Loving American History!

uss-constitution-651125_1280I’d like to write a book. I would entitle it Saturated with History or Dripping with Destiny or Learning about History through Stories or some enticing title that would help children want to experience the wonderful deliciousness of learning history.

Here’s what I would say in my book—if I were ever to write it: you can make your children beg for history! Yes, it is really true! Just this morning, during homeschool, my children all moaned and begged for more when I finished our history lesson. “Please, Mom, please! Just read one more chapter to us! Tell us what happened, please Mom!” I would also want to say that history can be the easiest subject that you teach.

Now that I’ve made you such idealistic promises, I think I’d better tell you how to make this happen.

grapes-274132_1280I began teaching American History by beginning at the very beginning. Ask questions. Who was the discoverer of America? Back, back before Columbus? The first record comes from Leif Erikson’s voyage to “Vinland” (meaning vineland) as he named it due to the abundance of wild grapes. Leif Erikson was a Viking who was blown off course when sailing from Norway to Greenland. A settlement was set up in Vinland but it was not destined to last many seasons. The Indians proved too ferocious and the Vikings were eventually driven home to their far north lands.

Hundreds of years later, Christopher Columbus, prompted by the Spirit, began his life’s quest to prove that man could reach the East, the Orient, by sailing west. Columbus headed straight for Florida, but was persuaded by his complaining and frightened crew and the captain of one of the other two ships in his fleet, to turn southward landing on the island he would call San Salvador (meaning the Savior in Columbus’s native tongue), which is actually one of the islands of the West Indies. Eventually he established Hispaniola (now known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic) as a Spanish colony. These islands that now speak Spanish were inhabited by Indians at the time, not Spanish speaking people.

Did you notice that the history I have recited thus far is really an adventure story? And that, precisely, is what makes history so fascinating.

image-1So, let’s just begin with Leif Erikson. Go to your public library and check out all the children’s books you can on the subject. Pictures books are great for all ages, and give an easy-to-read overview. Biographies and non-fiction books are great too. Don’t neglect the audio and video sections of the library—the frosting on the cake. For the study of Christopher Columbus, we listened to a dramatized Your Story Hour audiocassette called “Vision” that portrayed the boyhood and discovery made by Columbus. It was excellent!  The Animated Hero Classics are a series of DVDs portraying the lives of famous men and women, and they are work watching as a summary of each hero’s life. They have created entertaining and true-to-fact animated movies on the life of Pocahontas, Columbus and William Bradford and others.  Searching the Internet can also supply you with good stuff to enrich your study: short YouTube videos, virtual field trips of important places in history and lots of information.

The big thing not to do is stress out over trying to find the exact right resources. There are enough books on Leif Erikson in your little hometown library (I hope) to give you a flavor of the subject and make it interesting.  Research books are nice to give the mother/teacher some added details if you are interested. But, you are truly looking for children’s historical fiction—story books that tell the true adventure in an exciting story form. This read-aloud is what keeps children excited and loving history.


D’Aulaire historical picture books

I’ve used and loved the historical picture books written by the D’Aulaire’s. They are exceptional and the illustrations are marvelous!  But remember, the big thing not to do is spend too much time trying to find the right books. The big thing to do is to take the topic and explore and enjoy it to the fullest, learning all the way.

When we studied Leif Erikson, we got interested in Vikings and how they ravaged coastal towns in the 500’s AD to the point that many of the people commonly said prayers that God would protect them from the evil “Norsesmen” (meaning “North men” since they came from Norway and Greenland). The Vikings went raiding in search of food for their growing population, since they lived in a land with a very short growing season, but they weren’t exactly gentlemanly about it. That little piece of information led to looking up “Viking” in the encyclopedia and reading things for fun.

Then, I recalled that I had seen a Viking ship in an old National Geographic magazine. Luckily, I found it quickly and we really got off into the intriguing subject of how the Vikings buried their entire ship in the ground when someone died, along with provisions for the next life. That is why there are such incredible museum artifacts in a museum in Denmark—actual fully-loaded Viking ships that have been dug up out of the earth! Who could hold us back from getting out paper and colored pencils and sketching a Viking ship? Next, we wondered as we drew: why the strange and ghoulish prowheads on the front of the Viking ships? It took some reading to find the answer: to frighten away evil spirits from the course the ship was headed into. Then we wondered, “If they believed in mythological gods, how did Leif Erikson ever become a Christian?”. Can you see how question after question led us from one interesting study to another? With all this fascinating adventure in their heads, children are just brimming over and ready to write a narrative account of just what happened with Leif Erikson. I asked my children to write a page or so and Emily, my usual reluctant writer, produced 8 pages!

image-2When you are fully saturated with Leif Erikson, put his likeness or a Viking ship or whatever you’d like that jogs your memory of Erikson with the date underneath up on the wall (the beginning of your time line), and start on the next main character in history to encounter America: Christopher Columbus. Columbus is easy to study because there is so much information on him! The public library will have lots of books and resources for young children and teenagers.

