By Denise Trull
I stepped onto the timeline of the home schooling movement somewhere in what might be termed the Middle Ages of its history. It already had its heroes when I entered the scene: Heroes who inspired and encouraged me to take that leap. There were only a few books on the subject, but they were quite profound in their insistence that our children might be in great danger of being uneducated. Memory work abandoned. Latin jettisoned. Classics forgotten. Phonics and grammar thrown out into the dumpsters to make way for the popular whole word method of reading. The beginnings of dialogue and discussion in the exercise of retelling out loud episodes we had read in our story books, made way for "child led" reading groups that were nothing more than art projects heavy with glue. The multiplication table was abandoned for "intuitive" ways of learning math. It was a teetering mess ready to crash.
There were some parents out there who were attentive to all of this. They had the absolute, feisty courage to pull their children out of failing and overcrowded public schools to teach them at home. They had no curriculum fairs, no co-ops, no home school programs to follow. They were truly pioneers forging ahead and planting seeds as they went. I owe these parents so much. Their efforts gave me the will to enter the timeline with my children and to be confident in my ability to put together a plan. Names like Charlotte Mason, David and Micki Colfax, Marva Collins, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, and Dorothy Sayers came into my hearing through the efforts of people like Laura Berquist and others. TAN Books had also started reprinting classic Catholic saints' writings and I discovered the Baltimore Catechism reprinted. I pored over these books and their ideas and began my own walk on the timeline.
I grew up right on the edge of these free fall changes in education, and luckily I attended an ordinary, yet top notch, Catholic parish grade school where I learned to read, write, and spell. Math had not yet reached the intuitive stage. I had dodged a bullet in grade school. I will always honor teaching sisters in my heart for their dedication to education!
High school was far different. It can be summed up in perhaps one word: dull...dull as paint. Not that they didn’t try. I loved many of my teachers -- they would have done anything for us, but they were pinned helplessly to the curriculum they were given to teach.
Religion class was a mishmash of world religions and humanism. We never did learn the Catholic faith somehow. To be fair, it was the seventies and all hell -- and I do mean that in the literal sense -- had broken loose. The Catholic Church was reeling in a dizzying turmoil of disorganized changes with no real rock to hold onto at times. Literature was so dissected and picked apart by literary analysis that it gasped and died right before your eyes and you wanted nothing more than to throw those books over your shoulder and never look back. History fared the worst. It was one chapter after another of facts, facts, and facts interspersed with dates to memorize. A third person account, and a tedious one, on the march of history. I hated it worse than anything. I always dreaded that hour after lunch, that is, until I met Mr. Fields.
Mr. Fields taught American History and couldn’t get enough of World War II. He had a text book but never quite managed to open it. Mr. Fields liked telling stories. We heard stories about the people! We learned of the brave and ingenious soldiers and how they came to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of French hedgerows in order to outwit the Germans. We heard of the generous people who hid their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis without giving it a second thought. We heard of the clever layout of certain battles and about battles that did not work at all. We considered the amazing phenomenon of D-Day and the winning of the war. That hour went by in a flash and Mr. Fields, he had me the whole time. I would never forget him.
Mr. Fields taught me one thing that year. History is about the deeds and ideas of men, great and not so great, and their affect on the times they lived in and eventually on our own times. They were men who were once children, men and women just like us, who lived in specific places and times which had their own daunting challenges and magnificent discoveries. All of them shared that human experience and passed on their findings to us in letters, journals, books. THAT is the way to teach history.
I deem it the finest hour of home schooling that its pioneers literally saved history for the rest of us by digging up and ferreting out the old, forgotten, out-of-print stories of great men and women. It is because of the constant efforts of the home schooling movement that so many marvelous old books about historical figures were put back into print. We later home schoolers owe those feisty, determined ladies so much. So do all the small, classical Catholic schools that have popped up like mushrooms all over the country -- many formed by home schooling families seeking to enter and change the school system a little at a time. We all owe those early pioneers a great dose of gratitude for the very books we are using daily.
I would be remiss if I did not give you a list of books at this point. In the spirit of do one, teach one, I will share with you what I have discovered in my own journey of home schooling to encourage you on your own entrance to the timeline where you find yourself, or even if you are simply a parent who is searching for good books to read.
There are many historical books out there. I will not cover them all, but you should take your own dive and find others that appeal to you and your children. These are simply the ones I have come to love.
First, a note about geography. History and geography go hand-in-hand. In the early years of my home schooling I tried to teach a formal geography class. It became a real conundrum. It is the subject that I tossed over my shoulder at 5:00pm when the spaghetti noodles were boiling and supper needed to be made. Poor geography was always the first to go, alas, but over the years I learned a trick. If you do geography while you are doing history, not as a formal subject, but simply looking at a map and placing the people or places you are reading about on the map, that works wonders. Every house we have ever owned had two large maps of the U.S. and the world, all marked up on one wall or another. It is home school decor at its finest. Ask anyone.
