of 15-year-old Annie Moore, the first person processed through the immigration center.
Letters from Rifka is the fictional account of a Russian girl who finally makes it to the United States, only to be held in the Ellis Island hospital.
In The Orphan of Ellis Island, a modern-day foster kid finds himself transported to the past on a school field trip.
Island of Hope, Island of Tears: The Story of Those Who Entered the New World Through Ellis Island in Their Own Words is a good primary source read for older students.
The History Channel documentary Ellis Island, narrated by Mandy Patinkin, relates the history of Ellis Island through the experiences of some of the immigrants who passed through its halls.
PBS’s Forgotten Ellis Island (2008) focuses on the center’s immigrant hospital, where contagious arrivals were detained for treatment.
For older students, The Immigrant (2013) shows the darker side of the immigration process.
Search for your own ancestors in the Ellis Island online passenger database.
If you can’t get to New York City for an in-person field trip, take a virtual one instead with Scholastic’s interactive Ellis Island experience.
This was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of home | school | life.
by Kane Taylor
The Russo-Japanese war is something we never hear about, and yet, is a war of extreme interest to me. In the confusing web of alliances, disagreements, and events which resulted in World War I, the civil strife that led to the rise of the Soviet Union, and Imperial Japan's policy of total Far Eastern supremacy, I feel this war often gets overlooked by modern historians—which is a shame.
Following the First Sino-Japanese War (from 1849-1895) and Japan's aggressive expansion into the Korean peninsula, Tsarist Russia made several moves to consolidate its influence in the region. It was no secret that Japan saw itself on the same footing as the Western countries of the world, with Great Britain being major inspiration to them. So in an effort to ward off any Japanese encroachment, the Russians brokered a deal with the Chinese government to lease land in the Liaoning peninsula, north of Korea.
It was there, in the port city of Dalian, that the Russians constructed the fortress Port Arthur. This port served to fill a role that the Russians desperately sought after. At the time, the only operational harbor in the Far East was Vladivostok—which, due to its location, could only hold boats during the summer and warmer months of spring. Dalian was a warm water port, though, and so it became the home of Russia's Pacific Fleet.
Unfortunately, this did little to help Russia in the long run. While fears of Japanese imperialism were present in the minds of the Russians at the time, the Japanese had the same concerns about Russian imperialism. Of major note was Russia's influence in the Manchurian region and Sakhalin island which is located directly north of the north most Japanese islands. Tsarist Russia's influence and expansion into Siberia and Manchuria evoked an image of unbridled imperialism in the mind of the Japanese—to them, it was merely a question of how long it would be until Russia came for them.
Initially, diplomacy seemed to be an option. Japan suggested that Korea and Manchuria act as a buffer zone between Japan and the Russian-owned Siberia. Back-and-forth negotiations ensued. For nearly a year, proposals and counter-proposals were met with disdain by both parties, and by early 1904, the Japanese government decided that Russia had no plans of settling the matter diplomatically. On February 6, 1904, Japan severed diplomatic ties with Russia.
Two nights later, on February 8, Japan declared war. Three hours before the declaration reached Moscow, however, the Imperial Japanese Navy began its first action of the war—the assault on Port Arthur. In the middle of a cloudy night, Admiral Heiharchiro Togo led his ships towards the harbor and ordered the fleet to break into two formations to commence attack. The Russians were caught completely unprepared, as most of the Naval Officers including Admiral Stark, were off partying as the attack began. The naval assault raged late into the night and into the early morning of February 9. By the end of it, the fortress of Port Arthur had taken considerable damage, and the Russian Pacific Fleet were down seven ships from its original twelve.
With the Russian Pacific fleet in disarray, Japan began to conduct its land invasion, pushing up north to the Sakhalin island. With Russia's far eastern troops barely holding the line, and in some places collapsing under the Japanese assault, the Russian military decided to send the entire Baltic fleet around the globe to help relieve the Pacific fleet, and hopefully break the blockade of Port Arthur before the fortress was overrun.