Studying Columbus took us off on a science streak! This is how it happened. When Columbus got stuck in the doldrums of the Sargasso Sea, with no wind to blow the ships’ sails, we started wondering if it were truly possible that the seaweed in the Sargasso Sea could prevent the ships from moving, as the sailors presumed. (Answer: no) We couldn’t find the answer to that question without learning out all about seaweed. A particular type grows just in the Sargasso Sea, which has unusual animals, even a little crab that lives on the seaweed as if it was a floating piece of land.

Now comes the flood of questions! What happens if the crab loses hold, falling down through miles of sea water? Can crabs swim? More questions! Why was seaweed growing out in the middle of the deep Atlantic ocean, far from any land? Why was the water warm in the Sargasso Sea? Enter the subject of currents. We even felt a need to make some little cardboard boats and try them out in the current of a nearby river.

Can you see how this free exploration of a subject, with a mother’s help, could ignite a passion for learning in a child? I think part of the reason this way of learning history works so well is that enthusiasm is contagious. I have learned so much, and found myself deeply involved and interested in the subject, and eager to snatch little bits of time to delve more deeply into it, reading all I can find, and then re-telling it to my eager students!

drawing-428383_1280It is natural for me to bring in art related projects too. We did a “wax resist” project of the Sargasso Sea just for fun. Just draw on white paper with dark, waxy crayons. Make sure your drawings are heavy and colored in. Then, when you are done drawing, simply paint over the whole picture with watercolor paint, in black or blue or purple or whatever color you think the ocean might be. Use a lot of water when painting so that the paint beads up on the wax and gives an underwater feeling. Let it dry flat. Beautiful!

Once again, I had my children write accounts of the life of this important figure, Columbus. I used the computer and typed the words my younger children dictated, and let them choose a fancy font for the title so that they were not held back by lack of penmanship and spelling skills. Seeing all this enthusiasm for the subject, I bought them each an inexpensive 3-ring binder to collect all their work in. They have their written accounts, the art projects inspired by the people that we’ve studied, poems we’ve written, and other things we’ve done as we’ve learned.

image-5Since there are so many easy-reader and intermediate books on Columbus, I chose some old fashioned biographies of Columbus and had each child read one on their level. I also read one aloud to them. There is a good play to act out on Columbus in I Love America. We learned the “Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue” song in I Love America also. One of my daughters memorized a poem on Columbus. We did acrostic poems one day, using the word “Columbus”. (Just write the letters of Columbus’s name vertically and have your children think up a word or phrase starting with each letter.) We even had a Columbus party! We invited another homeschooling family over to watch the animated video of Columbus and have a little program presenting the things we’d learned and created. We dressed up like characters in the story of Columbus. Even the treat fit the theme—each square piece of cake had a sail on a toothpick mast!

We thoroughly enjoyed reading the inspiring journal accounts written by Columbus. He knew God had sent him on his journey. He kept two separate ship’s logs. In the one, he kept positive comments and measurements of the stars and some exaggerated distances traveled, so that the ship’s crew would not be too discouraged. In the other record, he kept the honest, sometimes frightening, truth. On the voyage back from his discovery, the storms were wild. Columbus was so afraid that his ship would not return to Spain to tell of his discovery, that he wrote an account, sealed it in wax to waterproof it, and tucked it inside a barrel which he pitched overboard. To this day, the barrel has never been found. Thinking about where Columbus’ barrel went led my children and I to quite a discussion, and sent us searching in books to find the depth and vastness of the ocean. There can be no end to this kind of thrilling investigation!

