Saturday, August 21, 2010

Favorite Books for Teaching American History

by Virginia Knowles

Favorite Series Fiction 
  • American Girls series -- elementary level fiction about seven young ladies from different eras, such as Colonial Williamsburg, the Civil War, immigrant pioneers, etc. Each girl has six books which give a fascinating flavor of typical lifestyles. There are supplemental craft, cooking, and drama titles for each character, as well as the dolls, accessories and trading cards.
  • The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder -- the classics for a study on pioneers. Look for other spin-off books (cooking, crafts, etc.) and easy readers.
  • The American Adventures series by multiple authors such as Norma Jean Lutz -- 48 novels, covering time period from 1620-1945 (these may be out-of-print but you can find them on-line or in used bookstores)
  • Christian Heritage series by Nancy Rue -- novels covering Colonial period until World War II, for ages 8-12. (Bethany House / Focus on the Family)
Favorite Biography & Other Non-Fiction  
  • If You Lived... series published by Scholastic Books -- easy books which tell about daily life, especially for children, during various historical eras
  • Meet George Washington and other Step-Up biographies (early elementary)
  • Childhood of Famous Americans -- series of easy biographies covering the early lives of dozens of the greats. See related blog post by Cheryl Bastian.
  • Pocahontas, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and other books by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire -- highly illustrated, but lots of text
  • Cornerstones of Freedom series -- focuses on key events and landmarks in American history, such as the California Gold Rush or the Statue of Liberty.
  • Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May?, George Washington’s Mother and other history books by Jean Fritz -- written with a tongue-in-cheek style
  • The Thanksgiving Story and The Fourth of July Story by Alice Dalgliesh (early elementary)
  • In God We Trust: Stories of Faith in American History by Timothy Crater and Ranelda Hunsicker (published by Chariot) -- short, readable biographies of American’s Christian leaders, all in one volume. This is a must have book!
Favorite Historical Picture and Easy Read Books 
  • Samuel Eaton’s Day and Sarah Morton’s Day by Kate Waters (early colonial, picture books)
  • Squanto, Friend of Pilgrims and A Lion to Guard Us (about Jamestown) by Clyde Robert Bulla -- early elementary
  • The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh -- easy novel, early pioneer times in Pennsylvania
  • A Picture Book of Paul Revere and other books by David Adler -- you should be able to find these in your public library
  • The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz -- a sweet tale, based on a true story, about living in Western Pennsylvania in the 1700s (easy novel)
  • The Blue and the Gray by Eve Bunting -- two modern friends, one black and one white, looking back on a Civil War battlefield (picture book)
  • Growing Seasons by Elise Lee Splear, paintings by Ken Stark -- farm life around 1906 (picture book with lots of informative text)
  • Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin by Marguerite Henry -- picture book story of the famous artist
  • Lights on the River by Jane Resh Thomas (picture book about migrant workers)  
Favorite Historical Novels for Upper Elementary and Middle School 
Note: Our family has accumulated hundreds of American history resources. To keep track of them, I created a spreadsheet chart. I include the unit study number (1 - 6), book or video title, author, grade level, specific time period, genre (fiction, photographic reference, biography, picture book, poetry, etc.), and a comment on the specific topic if it isn't apparent from the title. If there is a story, article, or poem in an anthology (such as William Bennett's Book of Virtues or The Moral Compass), I list the title of the piece along with the page numbers. The same goes for chapters in history text books, such as A Beka, which we also use as needed. So when I get ready for teaching a particular time period, I just need to consult my chart and look for the books. This isn't too hard, because I organized my school bookcases so that all of my American history books are clustered on about 6 shelves, roughly in order by time period.

This list is a companion article to Weekly Grading and Lesson Planning.  I'll try to update it as I think of other books, so check back!

Virginia Knowles

American History Unit Studies at Our House

American History Unit Studies at Our House
by Virginia Knowles

My younger five children, ages 5-13, are studying American history with me this year.  For the past four years, we have been enrolled in a large home school co-op, but this year we're on our own again, and I'm really enjoying it. I love this opportunity to spend the better part of each morning directly teaching my own kids Bible, literature, history, and science before they go off for their individual assignments. Here are some ideas I have developed over the last 20 years of home schooling about how to teach history.