And now things turn almost comical. The Baltic fleet set out at once, making its way towards the Sinai peninsula to pass through the Suez Canal. For whatever reason, as the Russian fleet pulled into the Dogger Bank off the coast of England. Against all logic, the admiral ordered the fleet to fire upon any ships that even came close to the fleet. Late at night, on October 21, the supply ship Kamchatka radioed that it was under attack. The war ships at the front of the line flashed their searchlights and spotted several dozen boats. They began to fire immediately, causing the other ships in the line to go on high alert. As the other ships in the fleet began to open fire, chaos spread, since no one was quite sure what was happening. In the end, the Russians not only ended up firing on some of their own boats, but it also turned out that the group of boats they had initially fired on were British fishing ships. And to top it off, the ship that sent the Kamchatka on alert in the first place was simply a Swedish trawler.
Several British and Russian citizens died in the incident, and it nearly caused Great Britain to declare war on Russia. While conflict was averted, the British disallowed the Russian navy from using the Suez Canal. So now the Baltic fleet would have to travel all the way around the entirety of Africa if they hoped to reach the Far East.
This trip was marred with disaster for the Baltic Fleet. As the ironclad vessels traveled farther than such ships were ever meant to go, the engines began to break down. Damage to the hulls accumulated. And to make matters worse, disease was starting to spread amongst the crews.
As the ships pulled into a port of French-controlled Madagascar, the admiral realized just how dire things were. Deciding that the best way to raise the men's spirits would be to run a quick war games, he set about preparing for it. Targets were laid out in the open water, and the fleet began to advance towards them, ready to put their canons to the test.
But before even a shot could be fired, one of the vessels burst into flame from yet another engine malfunction and had to be evacuated. As such, the war games were canceled and the fleet continued on its way.
By the time the fleet reached the far east, news came to them that Port Arthur had fallen to the Japanese. Realizing now that the only other port they could reach was Vladivostok and that they would need to resupply before they could engage the Japanese, the remaining officers of the navy had to weigh what few options they had. The path to Vladivostok put the fleet right between the Japanese isles and Korea. but to go around Japan would take far too long. So they decided to try their luck, and traveled under the cover of night.
As the remains of the Baltic fleet passed by the Japanese islands, the admiral ordered that all the lights on the boats be snuffed out. But due to the rules of war, the hospital vessels had to keep its lights on at all times so it wouldn't be fired upon. This of course, allowed Japanese sentries to spot them right away, and within the hour the Imperial Japanese Navy was on the move, ready to engage the battered Russians.
The battle of Tsushima, as it would become known, was absolutely humiliating for the Russian Empire. Eighty-nine Japanese vessels went up against 38 Russian ships, and through the entire engagement only three of those Japanese vessels were sunk while 21 Russian ships met a watery grave. Seven Russian ships ended up captured, and six more were damaged beyond fighting capacity. This naval engagement practically marked the end of the Russo-Japanese War as the Japanese now had complete control the seas, and the Russians could barely hold back the tide of soldiers pouring onto land.
Tsar Nicholas II was absolutely humiliated by the defeat, as the largest nation on Earth lost to what seemed a fledgling Empire. The war was so bad for the Russians, that the U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to help broker a peace in an attempt to at least help the Russians save a little face. In the end, the Japanese managed to push Russian influence out of Asia and set the stage for their conquests of Korea, China, and Manchuria in the lead-up to World War II.
The Russo-Japanese war also marks the first time that an Asian country ever won a war against a Western power and no doubt helped fuel the Imperialistic fever that burnt brightly in Japan at the time. It built confidence in their navy and in the country as a whole and no doubt eased some of the national skepticism as the Emperor and his confidents considered war with the British, and the United states.
The startling defeat also helped plant confidence in the generals of Austria-Hungary and Germany, who considered Russia to not even be a threat as they declared war on Serbia, and World War I began in earnest. Of course, things wouldn't quite go their way in the end.
