Homeschoolers make art appreciation too complicated — too fussy, too drawn out, too obscure. I see so many questions in forums and Facebook groups, posted by moms wholly intimidated by the idea of teaching art to their children.
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Here’s the thing: you don’t have to tackle all the art at once.
You don’t have to learn how to draw like Leonardo da Vinci.
Using a daily calendar in place of an art appreciation curriculum means
no lesson planning,
no agonizing over which artist to introduce next,
no browsing websites to download images, and
no using up expensive printer ink.
In fact, using a daily calendar for art appreciation is a far more well-rounded approach than if I were to design my own introduction to famous art course. Why? Because the calendar offers a wider variety of genres and artwork than I’d choose myself! (The variety includes photographs of artifacts as well as paintings.)
Each page of the art appreciation calendar is double-sided, 7″ wide and 6″ tall, and includes details about the artwork displayed. Since it’s important for kids to be able to interact with masterpieces in a tactile way — rather than growing up thinking of art as a strictly “don’t touch!” arena — let kids use the discarded pages for notecards and thank you letters, collages or other art projects. Want to save your family favorites? Place them in mini sheet protectors to make mini art binders kids can look through again and again.
I’m on a perpetual quest to find accurate US history curriculums for kids — but you already knew this about me, right? Compared to objective subjects like math and science, I find history to be particularly challenging to teach properly. While it’s easy for me to seek out the right curriculum — or YouTube video — to help me explain a mathematical concept, it’s much more difficult to offer an accurate commentary on historical events and indeed, people’s own lives.
History is a complex tapestry. There are threads of war, famine, discovery, and conquest, all woven together with the threads of individual people. But people’s lives are complicated. Too many history curriculums offer snap judgments — telling students exactly what to think — but there’s always more to understand. Biographies are an important key in unraveling historical mystery, because they reveal context, cultural backdrop, and personal motivations. Yet no matter how many rich, enlightening biographies we read, history remains a sequential course of study. Years are chronological. To tie all these separate events and people together and deepen our understanding of what really happened — and how all these different parts are connected — we need to lay out these puzzle pieces in a logical, sequential, pattern.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received free digital and print copies of The Giant American History Timeline from Sunflower Education, and was compensated for my time in exchange for writing and publishing this post. All opinions are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.
[We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.]
Using an American History Timeline to Complement the Logic Stage of Classical Education
Sequencing is an especially crucial aspect when moving away from lower primary grades and shifting to the upper elementary and middle school years. Around fifth grade, students entering the logic or dialectic stage of classical education are ready to tackle cause and effect, and analyze how topics and events are related. They’ve already spent a great deal of time taking in information; now, they are transitioning into a phase where they’ll begin to link all the pieces together.
One product which handles this middle school logic stage very well is The Giant American History Timeline from Sunflower Education. In the logic stage, just as in The Giant American History Timeline, students don’t simply read about history or about the ways historical figures viewed the world; they instead learn to
articulate the domino effect of separate events in history.
We’re not officially in the logic stage, of course, but given the deep questioning in every other area of educating this intense, quirky, gifted kiddo, we do foray into logic stage materials throughout our homeschool weeks.
Despite the name — The Giant American History Timeline — this approach is not a linear timeline in which you’ll set up a list of dates and assign events and people to various points in time. It’s a means to create visual, research-based projects. These huge books are broken up into chronologically-progressing themed units containing
dated timeline sheets,
quotes from source documents,
There are two different books, available in print or digital formats:
At first glance you might expect simply work through the book page by page, moving on once each page is completed. However, each unit is actually a thorough exercise in interactive critical thinking. You’ll remove the pages from the book — or, if you have the digital version, print the pages — and then work on a large surface such a big table, the floor, or a blank wall.
In interest of space, we chose to print pages half-size, setting the printer to print two timeline pages on each 8.5×11″ piece of paper. (We love adding splashes of color to our homeschool with our favorite Astrobrights paper!)
Each page requires thought, research, and critical thinking skills. While answers are provided for the parent (there’s a full key in the back), the answers aren’t immediately apparent to the student. I love that! (If you’re looking for a workbook-based approached in which the student reads facts, then repeats those same facts onto worksheets, this isn’t it.)
For each unit, the student will
research the assigned topics,
complete the assignments on each page, then
identify the correct timeline sequence for each page, using the provided date cards.
Once all the pages in a given unit are completed (or at least begun) the student will work on a large open area, and will continue the critical thinking process to
find connections between events and people,
identify cause and effect relationships, and
uncover details of main events.
This aspect of the curriculum is so powerful! I love how The Giant American History Timeline teaches kids to think through history in a sequential and methodical way. (Notice I said “think through history”. This thoughtful, logic-stage approach is much different than the memorization and fact-collecting which takes place in the lower-level grammar stage.)
Learning how various historical events and figures are connected opens our eyes to even more connecting pieces. Once this wonderful process of cause and effect is set into motion, there’s really no end to the number of observations we can make. While biographies enable history to become personal, sequencing and cause and effect helps history make sense.
TheGiant American History Timeline makes sense of history.
