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.