Reading (and Watching) Recommendations
Battleship Potemkin (1925), a silent movie about a 1905 mutiny on a Russian battleship, which ends up on almost every list of best films ever made, really illustrates what a toll the Russian defeat took on that country’s military morale.
If you’re ready to really dig into what can arguably be considered the first modern war, pick up Denis Ashton Warner’s thorough and deeply researchedThe Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905. It’s heavy going but worth it if you want to really immerse yourself in the subject. (I'm linking to the book, but borrow it from the library or get it used—the price is nuts!)
Another scholarly read, Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War—one of Japan’s best-selling novels—has been translated into English and offers a really interesting look at the Japanese perspective on the conflict and its national importance.
Kane Taylor is home/school/life's Tech Talk columnist and an avid history buff.
The Great Backyard Bird Count starts on Friday. Gear up to flex your citizen scientist muscle with these birding resources.
The Burgess Bird Book For Children by Thornton W. Burgess introduces kids to birds through Peter Rabbit stories, making it as fun to read as it is informative.
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, tells the story of a boy’s efforts to save the habitat of a family of burrowing owls from an encroaching pancake restaurant.
Bright Wings, edited by Billy Collins, is a collection of poetry about birds.
Birds, Nests, and Eggs by Mel Boring, is just the thing for beginning birders. The book covers fifteen common birds, including their appearance, nesting habits, and ideas for bird-themed nature activities.
The Complete Birder: A Guide to Better Birding by Jack Connor is the perfect next step when you’ve mastered the basics of birding and want to sharpen your skills.
The Life of Birds, from the BBC collection and narrated by David Attenborough, is a seven-part documentary just packed with avian information.
Winged Migration uses fabulous cinematography to capture birds in flight.
Dissect an owl pellet. If you’re not up for the real thing, use the KidWings Virtual Owl Pellet Dissection.
Play birdsong bingo. Practice identifying bird sounds by playing a bingo style identification game with a birdsong CD. (We like Know Your Bird Sounds, Volume 1: Yard, Garden, and City Birds andKnow Your Bird Sounds, Volume 2: Birds of the Countryside.)
Audubon’s Birds of America Coloring Book, part of the excellent Dover coloring book series, lets your student birders put their observation skills to the test coloring in copies of Audubon’s bird illustrations.
This article was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of home/school/life.
The Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of creative energy fueled by Black Americans, and it’s a rich topic for your homeschool high school.
From lonely child to merciless monarch, Queen Mary I of England never seemed to catch a break. Mark the 500th anniversary of her birth (on Feb. 18, 1516) by learning more about England’s first queen regnant.
by Kane Taylor
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt's birthday, October 27th, is here. So I thought it would be apt to dedicate this blog post to him, the 26th President of the United States. Teddy Roosevelt was quite the interesting man — a naturalist, an explorer, an author, a soldier, and so much more. In a way, he encapsulated the American spirit — from overcoming adversity in his early life by struggling with asthma. all the way up to the battle at San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American war and beyond. And while he may have been our 26h President, to me, he's number one. Here are a few cool things you might not know about this larger-than-life man:
1. Teddy Roosevelt loved the outdoors.
Theodore Roosevelt grew up in New York City, but despite his urban upbringing, he was not one to shy away from nature. Although he had asthma, he spent a great deal of his youth exercising, training his body and his lungs, and it was during this time that he began to grow an appreciation for the outdoors. Hunting, exploring, or simply spending a day out in America's great expanse, he adored it all. During his presidency, he doubled the number of national parks in the United States and added 125 million acres of national forests to the list of protected lands.
2. Teddy Roosevelt was homeschooled.
When Theodore Roosevelt was young, he suffered from health complications, including asthma, among other things, which made it difficult for him to spend too much time away from home. Because of this, he did all of his schooling at home, reading, studying, and learning from private tutors his family hired. Years later, he attended Harvard, one of the country's most prestigious universities.
