Category Archives: History

The Landmark History of the American People

If you follow my daily learning notes blog, you know that Jane and I have been reading and discussing a book called The Landmark History of the American People by Daniel Boorstin.

I ordered it from Sonlight, oh, about four years ago, whenever it was that I bought their Core 3 package. I used to order a full Sonlight package every 18 months or so, not because I used their curriculum, but mainly to keep my hungry readers in books. At the time, Jane was around eight years old, and while we did read several chapters of Landmark History, it didn’t really click with her and I laid it aside.

We picked it back up last year and this time, the fit was right. It’s a history text, but it isn’t like any other history book I’ve seen. Instead of following events strictly chronologically, Boorstin tracks trends and movements: how the general store gave way to the department store, for example, or how a snake oil salesman repurposed his product for lamp-lighting and greased the way, so to speak, for Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Empire.

Boorstin, who was appointed Librarian of Congress when President Ford was in the White House, is an engaging storyteller, and he ropes you in with descriptions of the charismatic personalities that have been American movers and shakers. Jane reads each chapter eagerly and then passes it to me, entertaining the babies so I can have my turn. I’m learning as much as she is.

There is much here to fire the imagination:

(Jane, reading over my shoulder: "Do the bit about the shot tower, Mom!")

The second problem [with building tall buildings; the first problem, how to get people up to higher floors, was solved by the elevator]—how to hold up the building—began to be solved when James Bogardus and others had used cast iron for their Buyers’ Palaces. No longer was it necessary to build a tall building like a pyramid, with thick supporting walls on the lower floors. Cast-iron construction helped the department stores keep the lower floors wide open, with broad vistas and narrow pillars, allowing attractive show windows in between. But iron construction also made it possible to build higher and higher. Soon an eight-story building like Stewart’s Cast Iron Palace would seem small.

Bogardus himself constructed one of the first buildings of true skyscraper design. Its frame was a tall iron cage.  If the cage was strong and rigid, and  solidly anchored at the bottom, then the building could go up high without needing thick walls at the bottom. This was ‘skeleton’ construction. The building was held up, not by wide foundations at the bottom, but by its own rigid skeleton.

The first time Bogardus actually tried this, his structure did not have any rooms at all. It was a skeleton-framed tower for an ammunition factory. In those days lead shot was made by pouring molten lead through a sieve inside a high tower. The little liquid balls of lead dripped through, a few at a time. As these plummeted down through the air they became naturally rounded. And as they fell into the tank of water at the bottom they hardened into their rounded shape—ready for use in a rifle or a cannon.

In 1855, when the McCullough Shot and Lead Company needed a new shot tower in New York City, Bogardus gave them his radical new design. He built them an octagonal iron tower eight stories high. A tall iron cage, it needed no filled-in, weight-bearing walls to hold it up. Yet it was strong. When the openings in the iron frame were covered with brick, it served just as well as any heavy column of stone.

There is ample fodder here for the "ideas to ponder and discuss" part of our Rule of Six!

Sonlight still carries the book, and that’s the edition I recommend. I think it’s the only edition in print anymore and it is quite nice, a large, sturdy paperback book containing both volumes of Boorstin’s text, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution sandwiched between them. Several Amazon marketplace sellers have listed older editions of the book—most of them, I think, are offering the individual volumes. Volume 1 is "From Plymouth to Appomatox" and Volume 2 is "From Appomatox to the Moon."

Another great history read is Jennifer Armstrong’s The American Story, but that’s a subject for another review!

Tree in Our Trail

Holling Clancy Holling’s books seem to be a staple for the homeschooling library, and ours is no exception. The girls and I have enjoyed several of Holling’s books over the years, especially Paddle to the Sea and Pagoo. (The title character of the latter book served as the namesake for not one, not two, but three hermit crabs who were cherished members of our family for a couple of years. Ah, Pagoo, Pagooess, and Pagooie, we knew ye well!)

I had tucked Tree in the Trail aside to await the right moment, and the other day I decided that moment is now. It’s the story of a cottonwood tree that takes root along what would later become the Santa Fe trail. Our recent cross-country tripapalooza took us right along sections of that very trail, and the scenery in the book is now very meaningful to my kids!