Younger elementary: History should focus on those last two syllables of the word history: STORY! In my opinion, little children are just not ready to memorize oodles of names and dates. How much of these will they remember? Complicated scenarios of what caused this or that, abstract principles of philosophy -- save them for much later! I’ve been all too guilty of trying to cram complex facts and theories into my young children’s heads, usually when I was attempting to pull off a grand multi-level unit study on a topic that couldn’t reasonably be stretched to meet the needs of preschoolers and middle schoolers. The results: boredom and frustration! If you take the time to know your child, you will discern what he is ready to comprehend with interest. I find that young children appreciate simple books, easy craft and cooking projects, lively music, and anything else that involves their senses or imaginations.  For this reason, my kindergartner is not required to participate in our regular morning history time, though she usually hangs around anyway.  I don't expect her to get much from it at this point, so I do other things with her, like reading picture books with historical stories. 
  • American Pioneers and Patriots by Christian Liberty Press is a great example of history for younger children -- easy stories, a few activities and questions 
  • Least of All by Carol Purdy is a very sweet picture book about a little girl in a farm family way back when who teaches herself to read -- and then teaches the rest of the family!  One of my favorites!
Time period unit studies: This year, I decided to teach American history in six units, each lasting up to six weeks long. After each unit, we take a week off, which gives me time to prepare for the next one. We started school in early July so we can spare the weeks off. Our time periods this year are Explorers (only 4 weeks, due to our extended American history field trip), Early Colonial, The Revolutionary Era, Pioneers, Civil War/Slavery, and the 20th Century (World Wars, the Great Depression, Civil Rights Era, modern technology and government). To plan for the year, I created a spreadsheet with the week number, date, history unit study topic, and science topic. This way I can know when I will need resources for that time period. 
  • A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840 by Barbara Greenwood is a like a unit study within a book. It follows the story of a pioneer family, and gives abundant supplementary information at the end of each chapter on topics such as beekeeping, home building, recipes, farming methods, making fabric, etc.  Read a detailed review at
Hiistorical fiction and biographies: I love teaching history through literature; one of my main goals is to use true or realistic stories to impart life lessons to my students about courage, justice, liberty, diligence, resourcefulness, loyalty, and compassion. I want my kids to kids think deeper about these themes and how they can apply to our 21st century lives. (At the Finish Well conference this fall and at the Books & Beyond conference next year, I hope to do a new session on "With Literature and Justice for All.") Many of the great historical titles, including many Newbery award winners, can be found in your public library. You can also scout around for vintage out-of-print books in used bookstores or on-line. My dad's step-father, Dr. Howard R. Driggs, was born in the 1870's (he was much older than my grandmother). He was a pioneer historian and prolific author, so I have quite a collection of his books on the Pony Express and other frontier topics.

Scripture and God's Providence: I also like to relate events and people to the principles of Scripture. What would the Bible have to say about what happened? If this or that person had followed these truths, how would history have been different? Along with this, how has God's providential hand been seen in turns of events in history? For example, the pilgrims were blown off course by a storm, so they settled in Massachusetts, out of range of the legal charter that would have bound them in Virginia -- thus the opportunity for an experiment in self-government!

History notebooks: Whether or not you give lots of written assignments, do help your child set up a history and geography notebook. This could include quotes from famous people, timelines, maps, pictures that your child draws, copy work and dictation exercises, history-related spelling lists, creative writing attempts, photocopies of information from books, clipped magazine articles, and so much more! This notebook could be a lifetime treasure!