3. Teddy Roosevelt is related to several Presidents.
Eleanor Roosevelt was his niece, and her husband President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was his fifth cousin. Beyond that, Roosevelt is related to eleven other Presidents either through blood or marriage, including John Adams, James Madison, Martin Van Buren, and William Taft, whom Teddy Roosevelt ran against for the Presidency in 1912.
4. Teddy Roosevelt worked as a cowboy and a deputy.
As a young adult, Teddy Roosevelt bought a ranch in the Dakota Territory and spent his days driving cattle from his ranches south of Medora. The Maltese Cross Cabin was his first ranch, and in 1884, he established a second, Elkhorn Ranch. During his time in the Dakota Territory, Roosevelt also worked as a deputy sheriff, hunting down outlaws and thieves. During the early spring of 1886, Roosevelt and two friends had to hunt down three thieves who had stolen a boat from his Elkhorn ranch. It was dreadfully cold, and the men were armed and dangerous, but with bravery and determination, the trio were able to hunt down, ambush, and arrest the men without a single shot being fired.
5. Teddy Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt.
In 1912, during his Presidential campaign, Teddy Roosevelt stopped in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to give a speech. He had been at a dinner in the Gilpatrick Hotel, and as he walked outside, he was shot. John Schrank, a rather unstable individual, targeted Roosevelt because he believed no man should run for President three times. He assaulted the Presidential hopeful with a .32 caliber revolved but only managed to fire once before being apprehended. The bullet lodged firmly in Roosevelt's chest, but only after passing through his steel eyeglass and a double-folded fifty-page manuscript of the speech he was to give. Glancing down at his chest, Roosevelt said, "It appears as if I've been hit" in a casual voice, and then, against the advice of his bodyguards and friends, he went on to the stage where he was to speak. He spoke for over an hour to the crowd, all the while with a bullet resting in his chest. Afterwards, he finally went to the hospital where the doctors declared that the wound wasn't fatal, and it'd be more dangerous to remove the bullet than to keep it in. Theodore Roosevelt would have the bullet resting in him until he died. And when asked if it bothered him he'd just say, "It bothers me no more than if it was in my coat pocket."
It would be hard to write a boring book about Theodore Roosevelt, but these volumes are particularly good introductions.
If you’re looking for a Roosevelt readaloud, check out To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, which uses many of Roosevelt’s own words to tell the story of his life.
Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough only covers the first 28 years of Roosevelt’s life, but it’s an action-packed read.
To get the full Teddy Roosevelt experience, pick up Edmund Morris’s three-volume biography, starting with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, continuing with Theodore Rex, and wrapping up with Colonel Roosevelt.
Kane Taylor is home/school/life's Tech Talk columnist and an avid history buff.
Like strange flowers or magical dwellings, mushrooms are endlessly enchanting — and an ideal subject for nature study since you can delve as deep as you’re inspired. Even better: 2015 has been a bumper year for ’shrooms in some parts of the country, so there's never been a better time to add mushrooms to your curriculum.
Mushroom in the Rain by Mirra Ginsburg A little ant shares his mushroom umbrella with other forest creatures during a rainstorm.
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron Two boys use their science skills to build a spaceship that takes them to a mushroom-filled planet, where they must help the inhabitants solve an environmental crisis.
Mushrooms of the World with Pictures to Color by Jeannette Bowers Learn to recognize more than one hundred different types of mushroom with this coloring book.
Katya’s Book of Mushrooms by Katya Arnold Gorgeous illustrations make this book by a Russian mushroom enthusiast worth seeking out.
Our Living World: Fungi by Jenny E. Tesar A practical, information-rich book, this volume is a nice introduction to mycology.
World Treasury of Mushrooms in Color by Bernard Dupre Just flipping through this book makes you aware of the impressive variety of mushrooms.
Mushrooms by Sylvia Plath This simple poem paints a vivid picture of fungi life.