We are only four chapters in, but so far all of us are loving it. I actually got choked up when the Indian brave who saved the tree as a sapling came back to visit it on horseback later. The girls were transfixed by the idea that there was a time when "horseback" didn’t exist, a time when people didn’t know about riding horses. Sure, we’ve read other books about horseless cultures, but you don’t really think about about the absence of riding animals when you’re immersed in tales of what the characters ARE doing. It was a great light-bulb moment for the kids, especially Rose (my horse fanatic), another making-real of knowledge that had been merely dry fact before. Which is the best, the very best, thing about reading with my children: seeing those lights come on, and basking in their warm glow.

From Charlie Brown to Easy Reader

When I posted not long ago about our passion for the Snoopy CD, a couple of commenters recommended a Peanuts DVD set I had never heard of.

"Have you heard about the recently released DVD This Is America, Charlie Brown; It is eight American History episodes done Peanuts
style and it’s only $15.00 on Amazon. My daughter LOVES it."

So naturally when I had an Amazon coupon burning a hole on my desk (a searing black hole; really I had to do SOMETHING about it, didn’t I?), I  doused that fire with good old Charlie Brown. And wow, wow, wow. We love it. Very good stuff. There are episodes on the Mayflower, the writing of the Constitution, and the history of NASA. Among others.

One thing I’ve been impressed by is how NOT dumbed-down these shows are. The Constitution one has you listening in on the Founders’ debates, and it’s complicated, fascinating stuff. Should lawmakers be elected by the people? The Peanuts gang is riveted by the debate, and so are we. Mighty refreshing to see makers of kids’ shows assuming the kids actually have functioning brains.

The other DVD set we’ve been enjoying lately is something I ordered from Netflix. I’ve been waiting thirty years for this. OK, maybe not exactly thirty, but pretty much since I was old enough to notice that it had disappeared from my PBS line-up. Oh yes, that’s right. The Electric Company. They turned it on, and they gave me the power.

Unlike, say, Captain Crunch, The Electric Company is every bit as magnificent as I remembered from childhood. This is where I met Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, and Rita Moreno. Also that nice guy with the glasses, and the funny girl with the long dark hair. And Letterman! And commas! And the plumber who has come to fix the sink!

My kids think it’s a riot the way I keep hollering HEY! I REMEMBER THAT!!!!!! from the next room. But more than the groovy (oh so very groovy, with those clothes, those hideous orange and brown sets) cruise down memory lane, these DVDs score points with me for their really classy way of approaching reading instruction. It’s fun, funny, smart, and simple. Good reinforcement for spelling and punctuation ("Punct-punct-punct- PUNCT-uation! They are the little marks that use their influence to make a sentence make more sense!"), too.

I’ve been letting the girls watch one episode a day. Beanie has just recently progressed from hesitant sounding-out of Bob Books to honest-to-goodness reading with Henry & Mudge. The Electric Company came along at just the right time to help her make the leap. For example, in episode one, two of the characters have an argument (mediated by Bill Cosby) over whether the letter G says guh or juh. They take turns presenting examples for their respective sides. I’ll hear Beanie muttering under her breath, repeating the words the characters say. "Game. Gym. Gum. Large."

Meanwhile, Rose is picking up some quite useful spelling and grammar reinforcement. A sentence appears on the screen (in adorably archaic graphics): "The boy who is sitting is sleepy." A comma drops down from above. (It only wobbles a little.) It plops behind the word boy, and then another comma follows suit, landing next to sitting. Simple and effective, and since this occurs in the middle of an engaging song, the lesson isn’t boring.

And that’s the first episode, which is clumsier than subsequent ones. The graphics get (a little) better; the commas get less wobbly; the skits get funnier; the improv gets more polished. And the clothes? Even groovier.

Thomas Jefferson and Education

Scott’s birthday present to Rose was a surprise visit home for the weekend. Home! As in HERE! Which is to say: not California! All weekend! Here!

And now it’s Monday, and he has to go back, but let’snotthinkaboutthat.

On Saturday we decided to do some Virginia things we hadn’t gotten around to doing yet. One thing in particular, a place I would have felt really chagrined to leave this area without having visited: Monticello.

Like pretty much everyone I know, I’m awfully fond of Thomas Jefferson. Now, for me, I think the attachment was formed during childhood viewings of the musical 1776. (No WAY. Just  now when I looked up the IMDB link for this film, I discovered that Jefferson was played by well-known actor Ken Howard. I had no idea. He was so young! And red-haired!) What I chiefly took away from this film (which must have been on HBO, I watched it so many times) was that Thomas Jefferson was manipulated into writing the Declaration of Independence by a duet-singing John Adams and Ben Franklin; that Tom played the violin (a phrase I can only hear in melody and had to forcibly restrain myself from SINGING during the house tour on Saturday); and that he had a pretty wife who fell for him precisely because of that there violin-playing (which turned out to be a metaphor I totally didn’t get as a kid, fortunately).