Music: pieces for each time period, such as from the CD and book Celebrate America! by Twin Sisters. Your home school support group could put on a whole concert of patriotic and folk songs, as ours did many years ago. Learn the stories behind the songs, too! Why were they written? Here are several to get started: 
  • "This Land is Your Land"
  • "America the Beautiful"
  • "My Country 'Tis of Thee"
  • "The Star-Spangled Banner"
  • "God Bless America"

Poetry: I always include poems written by people who lived "back then" or by modern poets reflecting on history.  These are easy to find on the Internet! Some of my favorites:
  • "Columbus" by Joaquin Miller
  • "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and "The Village Blacksmith" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • "Barbara Frietchie" by John Greenleaf Whittier (Civil War)
  • "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus (inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty"
  • "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost
  • "I Am an American" by Elias Lieberman
Art appreciation & history: drawings, paintings, sculpture, folk art, etc. In the pictures, notice what people are wearing, what tools they are using, and what their homes and gardens look like. Also, study the works of American artists such as Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, Benjamin West, Grandma Moses, Grant Wood ("American Gothic"), Louis Comfort Tiffany, etc. I found lovely hardback art books for these last two artists on the Books-A-Million $1 bargain cart! Go see the art up close in a museum if you can, such as at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. or a local museum. In Orlando, we have the Morse Museum (, which features art by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was famous for his stained glass work.

Arts & crafts projects: sketching, painting, historical crafts (such as quilting, candle making), making period costumes, etc. This year, I bought the book Draw and Write Through History: Pilgrims, Pirates, and Patriots by Carylee Gressman and Peggy Dick for my 6th grader who likes to draw. It has detailed pictorial instructions for sketching full-color scenes about Columbus, Australia, Pilgrims, Pirates, and the American Revolution. These are definitely more advanced than the popular Draw-Write-Now series that we also enjoy.

Cooking and baking with historical recipes: you can find historical and regional cookbooks in your library, such as The Little House Cookbook . The Cooking Throughout American History series includes such as Food and Recipes of the Revolutionary War (j641.597409). See related blog posts here:  

Field Trips: Take longer trips or even just local museums or sites. There have been two times (in 2000 and 2010) that our family has taken a longer trip to visit American history sites in the eastern United States.  
      Photo albums from 2010 trip:

Virtual field trips: educational web sites are the next best thing!

Videos and DVD's: especially the NEST animated history DVD's about American heroes such as George Washington, Alexander Graham Bell, Harriet Tubman, Thomas Edison, etc. This year, I also ordered a DVD called Saints & Strangers about religious influences in America from the time of the Mayflower until the Great Awakening, including the Church of England, the Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and others. I really appreciated the balanced approach, since it didn't gloss over conflicts or problems with each of the churches. (It also gave me a renewed respect for Roger Williams and his fight for religious liberties in the colonies.)

National documents: The Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc. What do they say? What do they mean to us today?

Speeches: Lincoln's Gettysburg address, Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech, etc. Listen to audio dramatizations as you read them. Ask your kids to recite them in their best dramatic voices.  

Quotes from famous people: Use these for copy work and dictation and be sure to talk about what they mean and what the historical context was.

Great American communicators: I taught a series on this in our co-op classes. I featured about a dozen men and women who had made significant contributions to American communications either by what they spoke or wrote themselves, or what they did to improve communication for others. Some of them included Benjamin Franklin (statesman, newspaperman, inventor, library and college founder, etc.), Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence and 3rd president of the USA), Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone and teacher of the deaf), Sequoyah (inventor of the Cherokee syllabary for written language), and Phillis Wheatley (slave poet).  

Time lines: Make a simple time line using heavy paper or cardstock. Draw or paste on small illustrations of key people and events. You can even buy time line kits. Just don’t make it too complex!

Geography and history of regions and states: landforms, habitats, plants, and wildlife (such as desert region for southwestern U.S. or forests for New England). For each American history unit, we will also cover Florida state history, starting with the explorer Ponce de Leon and the later founding of St. Augustine, which is the oldest continually inhabited city in the United States.

"History threads": Trace a single topic throughout several time periods, such as the history of American clothing, medical practices, home building methods, food, recreation, education, weapons, etc. Show lots of pictures, or go to a museum and see old things! Check out library books such as: Everyday History series by Rupert Matthews, including Cooking a Meal (j641.509), Keeping Clean, Sending a Letter, and Toys and Games.

Reasons and results: As you study an event, try to determine why it happened -- the reason for it. What led up to this? If you are studying history chronologically, this will make more sense. This led to this led to this led to this... That chain of events, like a domino effect, also leads us to results. This event, which was caused by something previous, also may become the trigger for something that follows it. For example, the invention of new manufacturing machinery ushered in the Industrial Revolution, which in turn drew workers from rural areas to the cities, and shifted the economy away from family-based cottage industries.