Now, about history. There is this little tidbit of information I need to mention at the outset. Some books you will buy and your children will fall in love with them. Others that look so great to you that they will never even touch -- but YOU will. And that is a good thing. Home schooling is also for adults. It feeds you all that information you never picked up the first time around. Consider yourself getting educated twice. It’s terrific!
As an example of this, I fell in love with these wonderful books by Holling Clancy Holling. My kids not so much. So, I would look at them while the kids were doing their math. The books cleverly teach the geography of the U.S. and parts of the world through delightful characters. The Southwest’s geographic story is told by a tree growing in the middle of the Santa Fe Trail and what the tree saw pass by over the years. We travel the Great Lakes of the North with a little carved Indian toy in his canoe who fell in the water and journeyed through Lake Superior to the sea. A little turtle journeys down the Mississippi and shows us what it sees, and a seagull takes you across the ocean and the area around Nantucket. It is a clever way to teach geography and the pictures are gorgeous and mesmerizing. I loved Holling! Even though my kids said "ho hum." Chances are, you will have a child who loves them too, one day, somewhere in the line.
D'Aulaire is an all around favorite from his Greek and Norse Myths down to his wonderful books about George Washington and Abe Lincoln. You learn about their childhoods, their adventures, their moms and dads. Kids need that information to place these people in context, to compare them to their own human experience. D'Aulaire excels at this.
Another amazing set of books are those by Genevieve Foster. While she is telling you about the life of George Washington, for example, she is also telling you what is going on in the rest of the world while George is hitting his own milestones. This is the most wonderful way of giving a child a sense of a whole and integrated time period in history. That history is being made all over the world at the same time. Reading these books also led us to purchase a nifty book called A Timeline of History -- where you can place the names and pictures of famous people on each page spanning one hundred years. At the end of the year, you have a wonderful overview of who lived when and how they influenced each other.
Two little unassuming books were packed from beginning to end with the important concept that even a child’s actions matter in the unfolding of historic events. In this case, bravery. Real bravery! The Matchlock Gun and The Courage of Sarah Noble are little gems. They make children think that they are not just "extras" in the drama of life. Their choices also make a difference. I did find, after the sixth child, that The Matchlock Gun was a far better read aloud than not. Most of my kids really didn’t care one way or another for it until one day when I decided to read it aloud to my seventh child, and do all the voices. I got to the climax and suddenly all the older kids were at the doorway listening in rapt attention. It’s the glory of a big family that books come around over and over again and one day they suddenly stick where they didn’t stick before. We all agreed, after that, that some books should always be read aloud.
Jean Fritz is one of my favorite historic authors. She is very straightforward and honest about the discoverers in particular. They were not always the best or most virtuous of men. This is also a good thing to realize about history; we must tell the truth, even if it is about Catholics acting badly, because of course they do at times like everyone else. This is a good opportunity to discuss the temptations of riches and power and the harm they cause. Many of the lives of the early explorers show this as a cautionary tale. It is not a time to gloss over the evil actions of men to make the Church look good. This will not harm your child’s love of the Church. Reality, if well explained, is always better than well-meaning lies. What might hurt your child is finding out later in life that some of these historic figures are not in fact what they learned as a child and they might be disillusioned and become mistrustful of Catholic historians fudging the less glorious truths. Jean Fritz is a very fair writer, and I came to love so many of the people she wrote about because they were three-dimensional and fully human in their virtues and their foibles. History is always three-dimensional.
Willa Cather’s books are all wonderful. She too takes a realistic approach to history in her novels. We truly enjoyed Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Antonia, O Pioneer!, and Shadow on the Rock. Her characters are also three-dimensional and it is so interesting to see who ends up settling where and how our melting pot contained so many different people from many different countries learning to live together to form towns and cities.
I must end with the sad tale of Squanto, Friend of Pilgrims. No one read it except the 7th child because I read it to him. It was a great book to me, but all the kids simply said, "Meh." That's okay! Someday I am hoping a grandchild will come along and love it. I don't have a picture of it as it probably mysteriously fell behind a radiator somewhere in the house, and is lying there still. My apologies, Squanto.
These are just a few of the books we have read and enjoyed which made history come alive for us. I wish you the joy of discovering history as it should be taught; through the actions, deeds, and thoughts of great and not-so-great men and women.
I think often of Mr Fields and how he would have been such a great home school dad. But then again, I would never have come to love history if he had not been planted like a tree of life in a dull and stagnant learning experience. God’s trees are planted everywhere in the oddest places for our good. Thank you Mr. Fields, wherever you may be now, for your gift of storytelling. It has made all the difference.