The result of all this musical-comedy indoctrination is that I’ve always had in my mind an image of the young Jefferson, not the twinkling yet demanding esteemed-grandfather personage presented to us by our energetic tour guide at Monticello. The Monticello Jefferson (on the family tour, at least) is the doting gentleman who gave his granddaughter Cornelia six gray geese as a present for sending him a letter at the White House, the affectionate scholar who rewarded children with valuable books after they’d managed to read the books in question. Everything about our Monticello tour pointed to Jefferson’s love of education, his fascination with the arts and sciences, his determination to raise articulate and knowledgeable heirs.

There were unsettling incongruities—how can there not be, since this man who spoke out so passionately for liberty as a human right lived on a magnificent estate whose productivity depended on the labor of slaves—but the children’s tour did not delve into these. The slaves’ contribution was acknowledged matter-of-factly, at the beginning of the tour. (Tour Guide: "And how was all this beauty made possible? Who made it possible for Thomas Jefferson to live here in comfort?" Beanie: "GOD!" Tour Guide: "Um, well, yes, but…")

For the most part, though, the tour focused on the architectural details of the house and on Jefferson’s passion for learning. The kids were enchanted by the museum of Native American artifacts collected by Lewis and Clark (local heroes in these parts) and displayed by Jefferson in the entryway of his home. There’s a famous clock there, too, which Jane had read all about in some book or other and shared some interesting facts with the crowd, much to the tour guide’s amusement. (Tour guide: "You’ve certainly done YOUR homework!" Jane, blankly: "Homework?")

Some of the books on the shelves are Jefferson’s own copies: a Don Quixote in four volumes; many texts in Latin. I admit to some goose bumps as I peered through the protective glass to read the titles. I thought of little Cornelia standing on tiptoe to see the names inscribed on the leather covers of her grandpa’s books, wondering which of them she might one day earn for herself.

I could say a lot more, but we’ve got Scott for just a few more hours and I am ditching this computer posthaste. Instead of trying to be, you know, articulate and stuff, I’ll just leave you with some links on Thomas Jefferson education.
One-Sixteenth on TJE
George Wythe College bookstore
Dumb Ox Academy—TJE in a Nutshell

We Have a Winner!

Three of them, actually. Diane, Stephanie, and Cici all correctly guessed the answer to yesterday’s trivia question: Charlotte Tucker (Quiner Holbrook), maternal grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Which is to say: Ma’s ma.) Charlotte was born in 1809 along with Edgar Allen Poe and a whole bunch of other notable personages, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and Abraham Lincoln (as Ryane pointed out). Also Louis Braille, British statesman William Gladstone, Charles Darwin, and Felix Mendelssohn. Quite a year for history, I’d say.

My girls discovered the 1809 connection when we read Abraham Lincoln’s World by Genevieve Foster. (If you don’t know the Foster books, you’ll want to check them out—they are an engaging and fascinating look at various historical periods, each one digging in deep to world history during the lifetime of a key historical figure like Lincoln, Washington, William Penn, or Columbus. They make terrific read-alouds for a wide age range. I’ll be reading Augustus Caesar’s World to my gang during the upcoming year.)

We were excited to realize that Abe Lincoln was born just a few months before our good friend Charlotte Tucker. For me, Lincoln is so firmly connected to the Civil War that I had never given a moment’s thought to what was going on in the world when he was growing up. The War of 1812! Madison and Monroe! Jefferson was still alive, for decades! Do you ever think of Lincoln and Jefferson as having overlapped?

Anyway, Charlotte is the person I mentioned yesterday who is so very important to me. After writing books about her, she feels in some ways like another one of my own little girls. Same with her mother, Martha. Perhaps even more so with Martha because I’ve written about her both as a child and as a mother.

I know I said I’d give a signed book to the first person to get the right answer, but the three Charlotte answers came in so close together that what the heck, you all win. Email me your address and the name or names you’d like me to put in the book (you? your kids?), and I’ll send you each a copy. Also let me know if there’s a particular Charlotte or Martha book you’d like to receive.

Thanks to all who proffered a guess!