Different perspectives: There is always more than one side to a story, and it's only fair to get as many perspectives as you can. Usually, there is at least some truth to each version of it. Teach your children how to evaluate the credibility of a source. Was the person an eyewitness? Was he or she known for integrity or deceit? Did this person have a motive for reporting the details as they did? What is the demographic background of the person -- and how did that affect his or her viewpoint? If the work is a piece of fiction, what world view did the author hold, and what was the aim of the story? When we study the Civil War and slavery, I generally teach from the northern/abolitionist perspective. However, I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the war; one of my great-great grandfathers was a Confederate sharpshooter from Louisiana. I realize that the issues aren't all cut and dried, so I like my children to hear from the southern point of view as well. The children's novels Turn Homeward, Hannalee and Be Ever Hopeful, Hannalee by Patricia Beatty are told from perspective of young displaced Southern girl, showing the disruption that the war and Reconstruction era caused her family. Or, when we study about the early explorers, such as Christopher Columbus, we read books that discuss his great accomplishments and his heart for spreading God's word, but also ones that acknowledge the faults he had in allowing or even causing mistreatment, enslavement and even massacre of native Americans. It is refreshing to read a library book called We Asked For Nothing: The Remarkable Journey of Cabeza de Vaca by Stuart Waldman about one explorer who learned to respect them, and in the end, courageously defended their freedom and safety at the ultimate cost of his own.

HERstory: Speaking of perspectives, don't forget to include the accomplishments of American women! Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Jane Hull, Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride... You go, girls!

Genealogy and family history: Look for copies of family records (we have books from several segments of our family tree) and ask older relatives for their recollections. Who were your ancestors? When did they come to America, and under what circumstances? Did they fight in any wars?  Be sure to record your own family history for future generations. See here for examples of how you can do this:

Holidays: Discuss the history and significance of Columbus Day, Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and other patriotic holidays as they occur throughout the year. Many books are available, such as The Thanksgiving Story and The Fourth of July Story by Alice Dalgliesh (early elementary).

Around the World: When you are studying your nation's history, be sure to relate this to what else is going on around the world, and how this affects your own history. Genevieve Foster has written a series of books that put American history into a global context.

History fairs: You can do this in your own family or, for even more fun, in a home school support group. Each child is invited to set up a project display, and everyone mills around oohing and aahing over the exhibits. Our family has invested in some tri-fold display boards that we use from year to year. Also at the fair, we might have a special speaker; one year it was a Civil War re-enactor, and once we had a Native American from a Florida tribe.

How do you teach history?  Leave a comment!

Would you like to see a list of books we like for American history?  Read this companion post!
Favorite Books for Teaching American History.

Virginia Knowles

Friday, August 20, 2010

Weekly Grading and Lesson Planning

Weekly Grading and Lesson Planning

I find that our daily school times go so much more smoothly and we get a lot more done if I plan and prepare everything ahead of time.  I want their notebooks and school bins fully loaded so everything is ready for action!

I try to block out several hours of time for this process, but I usually have to do it in shorter chunks of time, starting Friday afternoon and finishing up Saturday morning. I hate to be interrupted by distractions while I do this, so I have to frequently remind everyone else to stay out of my way! I'm still breaking into this routine, but it becomes less awkward each week. I have to guard against going down bunny trails, such as spending too much time designing my own worksheets.

Supplies and Equipment:  
  • 1" teacher notebook with dividers
  • 1 "current week notebook (with subject dividers) for each child, clearly labeled with their name (I buy packs of 6 at Sam's Club)
  • 2" archive notebook for each child
  • One medium sized clear plastic bin for each child and for mom, labeled in permanent marker at each end (see Bin There, Done That) -- they cost about $5 at Walmart
  • One bin for archive notebooks and bulky workbooks
  • Computer with word processing
  • Printer/copy machine combo
  • Sturdy 3 hole punch, stapler, scissors, pens, pencils
  • School books
  • Lined paper

Each family is going to do things differently, but here are the basic steps I use each week:

1. I gather the children's school bins and make sure all of last week's work is in them. Then I grade any lessons that haven't already been graded. Next, I move last week's school work from the current week notebook into the archive notebook. I remove from the bin any books that won't be used next week. Then I move the bins over to near the computer.

