Tuesday, December 14, 2010

History Lessons

I’ll tell you the plain and simple truth.   When I was in school, history textbooks were about as exciting as a wait in line at Walmart on a Saturday afternoon the week before Christmas.   The never-ending tedium of facts and dates made no more difference to me than what the geography textbooks had to offer.

And so when my children came along I was determined to find a viable option to U.S. history textbooks.   

My older daughter Hannah collected American Girl dolls when she was Abi’s age, all of which her younger sister inherited along with the accompanying books. 

The girls learned U.S. history the no-sweat, fun way, connecting time periods with faces.

The American Girl Book Club

A group of fellow homeschool girls sign up and bring their dolls along.   I even develop a curriculum for the selected books.     

Our journey into the past – before we were established as a nation - begins in 1764 with Kaya, a Nez Perce Indian girl.  

My husband, “into” the world of Native Indians, doesn’t hesitate one Christmas to buy Abi the whole kit and caboodle: Kaya’s Appaloosa mare, Steps High, & saddle; her pow-wow outfit complete with beaded choker, embroidered moccasins and feathered comb; her doll and cradleboard; winter cape and hood; the tepee, bedroll…   I have never - never known him to splurge this way before.  Or since.          

It takes a whole spare bedroom to set up camp just for Kaya.   Never mind the other ten American Girl dolls (Hannah’s and Abi’s combined) who have to make do with cramped living quarters.

After Kaya we take up Felicity.  The books, set in 1774, lead us to a study of the Revolutionary War, the life and times of the colonists, the Patriots and the Loyalists.  Later we meet Felicity’s best friend, Elizabeth Cole (1775) and continue learning about colonial culture.   We even have a “proper tea.”

We trace Kirsten’s journey from Sweden to the Minnesota frontier on the map.  Then discuss the dangers and hardships of immigrants who came to America in 1854 and about the culture shock they experienced upon arrival, not having spoken a word of English.   

 In December we read Kirsten’s Christmas story.     

Addy (1864) takes us back to a North Carolina plantation where she and her family were enslaved and living in a tiny, windowless cabin. This was quite the adventure, attempting to escape slavery by traveling through the night with Addy and Momma.  We learn about the abolitionists, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, the Underground Railroad (those hiding stations leading north to freedom), heroes like Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass and others. 

From there we venture to more recent history, the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., etc.  We read poets like Maya Angelou and Rita Dove, and check out books on Rosa Parks, and then dramatize the story of Rosa Parks on the bus. 

We line chairs up as bus seats and cast passengers: bus driver (Karen G. is the meanest bus driver in the world!), Rosa Parks (Shelly D.), and police officers on the scene to arrest brave Rosa.  I doubt any of the girls will ever forget the heroism of Rosa Parks.     

In the process of studying history from the perspective of the central characters in the books, the girls learn to appreciate the value of giving, as in Meet Samantha, set in 1904.  The protagonist of this story is a wealthy girl who befriends a poverty-stricken servant girl, Nellie. 

In the end, Samantha goes to her affluent grandmother and pleads with her to help Nellie’s family because, “they don’t have enough food and they don’t have enough coal.”  Samantha then gives her own beloved doll, Lydia, to Nellie because she doesn’t own a single toy to her name.

 Nellie O’Malley (1906), the turn-of-the-century Irish immigrant, had lived a hard-knock life and needed such a friend... but she could dance! 

What was life in America like in 1944?  We enter Molly McIntire’s world to find out…

 Big old radios where you could hear programs like The Green Hornet and I Love a Mystery, and where you may have heard a favorite program interrupted by a news bulletin announcing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor…
World War Two, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis on a power-hungry mission…
Women entering the work force after men were deployed for battle…
Victory Gardens and a common spirit of sacrifice on the home front…
Giving blood to the Red Cross for wounded soldiers…
Economizing for the war effort by driving less and saving fuel for airplanes and tanks…
Forfeiting canned goods so metal could be dispensed for ammunition…
And a general sense of patriotism.

If I’d been allowed to take this approach I might have actually learned to love American history when I was growing up.  But it wasn’t until my girls came along that I realized the efficacy of literature-based learning.   Amazing how much we (adults and youth alike) remember from these books. 

One night I was discussing with my friend Nancy over dinner how much I’d learned from this series, naming particulars like Victory Gardens and the spirit of sacrifice, when she said, “You must have read the Molly books.”   She too had read these with her niece, Kayley.  

Case in point: connect time periods with faces and we can remember anything.   


  1. You are so right, Debra: "connect time periods with faces (or visuals) and we can remember anything!" Our approach was to place pictures on a homemade timeline, as we read through our literature-based history study of 3 centuries 1700s-1900s. We read about PEOPLE who lived during each time period, and we loved it! We also placed our own ancestors and ourselves on the timeline, which cemented the fact that history is real people living real life.
    Thanks for visiting my blog and sharing about yourself on blogfrog!
    Good to meet you!
    Faith's Firm Foundation

  2. Hello Debra! Nice to "meet" you too!
    Wow-what a wonderful way to learn history! My girls are older now, but also loved the American Girls stories! They would have loved this idea!
    Glad to now be following your blog, and hope to chat again!

  3. Deb,

    It is a shame you are not teaching in the public school system. Your children are very privileged to have someone so creative to learn from. I have come to learn that schools today feel as though teaching is just another bothersome chore. I am proud to call you a friend and have been changed by your blog! Hugs!