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Glad You Asked

Stephanie asked:

Do you take specific book recommendation requests? If so, sign me up! I’d like to read a bit about the American Revolution with my 6 & 8 year olds prior to a trip to Williamsburg/Yorktown/ Jamestown this summer. I’d especially love to share a couple great historical-fiction read alouds with them to bring this area/time period alive. I’d like to avoid books that have a young adult romance in the story line. Anything come to mind?

Yes! I’ll add to this list tomorrow, but for now let me recommend a couple of books we’ve really enjoyed:

0064403335101_aa_scmzzzzzzz__1A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla. This short chapter book would be perfect to read before your Jamestown visit. It’s about three young English children whose father has gone to Jamestown to make a home for the family. When their mother dies, they must find a way to cross the ocean and join their father. The story of their journey to Virginia (with a detour to Bermuda) is based on a true story and features real historical figures like John Rolfe. I read this book to Rose and Beanie (7 and 5) recently and they hung on every word. Your kids are the perfect age to enjoy it. After reading it, I’m itching to take my gang to Jamestown too. (But I don’t think Rilla is quite up for it yet.)

You’re probably aware of this already, but the American Girls Felicity series is set in colonial Williamsburg. (I have a soft spot for the Felicity books because they are illustrated by the same artist as my Charlotte books, the wonderful Dan Andreasen.) When my family visited Williamsburg last fall, my girls were excited to recognize some of the places featured in Felicity’s adventures, like the Powder Magazine.

Girlshorses_2(Oh, and a tip for making your Williamsburg trip even more fun: splurge for the costume rental for your kids. They get to dress up like colonists and are given a list of items to collect from the various shopkeepers, as if they’re running errands for an elderly relative. They’ll have a ball.)

Two of our favorite Revolutionary War-era novels are Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me : An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos and Mr. Revere and I.

More to come…In the meantime, don’t miss the excellent collection of titles at Reading Your Way Through History. And of course reader suggestions are always welcome!

Anyone else looking for read-alouds to go along with summer travels?

On the Feast of St. Joan

In December, 1905, Mark Twain gave a speech a Society of Illustrators dinner. Before he spoke, a girl dressed as Joan of Arc presented him with a laurel wreath. Her appearance inspired him to some impromptu remarks about the depiction of the great saint in art. When he speaks of “the conventional Joan of Arc,” he is referring to the way she typically appears in paintings. In Mr. Twain’s view, none of these illustrations did justice to the real woman.

Now there is an illustration. That is exactly what I wanted—precisely what I wanted when I was describing to myself Joan of Arc, after studying her history and her character for twelve years diligently.

That was the product—not the conventional Joan of Arc. Wherever you find the conventional Joan of Arc in history she is an offence to anybody who knows the story of that wonderful girl.

Why, she was—she was almost supreme in several details. She had a marvellous intellect; she had a great heart, had a noble spirit, was absolutely pure in her character, her feeling, her language, her words, her everythingshe was only eighteen years old.

Now put that heart into such a breast—eighteen years old—and give it that masterly intellect which showed in the fate, and furnish it with that almost god-like spirit, and what are you going to have? The conventional Joan of Arc? Not by any means. That is impossible. I cannot comprehend any such thing as that.

You must have a creature like that young and fair and beautiful girl we just saw. And her spirit must look out of the eyes. The figure should be—the figure should be in harmony with all that, but, oh, what we get in the conventional picture, and it is always the conventional picture!

I hope you will allow me to say that your guild, when you take the conventional, you have got it at second-hand. Certainly, if you had studied and studied, then you might have something else as a result, but when you have the common convention you stick to that.

You cannot prevail upon the artist to do it; he always gives you a Joan of Arc—that lovely creature that started a great career at thirteen, but whose greatness arrived when she was eighteen; and merely because she was a girl he cannot see the divinity in her, and so he paints a peasant, a coarse and lubberly figure—the figure of a cotton-bale, and he clothes that in the coarsest raiment of the peasant region—just like a fish-woman, her hair cropped short like a Russian peasant, and that face of hers, which should be beautiful and which should radiate all the glories which are in the spirit and in her heart—that expression in that face is always just the fixed expression of a ham.

You can read the whole speech, which takes some good-natured shots at the illustrator of The Innocents Abroad, at BoondocksNet. Mr. Twain’s book about Joan of Arc can be read at Project Gutenberg.