2. I open a word processing document for this week's school assignments. It is easiest to start with last week's document, save it under a new name (such as Week 6 All Assignments), and then make changes to it for this week. That way I don't have to retype the basic format, names of books that are consistently used, etc. I have a group assignment page first, and then an individual assignments page for each child. Each one is clearly labeled with the week number and dates, as well as the child's name. While I have everything on the screen, I also make any updates to last week's assignment pages, taking off what we didn't finish and adding in any extra stuff we did do.

3. I gather the books and DVD's I will use for group teaching time, which we do first each morning for an hour or so. (This assumes that I have already picked out books at the library or from our own shelves, of course!) After I determine how many pages I need to cover in each on each day of the week, I type in titles, authors, page or chapter numbers, and other information on the group assignment page. When I am teaching each day, I just have to go down the list in order. I always leave science for last since my oldest son leaves the room to do his own science then.

  • Bible: Read Genesis 16
  • History: Read pages 5-23 of Francisco Pizarro: Explorer of South America by Sandra J. Kachurek
  • Historical Literature: Read chapters 12-13 of The King's Fifth by Scott O'Dell (historical fiction about the explorer Coronado)
  • Science: Read Swimming Creatures of the 5th Day (SC5th) pgs 87-89 - Fish intro and Bony Fishes
4. Next I gather the children's regular workbooks and textbooks, as well as short-term resources, such as library books on a specific topic that will be read quickly. I decide which page or lesson numbers they need to do this week. For example, if they have 30 pages in a book, I usually assign 6 per day, but I keep in mind natural stopping points, such as the end of a chapter.  For the son who has an on-line math course, I log on to his account and check the assignment chart to see where he is and what needs to be done next.  On the child's individual page, I type in the assignments for each subject, day by day. I look over the total package to make sure the work load seems reasonable. I try to leave lighter work on Friday since I usually start doing grading and lesson planning that afternoon.


Read Juan Ponce de Leon by Gail Sakurai.  
  • Mon: Read glossary on page 55-56. Read chapters 1-2 on pages 7-20. Write a paragraph.
  • Tue: Read chapter 3 on pages 21-28. Write a paragraph.
  • Wed: Read chapters 4-5 on pages 29-40. Write a paragraph.
  • Thu: Read chapter 6 on pages 41-50. Write a paragraph.
  • Fri: Read chapter 7 and Timeline on pages 51-54. Write a paragraph.
5. I print or make copies of any handouts for the children. This might include coloring pages, reproducible worksheets, spelling lists that I have created, or articles from the Internet. If we are using isolated pages from a workbook, such as Comprehensive Curriculum, then I tear them out. I do this because the books are bulky and because I am assigning pages from different sections of it (such as Spelling or Reading Comprehension) and I don't want them to have to flip through to find the right ones. I stick these in the archive notebook bin until I need them the next week. However, I leave the pages in their Horizons Math workbooks because they are doing them in order and the books aren't very thick.  For a younger child, I might label each of these pages with the day of the week they are to be completed.

6. I print a copy of the group assignment page and the individual assignment pages for each child, as well as a complete set for my own teacher notebook. Then I collate and hole punch all assignment pages, handouts and loose worksheets. I put a pile on the table for each child.

7. I move all of the school bins to the dining room table. Then I put all pages from each child's pile into the current week notebooks in the correct subject section. The individual and group assignment pages go in the very front of the notebook. I check to be sure there is an ample supply of lined paper in the notebook. Finally, I put the notebook and assigned books in each bin -- including my own teacher bin -- and put the bins back on their shelf. During the week, each child is supposed to be responsible to keep all of their papers stored neatly in their notebook and all notebooks, books and supplies (such as their pencil and scissor box) stored neatly in their bin. In reality, I often find things left around the house, but at least I know where to put them when I find them! This makes things so much easier for me.   Last year I wrote about using bins in a blog post here: "Bin There, Done That" (Or How to Keep School Clutter from Turning You Into a Basketcase)
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