Grow a Mushroom Garden: Grow your own edible garden of mushrooms with an easy-to-set-up kit. One to try: The Back to the Roots Organic Mushroom Farm
Make a Spore Print: Mushroom spores make beautiful prints. Mature mushrooms make the best prints, but it’s not always easy — even for pros — to tell which mushrooms are at their peak, so collect plenty of specimens and hope for the best. Martha Stewart has a handy tutorial for making spore prints on her website.
Practice Your Identification Skills: Identifying mushrooms is surprisingly challenging — there are so many varieties of fungi, and sometimes you need to know whether a mushroom is fully developed or just starting out to identify it correctly. But the challenge is part of the fun, and kids will learn as much trying to make an identification as they will successfully I.D.-ing a mushroom.
Learn from the Experts: Join the North American Mycological Association, and you’ll have access to all kinds of mushroom-focused learning materials, events, and publications. A family membership is just $30.
I’m planning a unit on the California Gold Rush for my 3rd and 5th grader. Do you have any book suggestions for readalouds?
I’m always going to recommend By the Great Horn Spoon, by Sid Fleischman, which is one of the best Gold Rush readalouds (and one of the best elementary school readalouds, period, in my opinion). Bold adventures, leering villains, and a determined twelve-year-old hero make this one of those books that will have your kids begging for “just one more chapter.”
Karen Cushman’s The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, tells the story of a girl (who changes her name from California Morning to plain Lucy) who goes from a comfortable life in Massachusetts to the rough-and-tumble world of a California gold mining town. Cushman’s a pro at weaving well-researched period details into her stories, and this book really brings the experience of a California mining camp to life.
Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, California Territory 1849 by Kristiana Gregory is part of the Dear America series and makes a good counterpoint to the merrier Gold Rush narratives. Life in camp was hard, especially for women, and this novel, chronicling the tale of a girl whose family travels from New York to strike it rich, does a nice job illuminating those dangers without getting too scary.
If your kids like funny books, check out How to Get Rich in the California Gold Rush by Tod Olson, a tongue-in-cheek look at what prospecting was really like. Though the book’s charming hero Thomas Hartley is completely fictional, the book paints a historically accurate picture of the Gold Rush experience.
In case you want to add a little nonfiction to your list, The California Gold Rush by May McNeer weaves rich details and anecdotes kids will appreciate with plenty of facts in an easy-reading account of the great Gold Rush.
And you didn’t ask, but I have to recommend California Gold Rush Cooking, by Lisa Golden Schroeder, a cookbook that lets you try your hand at making eight simple recipes miners would have eaten during the Gold Rush, like hand pies and chop suey. For extra credit, cook them over an open fire.
Are you looking for some new book ideas? We take Bespoke Reading List requests! Email us with what you’re looking for — “I have a 9-year-old obsessed with dinosaurs” or “what should a teenager who likes military history read?” — and we’ll play literary matchmaker.
Avast, landlubbers, and prepare for a jolly celebration of International Talk Like a Pirate day on September 19 with a booty of sea rover resources.
Younger readers will appreciate How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long and Pirate Girl by Cornelia Funke. Older readers can check out Pirates! by Celia Rees, a pirate story with a feminist twist, or Pirate Latitudes, Michael Crichton’s take on pirate life. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is the classic pirate read aloud.
Captain Blood (1935) is the swashbuckling gold standard, the Errol Flynn flick that introduced many of the pirate conventions that have since become cliches. muppet treasure island (1996) is playful fun for family movie night. For a sci-fi take on pirate life, screen the under-appreciated Treasure Planet (2002).
Sid Meier’s Pirates! computer game lets you choose the time period and region you’ll be plundering—it’s an oldie but goodie for pirate-loving kids. Put your sailing skills to the test with the Pirate King’s Sailing Simulator.A combination of luck and strategy play makes the Pirate’s Cove board game fun for different ages.
Dig into the history of some of the sea’s most notorious pirates, including a few feared females. Turn a cardboard box into a replica of a pirate ship with MollyMoo’s simple tutorial. And don’t forget to brush up on your pirate terminology with this handy dictionary that’ll help you get your sea legs.