Friday, August 26, 2016

Resources for Teaching History :: Book Review :: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Five Ojibwa chiefs, 19th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich: This book tells the story of an Ojibwa Native American family living on an island in Lake Superior in the mid-1800's. It's full of details about daily life during one year -- preparing animal skins, beadwork, planting crops, food preparation, hunting, clothing. So much detail could be boring, but interwoven with details are the lives of the people, mostly from the point of view of seven-year-old Omakayas. Children will identify with her because, like most children, she is stuck doing something she really dislikes, but her family needs her to do it. In her case the task is scraping animal skins. Gradually, with the help of her devoted grandmother, she learns what her true talents are. Omakayas also has to live with an extremely annoying little brother and an older sister who is perfect in every way. 

This is not a plot-driven story. We simply follow a family and their neighbors through a year-long cycle including traditions like the maple sugar festival. We also follow their journey through horrible sickness, near starvation, and a harsh winter. This story is full of three-dimensional characters, including my favorite, Old Tallow, a tall rangy woman who has chased away three husbands, lives by herself in the woods, has a pack of snarling dogs, carries a gun, and smokes a pipe.


I don't have a follow-up crossword puzzle or other game to offer this time, but I wanted to share this wonderful blog post I found: Ten Ways to Ditch that Reading Log (written by a middle school teacher, whose name, unfortunately, I wasn't able to find)

One of my favorite suggestions is Sketch Quotes (this quote taken directly from her/his blog):

If spending time on text is the goal, sketchquotes are very effective. My students love to go back into the text to look for sketchable lines. 
I am always impressed by the deep understanding and connections they are making that is shown by what they choose to quote.


To return to (Educational books for children/teens)

Friday, July 15, 2016

Resources for Teaching History :: Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Bonus: Crossword Puzzle)

Why do I begin this blog post with a photo of a vetch plant? Because, believe it or not, it is crucial to the storyline in the book: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.

Written for grades 5 - 8, this charming book tells the story of eleven-year-old Calpurnia (nicknamed Callie) and her large, well-off family, who live in Texas in 1899. It's hard enough growing up with six brothers, but Callie is caught in a dilemma. She wants to get down and dirty and explore the natural world with her granddad, but her mother wants her to learn to be a proper young lady who is content to cook, do needlework, and get married.

There are many reasons pre-teens will like this book, including the spunky main character, the exploration of the natural world, the portrayal of life at the turn of the 20th century (the first automobile!), the adventures of Callie's brothers, and the grumpy old granddad who is a big fan of Charles Darwin.  And there are sequels! The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate is the second book and, I believe, a third book is in the works.

Now, I'm not a fan of students being required to write book reports or take tests based on books they've read because I think these activities discourage reading. But I do think it can be fun for students to do crossword puzzles, word searches, and word jumbles, as long as these are not required. So, in the spirit of fun, I present a link to a crossword puzzle based on the book reviewed here.

To return to the Website :: (educational activity books)

Monday, June 6, 2016

Resources for Teaching History :: On the Anniversary of D-Day :: Remembering Anne Frank

It's summertime ... and the living is easy ...

You're probably thinking about vacation plans rather than lesson plans, but here's an idea for next year.

I just re-read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.  I had forgotten how powerful the book is, and what an excellent writer Anne was, even at the tender age of 14/15. She could have become a journalist or novelist if she had survived.

Telegrams being delivered by bicycle
Amsterdam, c. 1930.
Did you have your students read this book for class? They might be interested in reading about the story from the other side; that is, from the point of view of the Dutch people who hid, fed, and clothed the Franks, the Van Daans, and Dr. Dussel.  Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies (Meep Geese) tells that story.

