Saturday, August 21, 2010

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

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