Friday, September 20, 2013

How we "do" history, and an early middle ages booklist

History is a favorite subject of mine. There was a time I thought I'd be a history major, naturally going on to teach in a prestigious academic setting, igniting young minds with the passion for learning from the past and appearing on gritty History Channel documentaries as the resident expert on the Middle Ages.

Too far? Yeah, probably.

In any case, I love history, and I'd like it if my kids at least had a passing interest in it. There are so many great stories, interesting people, and fascinating events. But how should we study history with kids 8 and under? This isn't really the time for in-depth analysis, and I'm not big on memorizing names and dates. And, given that this year my mantra is "Keep it Simple," grandiose plans that include building ourselves thatched roof cottages in the backyard probably aren't the best idea.

Besides, Trogdor the Burninator might show up.

(Please, please comment if you're geeky enough to get that reference).

Enter my strategy for completely fabulous, yet very simple history studies. This is something even non-homeschooling parents can do with their kids, in the evenings or whenever you have some family time. Are you ready?


Yep. Just read. Seriously, there are so many amazing books out there that will bring history alive for you and your kids. Books that are beautifully written, and many with lovely illustrations, that ignite the imagination and transport you back in time in a way no textbook could. (Keyword for homeschoolers: Living Books!)

Is that enough? Well, that is the quintessential homeschooling parent question, isn't it? We berate ourselves with "Is it enough?" constantly. Taking on the responsibility for educating your children does that to you.

I'll argue that yes, it is enough. Reading aloud isn't where it ends in our house, I'll be truthful about that. There is always discussion and questions about what we've read - some of it falling under what you'd call "narrations," or Julie Bogart of Brave Writer would call, "Big, Juicy Conversations." Good stuff, all of it, but none of it has required fill-in-the-blank worksheets or memorizing dates or reading comprehension questions. And we are making a very simple timeline notebook this year, which I'll probably detail in another post. But the bulk of how we're studying history is really that simple - reading great books.

What are these great books you speak of, you ask? Ok, so maybe you aren't asking, but I'm telling nonetheless. I won't list everything I have lined up for the year, because that would be prohibitively long. So I'll start with our first "Unit," if you will, and I'll share what we read on later topics and time periods as we go. Right now, we're reading about the early middle ages - from around the fall of the western Roman Empire to about the 8th century - covering things like the Celts, monks and monasteries and the preservation of knowledge, and King Clovis.

To that end, we're reading:

A Little History of the World, by E.H. Gombrich
This is our "spine," if you will. I organized our other reading to correspond with chapters from A Little History. We started with Chapter 19, The Starry Night Begins. Once we read that, we started on our other books.

The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane
About a monk who isn't satisfied with the plain brown inks his monastery uses to copy books, this gives a poetic look into the life of early monks. Brother Theophane is something of a misfit, but his imagination and ingenuity turn books into works of art.

The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica
Beautifully illustrated by Tomie de Paola, this story follows the lives of Saint Benedict and his twin sister Saint Scholastica. Benedict wrote the Rule of St. Benedict, a set of rules for life in a monastery that is still in use today.

Brigid's Cloak
Brigid's Cloak is a lovely ancient Irish legend. Brigid's mother receives a blue cloak for her daughter when she is born, and it has a surprising purpose in Brigid's life.

Celtic Fairy Tales
I picked this book up years ago at Half Price books for a few bucks, and I'm so glad I did. This is a lovely book with some wonderful Celtic stories.

Saint Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland
Did you know Saint Patrick wasn't Irish? Knock me down with a mug of green beer, I had no idea. He was born a Roman citizen in Britain. This book tells the fascinating tale of his life and how he wound up the patron saint of Ireland.

Caedmon's Song
Based on the true story of Caedmon, who became the first English poet. Caedmon was a cowherd who froze every time it was his turn to sing a song. This gives a nice look into the world of oral tradition, poetry and song.

Across a Wild and Dark Sea
A legendary tale of the exploits of Columcille, also known as Columbia, an Irish monk, revered in Celtic history.

Favorite Medieval Tales
This treasure of a book has versions of many famous tales of the middle ages, adapted for children. We just read Beowulf. Beowulf, people! Do you know how thrilling it is, to read Beowulf to your little boys? They eat this stuff up with a spoon. (And like I said - adapted for children, so it is quite abbreviated and not nearly as graphic). The book also includes tales such as The Sword in the Stone, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Robin Hood and the Chanticleer and the Fox. Good stuff here.

Brendan the Navigator
This book explores the mystery of whether Saint Brendan "discovered" America, long before Columbus or even the Vikings. It relates some legends of Brendan, and gives a nice look at how things that are legend may indeed originate in truth, and how sometimes history is still a mystery.

The Sword in the Tree
This is David's chapter book of the moment, a story taking place in the era of king Arthur.

And audio stories! If you're actually still reading (phew!, nice job!), and if you haven't heard of Jim Weiss, you can thank me later. Jim Weiss is a fantastic storyteller who has audio stories of all kinds. You can buy MP3 downloads (easy and instant!), or CDs. We've listened to everything from American Tall Tales to Bible stories to stories from Ancient Egypt. So far this year, we've added:

Celtic Treasures
Dashing legends from the ancient Celts - Finn MacCoul, Cuchulain and more. These are a lot of fun.