Here are some of the details that students will learn if they read this book:

  • Miep worked in Mr. Frank's company (manufacturing and selling pectin, an ingredient in making jams)
  • Life was carefree for the Dutch in the 1930's -- riding bikes, going to movies ...
  • Miep was often invited to the Frank house, where world events were discussed, including the spread of Nazism. By 1939 Amsterdam was bursting with refugees.
  • She describes Anne as quick witted, extroverted, and extremely interested in boys even from an early age.
  • Holland is attacked and occupied by the Germans in May, 1940, but at first life goes on as usual.
  • Miep describes how the Nazis began to restrict and oppress Jews. Dutch citizens had to sign a statement saying: "I am not a Jew."
After the Franks go into hiding in an annex of the company, Miep writes about the difficulties of getting food for 8 extra people, especially as the war drags on, and food becomes scarce. She describes how she and other employees in the company would visit the Franks and the others, who were desperate for news of the outside world.

If students combine what they learn from reading Anne's diary with information in Miep's book, they will get a complete picture of what life was like for the Dutch citizens who hid the Franks and what life was like on a day-to-day basis for those in hiding. 

Mr. Frank was the only one who returned after the war. He and Miep stayed close, and waited for news of Anne and her sister. Many photos are included in the book, including a picture of a letter stating that Anne and Margot Frank had died at the Bergen-Belsen prison camp, beginning of March, 1945.

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Friday, April 29, 2016

Resources for Teaching History :: Harriet Tubman :: Little Known Facts

Most folks are familiar with Harriet Tubman, the African-American woman who will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. She escaped to freedom in Philadelphia (1849) and became a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. She went back to Maryland (a slave state) 13 times to bring out approximately 70 people. She used disguises to slip past slave owners, and she used coded language and song to guide the escapees. This is the song she sang to tell her people it was safe to move on:

                                                    Oh, go down Moses,
                                                    Way down into Egypt's land.
                                                    Tell old Pharaoh
                                                    Let my people go.

Your students might not be familiar with other parts of Harriet's life.
Woodcut of Harriet Tubman
as she looked during the
Civil War
  • When she was a teenager, she was accidentally hit on the head by a stone or weight thrown by a white overseer who was trying to stop a runaway slave. She was not given any medical attention by her owner and was forced to go back to work in the fields two days later "with the blood and sweat rolling down my face until I couldn't see." For the rest of her life she suffered from spells of lethargy, seizures, and headaches. She also began to experience potent dreams, visions, and religious fervor, which inspired her lifelong passion for religion and helping others. Now, historians believe that she suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy as a result of the head injury. 
  • During the Civil War, Tubman worked for the Union Army as a nurse in South Carolina, but she was not paid! To earn money to support herself and her elderly parents, she baked pies and gingerbread and made root beer and sold them to the soldiers. She became a scout for the Union, traveling into the interior of South Carolina to get information about Rebel troop movements. In 1863 she helped to lead a raid to find Rebel reinforcements and mined rivers. After a Union assault on Charleston, Tubman wrote about what she had seen: "And then we saw the lightening, and that was the guns. And then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns. And then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling. And when we came to get in the crops, it was the dead that we reaped."
  • After the Civil War, Tubman went back to her home in Auburn, New York, to focus mainly on her family and community. She supported her elderly parents and various relatives in her home. An observer commented that Tubman "had a great number of young and old, black and white, all poorer than she. There were children that she brought up ... also a blind woman." Late in life Tubman turned her attention to the women's suffrage movement and opened a home for aged and indigent Negroes. She finally received a pension from the U.S. Government for her service with the Union but never received the back pay that she thought she deserved. Harriet Tubman died in 1913 at the age of 91. 
Questions for students (scroll down for answers):
  1. What was Tubman's nickname?
  2. What revolutionary (for the time), but comfy, item of clothing did Tubman wear on her expeditions for the Union Army?

  1.  Tubman was called the Moses of her people
  2.  Tubman wore bloomers -- a combination pantaloon and dress made famous by suffragette
    Bloomers gave women
    more freedom of movement
    Amelia Bloomer.

Information in this post comes from the book: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero: Bound for the Promised Land by Kate Clifford Larson (a fascinating biography).

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Friday, April 1, 2016

Southern Gothic :: The Derelict House Next Door

I usually post about history topics, but this time I decided to repost this essay I wrote in 2012, with an update at the end. Hey, you writers out there, maybe this story will give you ideas for a book!