All Roads Lead to Rome (Even for Bunnies)

The Sabine Women, Jacques-Louis David, 1796-99

Over at Bonny Glen I’ve been talking about the connections my kids are making during our read-aloud of Famous Men of Rome. This is for me one of the best things about homeschooling: watching the light bulbs go off, seeing pieces of the big puzzle of Life, the Universe, and Everything fit together in the kids’ minds.

We just started reading this book last week. Today Romulus finished building his city and then had to do a little creative marketing to find inhabitants. On the lam? Facing criminal charges? Australia doesn’t exist yet, so give Rome a try! It’s got a wall and everything! River views available. The world has never had a shortage of scruffy, disenfranchised males, it seems, for a paragraph later Romulus’s town is bustling with happy outlaws. Oops, not so happy after all: it seems no women answered the cattle call.

I get this far in the reading and Rose gasps. "It’s like the rabbits!" she shouts. For some reason, connections must always be shouted around here. "It’s like Watership Down!"

Scott is reading them Watership Down at bedtime. Last night they reached the part where Hazel & Co. have just gotten nicely settled into their digs on the down, and they suddenly realize their new warren has no future if they don’t find some nice lady rabbits to join them. Rose is right: it’s the founding of Rome all over again.

The bunnies, however, are a little more gentlemenly with the ladies, as my girls will discover a few nights hence. When I continue the early Romans’ tale, the kids are outraged by the abduction of the Sabine women. Then Beanie says, "Hey, this remembers me of a movie," and Jane shouts, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers!" That charts our course for the rest of the morning: we hunt for the DVD and eventually remember where we left it. A short bike ride to the neighbors’ house later, Jane is brandishing the movie in triumph and we eat lunch to the tune of "And the women were sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’…"

The last week of May might seem like a strange time to start a history read-aloud. We don’t keep a traditional school-year schedule; we tend to follow a seasonal rhythm with our studies. For the new readers who are just getting to know me here at ClubMom, I thought it might be helpful if I gave a bit of background on our homeschooling style. Here’s how I have explained it before:

People often ask me what kind of homeschoolers we are: Classical? Charlotte Mason? Eclectic? Delight-Directed? Unschoolers? How, they want to know, does learning happen in our home? Am I in charge, or do I let the kids lead the way? And what about math?

Over the years I have written with enthusiasm about the Charlotte Mason method (which is highly structured) and unschooling (which is not). These educational philosophies seem to have intertwined themselves in my home, so that the what we do—read great books, study nature, dive deeply into history, immerse ourselves in picture study and composer study—is highly influenced by Charlotte’s writings and their modern counterparts; and the how we do it—through strewing and conversation and leisurely, child-led exploration—is influenced by the writings of John Holt, Sandra Dodd, and other advocates of unschooling. But I couldn’t say we’re "real CMers" because I don’t carry out Miss Mason’s recommendations in anything like the structured manner she prescribed; and I probably do too much behind-the-scenes nudging for us to be considered "real unschoolers."

The truth is, I couldn’t find any label that completely fit my family, so I made up my own. I call us "Tidal Learners" because the ways in which we approach education here change with the tide. Now, this doesn’t mean that we’re flighty or inconsistent, changing direction haphazardly. We aren’t Fiddler Crab Homeschoolers. What I mean is that there is a rhythm to the way learning happens here; there are upbeats and downbeats; there is an ebb and flow.

Lately I have been reading a lot about Latin-centered classical education, and I am increasingly convinced of the merits of steady and intensive Latin studies. Because we have such a relaxed approach to the rest of our learning, it is no burden to make Latin lessons a regular part of our day. When planning our family routine—whether it’s the summer routine revolving around the neighborhood swimming pool or the winter routine which must allow for abrupt changes of plan in the event of good sledding weather—I keep a loose "rule of six" in the back of my mind. There are six things I try to make a part of every day:

• meaningful work (this includes household chores, which are "meaningful" because they make our own and others’ lives more pleasant; it also includes pursuits requiring daily practice, such as piano and, yes, Latin; and of course for Scott and me, writing is meaningful work)
• good books 
• beauty (art, music, nature)
• big ideas (discussions about what we’re reading or encountering in the world)
• play (including time spent with friends)
• prayer

Honesty compels me to admit that for myself I privately add a seventh component to my daily Rule of Six:

• a footrub from my incredibly sweet husband

Oh, and also:

• chocolate.

But for the family as a whole, the top six items are what shape our days. So this summer, Romans and Sabines and Latin and bunnies will be waiting for us whenever we come home from the pool.