Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Historically Speaking

Every homeschool parent has a favorite subject or subjects, as well as those they would love to expunge from the lesson plan - whether they admit it or do their best to feign neutrality is another matter altogether. I feel pretty comfortable with most subjects (although science experiments are an albatross) but I like to have some kind of overall plan, a parent's guide, or at least a workbook for most subjects.  I often get suggestions to play this game, or make up this worksheet, or do this exercise and usually I smile politely, say thank you, file it in an internal compartment for someday, and never think about it again.

History and geography are a whole other matter.  (I refuse to use the so-vague-it's-utterly-useless term social studies.  Even though I know my homeschool consultant has a little square on her matrix for it and has to combine everything vaguely related to culture, history, or geography, I stubbornly present her with Bean's work in the four distinct areas of US History, World History, Geography, and Foreign Language every month.)  I was the annoying kid in my eighth and ninth grade classes who insisted on setting the curve in US and World History.  I just couldn't help myself, no matter how many times my best frenemy casually mentioned that I was threatening her GPA.  I started out my college career as an Asian History major and even though I finished up with a major in Women's Studies, the concentration was in history and I made the surprising discovery during my senior year that I had enough credits to declare a minor in US History.  I have an easy facility with date memorization (I should say had - that was before two kids and eight years of sleep deprivation) and love the stories and connections that I saw in history.  I can call up the timeline of human history with savant-like precision and I'm not afraid to off-road if any subject Bean and I cover needs further explanation.  

Many homeschoolers use Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World series, even if they are not classical education adherents (Susan and her mother literally wrote the book on this brand of homeschool education.) I love reading Susan's blog and tweets, especially the entries which describe her writing and research process, and I don't have a position on whether her books are too secular or not secular enough (seriously folks, there could be an entire conference debating this subject.)  This is the one subject area where I want to take the reins in hand without the benefit of a thousand page guide.  I eagerly present Bean with a patchwork quilt of history and geography resources, lovingly curated by me.  I more or less follow Rebecca Rupp's suggested timeline and areas of concentration for each grade and use many of her resources.  However, I have no qualms about making substitutions, adding in something that catches my or Bean's current fancy or elaborating or refuting any point an author makes. This is my metier and any modesty on my part would be wholly false.

Since we first started homeschooling, we have been making the grand tour of US colonial and Revolutionary history and are now taking a more in depth view at the birth of the nation, also known as the writing of the Constitution.  Along the way, we've made brief forays into slavery and westward expansion (pioneers) just because we couldn't help ourselves -and because there were pressing questions about the hideous nature of the first and the second provides rich make-believe fodder.  For first and second grade, Bean and I loved the If You... series of books by Scholastic, which allow kids to imagine themselves as children in other eras.  There are many, many titles by various authors, covering all aspects of American history (including books on many individual Native American tribes.)  Another good, early grades source is the American Kids in History series of activity books, also from Scholastic.    I think we'll come back to both of these resources as we introduce other eras.   We just finished reading a number of books by Jean Fritz, each about a different Colonial or Revolutionary War figure.  I love Fritz' books for third/fourth grade, because they require a little more listening/reading stamina than other kids' books of this genre (each one is about 30-40 pages), yet they are completely accessible and retain kids' attention.  They are both humorous and very detailed, another rare plus in history books for kids, which usually have one or the other quality.

We are now alternating between George Washington's World, by Genevieve Foster and A Kids' Guide to America's Bill of Rights by Kathleen Krull.  The latter is self-explanatory, but the Foster book is in a class by itself - in fact each of her volumes that are centered around a different (male) historical figure (Julius Cesar, Christopher Columbus, John Smith, Abraham Lincoln) could stand alone as a text in a middle or even high school history class.  The premise is unique: Foster starts with a dominant figure in a particular era,  then paints a very full picture of the world around and far beyond them.  For example, the George Washington book divides his life into six parts and describes his life in detail at the start of the chapter.  Further sections describe the life of his contemporaries all over America and the rest of the world, including African and Asian kings, Catherine the Great, and Junipero Serra.  In this way, early US history is put into world context.  The information isn't necessarily unique, but the method of presenting and packaging it is singular.

For world history, we started off in first/second grade covering general European history of the middle ages.  My favorite resources for the Middle Ages are David Macaulay's Cathedral and Castle books.  Macaulay is a genius illustrator and the text mostly lives up to the drawing.  (Depending on age and temperament, you may need to do some parental editing.)  For older kids, Bean and I have been reading our way through Karen Cushman's medieval fiction for kids.  Mathilda Bone and The Midwife's Apprentice both feature female protagonists who accidentally find roles for themselves in the medieval versions of medicine.  Along the way, kids learn about medicine, midwifery, daily life, religion, and class in the England of the Middle Ages - all from the perspective of preteen girls.  (Her novels are appropriately graphic for their time period, but not gratuitous -definitely better for an older child and not always good at bedtime.)

In the early grades, we also touched on Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Greek and Roman histories, mostly using the Children of the Ancient World series from Cricket Books.  These books are structured differently from the If You series mentioned above, but also appeal to kids by focusing on what life was like for children in each time and place.  D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths is a classic companion to Ancient Greek study.  Bean loves the brief descriptions of each member of the (rather twisted) Olympian family and we have fun seeing how each divinity was used to explain something in the natural world.

For third grade, we focused on the Renaissance, which consisted of several decent, but not memorable biographies of Michelangelo and Da Vinci.  (The next time we come around to this topic, I will definitely take a look at Susan Wise Bauer's history of the Renaissance, currently in production.) Our favorite resource for this time period is the Renaissance and Post Renaissance chapter of the activity book Discovering Great Artists, by MaryAnn F. Kohl and Kim Solga.  Introductions to each artist are followed by art projects in their style or method - such as making homemade tempera with chalk and egg or "fresco" painting on plaster of paris in a pie tin.  My favorite part is that I can pick up the book on the fly and actually find a project we can do right then and there with things in the house - no project-delaying trip to the art store required.

For the last few months, we've been studying the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan cultures using the DK Eyewitness book on the subject.  I usually find these books tedious for read-alouds, and more suited to quiet time spent pouring over the interesting pages on one's own, but this time we've made it work with a combination of me reading aloud and Bean reading to herself.  Bean wanted to try some hands-on Mayan-inspired activities, so we'll be starting the Kaleidoscope Kids Book Mexico: 40 Activities to Experience Mexico Past & Present soon.

The one thing I do not use in history is any kind of workbook or written assignment.  I know this puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to producing work samples, but I haven't found any history workbooks that I like, nevermind the fabulously picky Bean.  What I want for Bean is that she has a broad and rich understanding of human history and of our world - and broader and more rich than I think she would receive in school.  I don't want a high school AP class to be the first time she hears about Hadrian's Wall and I want her to know that John Hancock was a person, not a John Doe signature.  I want her to have a working knowledge of what plausibly happened in what era and which came first, the Revolutionary War or the Civil War.  If she memorizes a few places and dates along the way, great - but not required.