Do you remember the run-down Radley house from To Kill a Mockingbird? Overgrown weeds in the yard, creaking porch boards underfoot, strange people living in the house. My next-door neighbor's house is like that. Here's the story:

When we moved into this neighborhood 22 years ago, neighbors told us that at one time the next door property had been a garden spot -- beautifully maintained flowers and shrubs in the backyard and immaculate upkeep of the house.

There was a dark side, though. Neighbors also told us that strange things happened at the beautiful house. The occupants were rarely seen. Cars arrived at all hours. Probably drug dealers. Maybe Mafia.

By 1989, when we moved here, the next-door property was beginning a slow decline. The gardening Mafiosos had all moved out. A woman and her elderly father had moved in. We waved at the woman, who wore flouncy Southern Belle hats, but we never saw the father. Apparently, he was in a wheelchair.

All the plants were overgrown, and the backyard was a jungle. But there were traces of former glory, like the gorgeous white camellia near the deck, gardenia bushes full of luscious white blooms in late spring, and Bradford pear trees along the edge of the driveway.

Eventually, the father died, leaving the middle aged woman alone. The years passed, and a strange Southern Gothic story began to unfold. The woman emerged from her house every day in the late afternoon, still wearing the hats. I wasn't sure where she went or when she came back. Her car filled up with junk -- boxes, papers, old clothes, rags. Eventually, only the driver's area was free of stuff.

Occasionally, the neighbor would come over to use our phone, and I learned that she was diabetic. Also, she revealed that she was a night owl who slept most of the day and got up late in the afternoon. She went out every evening to eat at a local restaurant (and to collect more junk, I presume).

Relatives came once in a while to check on the woman and help her cut the grass. She met a man at the restaurant who befriended her and also came over to cut the waist-high grass.

Time passed. I saw less and less of the woman. Several years ago we had an extremely cold, pipe-freezing spell. I heard the sound of water splattering and thought it was thawing ice dripping onto the driveway. Nope. It was water gushing over the top of the neighbor's garage door, as if a pipe had burst inside the house. I went over and knocked on her door. No answer. I called the fire department.

Eventually, the firemen came and shut off the water at the street. Still, I saw no sign of the woman, and now she didn't have any water. Strangely, her car was in the driveway.

I called the police, who came out and walked around the house, but couldn't get any answer from the woman who, we thought, was inside.

I can't remember exactly what happened next, but eventually the police/county/relatives came out and discovered that the woman had been living in her car! Adult Protective Services took over, and the woman moved away.

Several years passed. The house sat vacant, cold, and moldy. I hated to think what it smelled like inside. I had come to think that the house was way beyond rehab and that no one would want to buy it.

Little did I know that someone had been trolling the neighborhood. Actually, he had been watching the property and the woman for awhile, getting ready to pounce at the right time (and price). He even bought the woman's  junk-filled cars, which I thought was a bit creepy. Well, actually his whole mode of operation was creepy.

Recently, the sounds of chainsaws and power washers have started up next door. The young man who bought the house is renovating it, bringing it back to life. He told me some interesting things about what he found inside.

Someone had installed a heavy-duty alarm system and several huge sub-zero freezers in the house. Yikes, what were previous owners storing in there? Bodies? Large amounts of drugs? (My imagination went wild.)

Copper pipe had been stolen out of the house. That was the cause of the waterfall during the freezing weather. Did the thieves rip out the pipe while the poor woman was living in her car?

What's the moral of this story? I guess some people get left behind in our society. Should we pay more attention to each other? Is it survival of the fittest?

Call me shallow, but at this point, I'm just glad that the house next door is being renovated and will be lived in.

Update: As of spring 2016 the house is still vacant. It looks great on the outside, and the guy who bought it comes over about once a month to trim the grass and bushes, but so far he hasn't put the house on the market. Maybe the inside of the house isn't finished. Maybe he's storing bodies in the freezers. Maybe he's waiting for housing prices to go up. I don't know, but I'm still glad the house was renovated.