When you have thoroughly enjoyed learning about Columbus, put a drawing of Columbus up on your time line. Maybe you’d like to engage in an enthralling search of all the explorers during that period that sailed the ocean blue looking for new routes or new lands. We diverted into the study of Marco Polo, Magellan, Amerigo Vespucci, Balboa and others before moving on to the next scene in America’s history: the settlement of Jamestown. Here we encountered the story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. This led us into a fascinating study of the American Indians. So little time, so many interesting stories!corn-on-the-cob-459189_1280

When we studied Pilgrims, we actually read some of the original writings of Plimouth Colony. These were so fascinating and created a deep connection with our forefathers. We also read the sad stories of the settlers who lived through the “Starving Time” when only 5 kernels of corn became the daily ration. One day, one of my children (I won’t mention names to protect the guilty!) came to the breakfast table moaning about what we were having. I quietly set out a plate at her spot with just 5 kernels of corn on it. It sobered us all, that morning. We only live here because of the sacrifices of those who did not enjoy such abundance as ours.

Hopefully, you can see the pattern of study we are following. First, we use children’s storybooks to teach each subject. Just a few fascinatingly written true stories on the children’s comprehension level is all that is needed here, although once you get started, you will want to read everything you can get your hands on! Enrich with other activities, just as much as you like and have time for. This can include having the children write the story in their own words (or narrate as you type). You can do art projects to illustrate the historical event you have studied. You can listen to audiotapes, see videos, have the children read easy biographies, look in magazines, picture books, encyclopedias, and museums for more information to enrich your study.

We are scheduled to do history once a week, but we love it so much that we keep finding an excuse to learn some more! I hope you find this way of studying history easy and fun. I hope your children beg for more history, and more!

Here are the beginning topics in the study of American History with ideas to get you started, so you can see if you like this way of doing history. This is just a skeletal framework:

1. Leif Erikson
Leif the Lucky, Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire
National Geographic magazine on Viking ships
Related topics:
Eric the Red, Greenland, Vikings
Enrichment ideas:
Sketch a Viking ship

2. Columbus
Columbus, Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire
Animated Hero Classics video
Columbus, by Jean Fritz
Actual journal accounts of Columbus
Enrichment ideas:
Play, song, poem from I Love America
Wax resist drawing of the Sargasso Sea or copy other illustrations in the D’Aulaire book entitled Columbus.

3. Early Explorers (Dewey Decimal # 910, 970)
Cartier, Henry Hudson, La Salle, Magellan, Vasco de Gama
Amerigo Vespuci, John Cabot, Vasco Balboa, Hernando Cortes
Samuel de Champlain, Hernando de Soto, Sir Francis Drake
Enrichment ideas:
Trace voyages of explorers in different colored yarn on a world map.
Find geographical locations that bear the name of early explorers: Straits of Magellan, Balboa island in California, Coronado Bridge in San Diego, Lake Champlain, Hudson River, etc.

image-64. James Towne
Pocahontas, Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire
I Love America—puppet, song, salt dough village
Animated Hero Classics video—Pocahontas
Jamestown, New World Adventure, James E. Knight
Related topics:
Roanoke (first American settlement, mysteriously disappeared–very interesting to study!)
Enrichment ideas:
Portrait of Pocahontas in chalk pastels.

5. American Indians
North American Indians, Random House Picture book
(There is a wealth of information on Indians!)
The History of US, Book 1 by Joy Hawkin
Naya Nuki
More Than Moccasins (lots of hands-on Indian fun, crafts)
Enrichment Ideas:
image-5Indian sign language, smoke signals over a campfire with a wet blanket
Indian crafts

6. Pilgrims (Dewey Decimal #970’s)
Stories of the Pilgrims, Margaret Pumphrey
The Landing of the Pilgrims, by James Daughtery
Thanksgiving: Feast and Festival, M. Luckhardt
Squanto, Friend of the White Men, Clyde Robert Bulla (my favorite book on the subject, out of print, hope your library still has it!)
Related topics:
Smallpox (the white-man disease that killed Squanto’s tribe)
image-3William Bradford
Plymouth Rock
The “Starving Time”
Enrichment ideas:
Learn the Pilgrim song in I Love America
Have 5 kernals of corn

7. Keep going...right through America history, through William Penn, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln…and on and on to the present day. Your children will be history scholars by then!  If you need more direction, the US History Time Line is a great help, and includes timeline pictures.

imageOne book that I have found to be priceless for guidance in choosing good historical fiction to enliven the study of history is: Turning Back the Pages of Time, A Guide to American History Through Literature by Kathy Keller and Let the Authors Speak, A Guide to Worthy Books based on Historical Settings by Carolyn Hatcher. The first is a small booklet with children’s books separated into time periods. Although not many books are listed, they are all excellent and trustworthy.

Enjoy history!  It is the most interesting subject to teach…and learn!




May I recommend:

Coonskin Cap

American History Stories

US History Time Line

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