King Arthur and His Knights
These tell the stories of Arthur and the sword in the stone, Excalibur and the story of Sir Percival. Lots of fun without a lot of the more adult drama that comes later in the tale. In other words, you won't find yourself having to explain the world "adultery" or what on earth Lancelot and Guinevere were up to.

So that's our look at the early middle ages. We'll be diving into the next phase soon, with stories of Charlemagne and a look at the world of the Vikings next!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Art and Music Fridays

I'm trying something new this year - Art and Music Fridays. I've seen different variations on this theme from other homeschoolers, so this certainly isn't an idea I take credit for. I looked at how our days and weeks flow and instead of trying to cram things like art projects, artist study, music appreciation and so forth, into our mornings as an "I hope we get to this regularly" subject, I thought we'd try putting aside our regular work on Fridays and focusing on something else.

Art and Music Fridays doesn't quite encapsulate all of what I have on the agenda for Fridays, but "Art and Music and Freewriting and Games" is a bit of a mouthful. Fridays will be a day for things like art projects, as well as learning about music and great artists. We'll also do some things like freewriting, and playing some language and math games.

I'm hopeful that having a day that is set aside for something different, and admittedly more fun (despite my pie in the sky hopes that ALL our learning is super fun, darnit), will be a refreshing end to the week and help keep us from experiencing too much burnout as the year progresses. Sometimes you just have to put away the regular stuff and do something else!

I also love what Charlotte Mason, a 19th century British educator whose writings are popular in the homeschooling world, had to say about providing children with a "feast of ideas." We can draw from everything from great books to beautiful art to lovely music, and it gives the child a feast for their mind and heart. So often, providing the feast takes a backseat to making sure our kids know their math facts and grammar - even at home where we aren't faced with the teaching-to-the-test dilemma so prevalent in public schools.

So bring on the feast!

Here are some of the resources I'm using to help make this happen. I like a bit of handholding, because it makes it more likely I'll follow through with these ideas, but much of this would be easy to organize and put together on your own, for free.

Artist Study
Picture Study Portfolios from Simply Charlotte Mason. These come with prints to look at, as well as a biography of the artist. We're beginning our year with Monet. This is one of those things that isn't hard to pull together on your own, but I decided having it all done for me was worth it. I'm also including a few children's books from the library, such as The Magical Garden of Claude Monet and Monet Paints a Day. We'll spend the next couple of months learning about Monet and looking at his art, then move on to another artist.

I'm using the SQUILT curriculum from Homegrown Learners. We'll be focusing on the Baroque period (and I'm hopeful she'll come out with more soon!). SQUILT is Super Quiet UnInterrupted Listening Time. Again, this kind of music appreciation isn't hard to put together on your own, but I am in love with having it all laid out for me, including YouTube links and notebooking sheets for the kids to fill out. We'll be learning about different Baroque composers, as well as things like dynamics, tempo, rhythm, instrumentation and mood.

Art projects
I have a handful of books, and a mess of stuff on my Pinterest boards to draw from. I also recently discovered Art for Kids, which is a FABULOUS site with lots of great (and many simple and not super messy) projects. Deep Space Sparkle is another great website for art lessons. The book Discovering Great Artists has art projects that introduce the style of great artists, so we'll definitely be doing some of those that tie into our artist studies as well.

We do some freewriting a la Bravewriter (have I mentioned I'm a Bravewriter fan?). David is really the only one participating in this writing exercise, and in the spirit of setting a good example, I write with him. We pick a topic, set a timer for five minutes, and write without stopping until time is up. There are no rules, except you keep writing the whole time, and no correcting of errors. We just write. If he wants to (which he always does) we share what we wrote. As the year progresses, we'll use the freewriting exercise to help with writing projects as well.

Math games
We use Right Start Math, so there are TONS of games built right into the curriculum. The hard part is making time for them. The games are fun, and wonderful for practicing math facts and working with numbers. Even if you don't use Right Start, you can get their book of math games. I highly recommend them!

Word games
Bravewriter has suggestions for word games using magnetic poetry. We also have Scrabble, and I'd like to add Bananagrams to our repertoire. I recently found Star Wars mad libs and about died. Mad libs are fun and a good way to reinforce parts of speech, but Star Wars mad libs? Are you kidding me? If you have a Star Wars fan, get thee to a store and buy some, stat.

So that's our plan. There will be some Fridays where we have other activities, and as always, our routine is ever evolving. But the kids were pretty excited to have something different to do today, so if the very first week of school is any indication, this should be a hit.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

And we're off!

First day of school! First day of school! (I can't help but read that in the voice of Nemo)

Today marked the first day of our school year, here at the very prestigious Frank Academy of Awesomeness. We had a rather, ahem, busy summer and I think all of us are happy to be settling back into a normal routine.

I seem to have done a fair job of prepping our work, at least for the beginning of the year, because there was a definite lack of, "Oh, we need that today?" or "I guess we aren't doing that project now," from me. Books are on the shelves, notebooks are ready, science supplies are, well not organized per se, but at least all in one place in a big tote, and our first day was actually rather relaxed.

Without further ado, obligatory first-day-of-school photos!

My big third grader. He wanted an "action shot" so he grabbed the pencil sharpener :).

First grade!!! I can hardly believe it. Grayson with his beloved jaguar and blankies.

Yes, this is what she chose to wear today. Awesome.

My three sillies

Oh my goodness, one of me! I'm usually behind the camera, but this shot is courtesy of David.
Happy school year everyone!