To return to Website: (history-related educational products)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Resources for Writing About History :: An Interview with Writer Amy Henry

Amy Henry and I met on Facebook. We share a love of history and historical fiction, and we are both writers. I wish we could meet for coffee and maybe a manuscript critique, but we live 1,500 miles apart! 

While my writing is almost exclusively for children, Amy writes for an adult audience. You can read an excerpt from her intriguing WWII novel, The Sticking Place, on her blog. She's also posted several articles, both written in a crisp, engaging, sometimes humorous style.


So ... Amy ...

Thanks for letting me interview you. The reason I've dragged you into this is to pick your brain about writing.

Q: On your website, you talk about being interested in writing fiction from an early age but that you had to write nonfiction to earn money consistently. How would you describe the differences between fiction and nonfiction writing. Do have to get into a different mindset to write fiction?

A: To answer this, I’d like to share the teaser copy for a profile* I wrote: There have been young violinists in my house for 14 years, so I was well-acquainted with Philipp Naegele’s reputation as an outstanding string teacher. I knew he was on the faculty of the music department of Smith College, and that he was associated with the Marlboro Music School & Festival in Vermont. I even knew, vaguely, that he’d once done a lot of recording. But the first time we spoke face to face, when he let drop that he’d come to England from Germany in 1939, alone, at the age of 11, all those other facts fell away before this image of a young boy, forced to flee his homeland, with only his violin and his music to sustain him. I was compelled to dig further, to discover the deeper qualities of the man suggested by that image. A life of courage, determination—and love—was what I unearthed.

For me, all writing starts from this point: Someone shares their experience or I witness something and it resonates. I’m moved to tears or laughter or reflection. Whether fiction or nonfiction, I have only ever pitched stories for which I have an emotional affinity. Stories I believe in. My published work for magazines and newspapers includes articles about empowering our daughters and the need for stricter gun laws. So, from that angle, I don’t approach nonfiction differently from fiction. 
Obviously, issues of grammar, syntax, voice, and style play out differently—fiction tends to allow far greater freedom in these areas than nonfiction. But all writing requires a reason to be. It’s finding and understanding that reason that drives the writing for me.    

The D-Day Landings at Normandy
Q: Your novel, The Sticking Place, is set in WWII and is about a bright young woman eager to make her mark on the world. She goes to England’s Bletchley Park to work for the Allies as a cryptanalyst, but soon finds herself embroiled in something darker. How are you approaching the process of querying agents for this project? Do you have plans to revise the novel? 

A: My novel is historical suspense (with a romantic subplot), which, in terms of agents, is not as straightforward as mystery or romance. I research potential agents pretty thoroughly. Google the interviews. Read up on some of the books/clients they represent. I try to get a feeling for why I might want to work with a particular agent and why they might be interested in me. In my search, I’ve discovered any number of lovely-seeming literary agents, but they want romance or steampunk or fantasy, and that’s not what I’m doing.

As far as the query process, I take it slow. I know authors who blanket query—a hundred or more agents at once—and some of them have been very successful in getting an agent this way. It’s certainly more expedient from the author’s viewpoint. But I view querying, partly, as a discovery process. Is my query letter effective? How are agents responding to sample chapters? Are they requesting the full, but then not committing to representation? I’ve shopped The Sticking Place to a very few agents so far. The feedback to date confirms that the query, synopsis, and sample chapters work. The general feedback on the full manuscript has been: “Love the writing. Love the protagonist. The suspense elements get too complicated. Got anything else I can look at?”  So, I have temporarily stopped querying and am in the process of overhauling the book, focusing on the feedback that several agents were kind enough to detail.

I love that the computer allows a writer to completely rip a chapter, or the entire book, and experiment with every aspect, knowing there’s a copy of the original on file. As a writer, I can’t imagine anything more freeing.    

RAF boys, Battle of Britain
Q: Historical fiction requires a humongous amount of research! Could you describe your research process.

