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What our history studies look like

June 26, 2011

The study of history is at the heart of our homeschooling experience. What follows is mostly from a Facebook note I wrote in partial response to a friend’s innocent query as to “what homeschool curriculum we use.”

We are sort of classical/eclectic unschoolers. We are inspired by The Well-Trained Mind but we are not hard-core WTMers. What we take from the WTM is a chronological and worldwide approach to learning history and integrating other subjects into our history whenever possible. We divide history into four time periods periods: Ancient, Middle Ages to Renaissance, Early Modern, and Modern. If we had begun in first grade, we would study one time period per year, then repeat twice, upping the ante each time. (So we would study the history of the world three times in grades 1-12.) We use The Story of the World (we’ve done Vols 1 and 2 and are about to start Vol 3) and the accompanying activity guides. The activity guides are important resources, although we don’t do every activity in them and often do activities that are not in them. I wouldn’t skip them. We also use the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History.

In studying history, we are essentially studying civilizations. We definitely have a slant toward the Western civilizations that are our cultural ancestors, but we study other civilizations as well. In addition to what we typically think of as “history,” this study encompasses geography, art, architecture, technology, and domestic things like cuisine and fashion. We have LOTS of costumes. We usually have costumed feasts to celebrate whatever civilization we’re studying. Also, we get coloring books and paper doll books from Amazon to go with whatever we’re studying, which sometimes we just look at and sometimes we “do.” These make for fun intergenerational playdates and/or family time … it’s still fun to sit around and color with the big box of crayons that has the sharpener. 😉

Geography: We use maps a lot, especiallly maps we’ve collected from years of National Geographic magazines. We have a large Nat Geo physical map of the world (without political boundaries) that stays at the center of one wall, and we always find whatever we’re studying on that map. The SOTW activity guides have map exercises in them to go along with each chapter, and we do those. When we have a Nat Geo map that applies to what we’re doing, we read it (they usually have a lot of text) and hang it on the wall. We have a globe with contemporary political boundaries and use it all the time. We also have a 3-D Puzzle Ball globe. We also have some other map puzzles. (I love puzzles.)

Art: I send the Bean to art classes when possible. She took an Intro to Painting and Drawing class at UAB’s ArtPlay facility last year that was great. The homeschool art classes at the Birmingham Zoo are pretty “meh” in my opinion, but they are fun for the kids and affordable. The Birmingham Museum of Art offers lots of junior studio classes as well as art camps, and we’ve done both. Every Saturday at the museum (I think) is a “Bart’s Art Cart” day, and we do these every now and then. (The Bart’s Art Cart activities are free and good for a range of ages; if you relax and let your kids take their time, this is really worth doing). So, we take opportunities to “do” art. We also try to learn about civilizations through art.

We have a couple of large coffee table art books, and we pull those out and look up the art of whatever civilization we’re studying. We have two editions of The Art Game: “Renaissance” and “Van Gogh and Friends,” and these are a fun way to become familiar with the masterpieces. The BMA has some really wonderful collections, and we go there often and focus on whatever collection goes with what we’re studying. The BMA also has Culture Cases that schools and members can check out, and we’ve recently renewed our membership and checked out our first one, the Renaissance culture case, which is an enormous silver suitcase full of books, posters, and things to touch. (It’s due Tuesday, and I’m sad about that.) Another art appreciation resource I love is The Art Pack, a fun book with popups but plenty of accessible text. We also haveLearning About Ancient Civilizations Through Art, which is hard to find but fun because it has posters you pull out, plus fairly thorough explanations of what’s going on in that work of art as well as a good overview of the civilization.

Architecture: I have had a lifelong fascination with architecture and thoroughly enjoy indulging this enthusiasm in the name of homeschooling. The DK book Architecture Explained is a great resource for us; it discusses famous buildings in chronological order starting with the ancient Egyptian Temple of Amun in Karnak. This is really adult reading; however, it has lots of great pictures, so we pull it out and look at the pages that relate to whatever we’re studying. The kids really like Usborne’s See Inside Famous Buildings. We have an extensive collection of Haba Master Builder Set blocks, and we lurve them. We have the Egyptian Temple (excellent); Egyptian Pyramid (not my fave as it’s kind of a one-trick pony and everybody knows what a pyramid looks like); Antiquity (a Greek temple); Mayan Temple (probably my favorite); Japanese House; Russian House (inspired by St. Basil’s Cathedral); Roman Arch (cool tool for learning about arches and how they are built); Middle Eastern; and Leaning Tower of Pisa. Um, yeah. The kids love them and they are wonderful 3-D ways to show the different aesthetic sensibilities of the civilizations we study. And I probably have a sickness. Or at least a strong affinity for building toys.

Technology: We have the History Channel seriesEngineering an Empire on DVD. It is not perfect, as it tends to be a little sensational like a lot of History Channel programs, but we watch it anyway, and I find it helpful for understanding and explaining the connection between technology and history. (As we’re immersed in the study of a civilization, we do watch relevant videos, and this is probably a deviation from the WTM, but we don’t care. When I find relevant age-appropriate programs on Netflix, we watch them. We also read literature that helps immerse us in whatever culture we’re studying, and sometimes we listen to relevant audiobooks. We have a collection of audiobooks from Greathall Productions, and have some we purchased from, but the public library is our favorite source of audiobooks.) We also have the DK book, Science, which is a big coffee-table style illustrated chronological history of science. If the kids would leave me alone long enough, I’d read the whole thing. 😉 There are also more or less random books out there like Archimedes and the Door of Science and the series Great ___ Projects You Can Build Yourself (insert Ancient Egypt, or Ancient China, or Leonardo da Vinci, etc., into the blank), that help make the connection between science and history. The “great projects” books are really good and can usually serve as the spine for a unit study, and the projects in them are good for teaching and use easy to find materials.

We also make history timelines, but we are behind on that this year. 😉 Maybe after next week, when the Bean is in between summer daycamps, we’ll work on a timeline for the Middle Ages. It would be a great review.

Here’s a video I made last year about how we make timelines:

Yep, those are stains on the carpet and I’m pointing with my feet. CLASSY.

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