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!

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