  4. That is so awesome. I remember when my sister and I were kids she had all them doll's. Ill ask her if she still has them.

  5. What a great post. Thanks for sharing. You sound like a great teacher.

    Thanks for following Mommy Time Out

  6. What a fabulous way to teach girls about history. I wish I could do something like this at the school where I teach...but I don't think the little boys would like the dolls so much. ;)

    But you are right, it is amazing what we can learn when we make it fun!

  7. Hi Debra! Thanks for coming over to my blog (www.vacationschooling.blogspot.com) and saying hello. I love your blog. And I am following you now, too.

  8. Hi Debra! I love this post. Although I never had the dolls, I read several of the books when I was younger. In fact, in 5th grade a group of us wrote a script based on Kirsten's story and acted it out, videotaped it, and shared it with our class. It was the only history class I actually enjoyed during my school years. I've kind of rediscovered a love of history as an adult, thanks to my love of books. When it's meaningful, it's remembered...

  9. Hi Debra!
    I am so glad you stopped by my place!!
    Kirsten and Samantha lived at our house.
    This post made me tear up, simply because my girls are now 20 and 16 and they don't play with their dolls anymore, but the lessons we learned are still remembered, truly!
    I had to laugh when you said it took up the whole room to set up camp...yep, remember those days.
    What a blessing.
    I am your new friend, too!
    Blessings to you as you make your home!

  10. Hi, Debra! I appreciated your comment on my blog. You left a sweet one last week too! :)

    I love the American Girl books and have read through them all with my girls. My oldest daughter (now 17) has 2 of the dolls, and was kicking herself that she never got Felicity. I almost ordered her for Christmas. My youngest isn't into dolls, but does have 2 of the bitty babies.

    I love history and learning with books is what we're doing this year too - so much more interesting than textbooks anyway!

  11. What a great way to teach history! We used KONOS unit studies for our elementary and high-school homeschooling. My daughter LOVED American Girls, and we added their stories to the appropriate units. That worked very well, too - although this would be FANTASTIC for a group of girls!

    I'm your newest follower from Blog Frog.
    Deb @ LivingMontessoriNow.com

  12. I have Samantha at my house! :) I have loved American Girl Dolls for a long time. They're so fun. I'm glad that girls are still enjoying them.

  13. What a fantastic idea/way to teach history. Now following your blog, thanks for posting your link for me on my blog 'kickin' it in kiwiland'.

  14. Hello! What a great idea. I am adding this to my list of thing to do for school once the kids are a bit older! Thanks for visiting my blog!

  15. Hello Debra.. It is nice to meet you. It seems as if you are a very talented teacher and your family is blessed. Having homeschooled our youngest I know that it is a wonderful asset to be creative....
    Thanks for stopping by and following my blog and I am now following yours...

  16. Hi Debra! What a neat idea! My daughter is only 6 months old, but we do plan to homeschool and I think this is a wonderful way to help girls learn about American history! Thanks for sharing!

  17. Hello Debra,

    Nice blog, and yes nice template. I just wanted to let you now that I'm following you back.

    Take care and Meryy Christmas!

    From: What's On My Mind:

  18. Debra, I loved this post!the home schoolers have such unique and creative ideas,your teaching methods are so important ,and make a real difference. Keep up the good work! merry christmas, Jane

  19. Hi Debra. These dolls and the story books that come with them are the best!!! I fell in love with this collection when my neighbor bought them for her daughters! I find the stories inspirational.

    Kudos to you for home schooling! I did it for several years & it was one of the best times in my life; I wish kids didn't grow up.

    I would thank you for visiting, commenting & following my blog. You are super sweet! I am a follower & look forward to your posts!

    I wish you & your family a very Merry Christmas!

  20. Thanks so much for the kind comment on my blog. I am following you too.

    I love this. I too was VERY bored by history and now realize how important history is. Sadly public schools so often don't get it right.

    What a GREAT idea, Debra.
    Way to go for finding a way to make history interesting!

    Merry Christmas, I am looking forward to getting to know you.

  21. Those dolls are so cute. Love them, especially Kaya, the Nez Pierce girl. :)

    Merry Christmas!

  22. My daughter and I have participated in an American Girl book club over the past couple of years. We studied Kaya last year and this year focused on Kit. I really like the idea of studying in chronologically. Our book club wasn't near as history intense as yours, but I think your's sounds MUCH better. I'm thinking I may try to do something like this for a group of girls and my daughter. Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  23. Wow! You have inspired me to start on this series with my daughter. I don't know why I haven't up to this point-except I have just never made time to include it in our homeschooling. I love these books!

  24. I love your blog posts and LOVED American Girl books growing up! I hated reading anything else, but loved these books. I always wanted a doll so bad but my parents couldn't afford one back then. I love the idea of starting an American Girl book club and using it as a tool to learn history!

  25. This a fantastic idea. I love dolls so much. As a child, I would have loved these lessons.
    We homeschooled as well and I agree that learning needs to be interesting and engaging - I feel like we were lucky to be able to do that.
    Great job.

  26. Oh, my! What a wonderful idea!! We are lovers, too, of American Girl. Maggie-Peyton would LOVE the idea of a *Club* with her friends!

    Thank you so much for the inspiration!

    So blessed to have *met* you - :)


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