A: Process may be too tidy a word for it. The Sticking Place was born from reading a book on Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr (German military intelligence). I found myself talking about him to anyone who would listen. Then I found my “core sourcebook” (I find every novel I write has one), in this case Maureen Waller’s London 1945, and I visited Bletchley Park several times. Always fascinated by WWII—its great scope for reflecting on human courage and hope as well as the depths of human depravity—I started getting these characters in my head. As I imagined them in wartime London and the challenges they faced, the plot gained definition and I just went wherever I needed to in terms of research. I did reams of research on Hitler’s vengeance weapons. These were a BIG DEAL. The stuff of science fiction come to life.  I also learned a great deal about WWII aircraft, the SOE (Special Operations Executive), codebreaking, and the daily life of British civilians in wartime. It always helps to see a place you’re writing about, so I visited the Savoy Hotel in London and talked to an elderly man who had worked in the hotel’s American Bar during the war. The Covent Garden Opera House showed me photos of the wartime dances in that venue—they laid a dance floor on top of the seats and brought in bands. I also corresponded with a man on the West Coast to learn about parachutes of the era because I have a character dropped behind enemy lines.

The trick about historical research is to let it infuse the novel rather than overwhelm it. I would estimate that only about 5% of my total research “shows up” in the story, but every page is immersed in the times because of it.

Alan Turing's bombe machines
that broke the Enigma code
Q: I find that the average American's knowledge of history is appalling. Most students don't like history. I know you were formerly a teacher, and you love history as much as I do. How do you think history could be taught in more interesting ways?

A: Understanding history is crucial. Without it, we’re just a bunch of errant pinballs ricocheting from place to place until Game Over. I taught elementary kids, but even at that age, you can get students interested in the past. For my master teaching unit, I had to pick a state learning standard and build curriculum around it. I chose Change Over Time. Because my students were second-graders, we built on what they knew: Our town. I found photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries of the downtown, university campus, and surrounding neighborhoods. We visited these places and made notes about how they had changed. We discussed why these changes had occurred, what technologies had emerged, and what needs developed from these changes that fueled further changes. One example was the emergence of automobiles. It completely altered the landscape, of course, but also the idea that one would be born, grow up and die all within the same town. For my students, some who had moved five or six times already in their short lives, some who had come from as far away as Viet Nam, this was an arresting idea.

Another project I did when I had my own classroom was biography-writing. It got my first-graders talking to their parents and grandparents about “the way things used to be.” The kids embraced it. I think we all want to know where we come from, how the world before us was both different and the same.    

Q: Have you ever thought about writing for children/teens?

A: I actually have written several YA books, one contemporary, one historical, which I may someday polish up and submit. I enjoy writing for that age group because the themes of finding one’s identity and letting go of the shelter of childhood—making those first tentative steps onto that stage where you will become responsible for your own life—offer extraordinarily rich material. I never decided to stop writing YA. I just became interested in other themes and stories. That said, I treasure the connections and friends I made when I was an SCBWI member. The critique groups I participated in with those writers were the most productive I’ve ever experienced.   

The kitchen in Churchill's WWII 
underground bunker at Whitehall
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say to writers who are struggling with the craft?

A: Keep going. If you yearned to dance the ballet, you would take years of classes. If you wanted to be an electrician, you’d serve a lengthy apprenticeship. But for writers, our training is in the books we read. Our apprenticeship, in the essays, short stories, and novels we write (and rewrite). Critique groups are great—I’ve been in a number of them. Conferences provide wonderful opportunities to be with others who share your goals and struggles. But, in the end, it’s you and your words. To riff on the old Peace Corps ad: Writing is the toughest job you’ll ever love. It’s a good day when you get a request for your full manuscript. It’s something to celebrate when you sign with an agent or an editor. But like all the great artists who drew thousands of figures before painting a masterpiece, nothing you write is ever a waste. You are always in the process of becoming.

*    “Music Has Sustained Him.” Hampshire Life. January26, 2007.


Thanks, Amy, for taking the time to share your writing insights!


To Return to Website The Writing on the Wall :: History-related Educational Books for Children!