Using an American History Timeline to Tackle Controversial Issues through Source Documents
Of course, history isn’t always always easy-to-understand. Some methods of teaching history water down the past and sanitize the rough patches. Other methods include source documents, but then tell the student exactly how to interpret what they’ve just read. In Sunflower Education’s Giant American History Timeline, there’s no easy way around source documents. Students can’t simply skim the quoted passages and quickly answer comprehension questions. Instead, each student is asked to stop and think critically about each passage. In approaching historical documents in this thoughtful way, students will
learn to uncover how leaders’ individual worldviews impacted historical decisions, and
learn how those beliefs impact our own biases about history, too.
This fosters both critical thinking skills and discernment, as well as deepening an understanding of how the world works.
Using an American History Timeline to Help Gifted Kids Dive Deeper
If you have a very motivated gifted child — not all gifted kids have the same level of drive — you know what it feels like to fly through printed curriculum like forests are going out of style. (In the Stapled to a Cheetah episode of the Raising Lifelong Learners podcast with Colleen Kessler, I talk about the semester my daughter completed three science curriculums between August and December.) It’s not unusual for my daughter to choose an elementary history textbook as for-pleasure reading, then finish the entire book in mere days.
While Sunflower Education doesn’t market TheGiant American History Timeline as gifted curriculum, per se, the nature of the approach —
critical thinking, and
hands-on manipulation of the timeline displays
— makes it ideal for the academically gifted child.
The Giant American History Timeline allows academically-gifted kids to —
approach a topic more deeply than reading through a textbook at a highly accelerated pace can offer
be challenged by answering open-ended questions, not reciting answers to overly-obvious questions
practice making inferences,
identify cause and effect
research extensively, and
apply findings logically.
Resources like this, which encourage accelerated learners to learn more deeply, rather than simply more quickly, are a treasured find. TheGiant American History Timeline isn’t a curriculum your child will fly through. The thoughtful approach makes it a great way to challenge upper elementary students to engage in meaningful ways, and I so appreciate that.
In fact, it’s challenging enough that even through we’re working through various levels of curriculum designed for students as old as fifth grade, this is still significantly more advanced than any of what we’re using this year. Because of the heavy emphasis on determining cause and effect and analyzing relationships between events, I can see it still challenging her several years from now. It’s truly geared toward upper elementary and middle-school students.
Where to buy Sunflower Education’s Giant American History Timeline Books
The printed versions of The Giant American History Timeline can be purchased on Amazon, while the digital ebooks are available directly from Sunflower Education. While the digital versions make it easy to print the pages you want to use, the printed books are incredibly simple to use as well. Since each consumable page is only printed on one side; just remove from the book and you’re ready to go!
P.S. Use coupon code TIMELINE20 to receive an extra 20% off the already-discounted digital bundle.
GIVEAWAY: Win a copy of The Giant American History Timeline Book 1
Want a chance to win book one of TheGiant American History Timeline? Click on the image below to be taken to the giveaway form, and enter to win. (This sweepstakes is open to U.S. residents age 18 and over, and is operated by Sunflower Education. You are providing your email address to Sunflower Education, not to me.) You’re also welcome to keep up with Sunflower Education on Facebook, follow @sunfloweredtx on Twitter, or be inspired by Sunflower Education on Pinterest, although the only way to actually enter the giveaway is to click through the image below and fill in your name and email address on the resulting page. Giveaway ends on February 7th at 3PM Eastern time.
When I was a girl, I read countless old books. These brittle volumes usually smelled of crumbling book glue and dust; some left a sprinkling of yellowed page edges on my lap as I turned each leaf. I read and re-read my old books until they, quite literally, fell apart. But in all my reading, I never cared much for the stories about perfect, quiet girls, who had little more to offer than exquisite conversation skills and needlework. I wanted to — and did! — read about the spunky outliers; I loved the books about fearless girls who dove, often, into the unexpected.
And I wasn’t interested in the idea of life having been more wholesome long ago. (Human nature, after all, has always been human nature.) I was far more fascinated by the degree to which people have stayed the same, despite obvious changes in culture, manners, fashion, and technology.
As a voracious bookworm, I never considered all the vintage books I read as school, per se. Yet looking back, there’s a whole world of knowledge I gleaned from reading old books. (Yes, even the fiction titles!)
Using Vintage Fiction Books to Challenge Gifted / Accelerated Readers
If you are familiar with our story at all, you know books are a huge part of our everyday. Aside from having been a mini bookwork myself, I’m now raising a mini bookworm — a kiddo who hasn’t yet turned seven, but read 561 books in 2016, and has read 450 books so far in 2017. Talk about trying to keep her in age-appropriate reading material!
If you have a gifted child or an accelerated reader, you know firsthand just how difficult that is. Although I wholeheartedly believe kids truly can handle a lot of unabridged classics, there has to be room for escaping into light, fun adventure novels, too. (After all, how often do adults actually read books at the true upper end of their reading comprehension level?) But with so much of the middle-grade fiction published today full of themes entirely inappropriate for a sensitive six-year-old, books for an accelerated reader can be incredibly hard to find.
[Disclosure of Material Connection: I received two titles from the Aunt Claire Presents series in exchange for reviewing this product and publishing this post, and I was also compensated for my time.] [We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.]
Introducing Aunt Claire Presents, Published by Laboratory Books
I’m so thankful for throwback chapter books, like these 1910 novels re-released under the series name Aunt Claire Presents, Published by Laboratory Books. These books are big on adventure, but nil on romance — so perfect for my tiny, voracious reader. I recently had the pleasure of reading the first books they’ve released, The Automobile Girls at Newport by Laura Dent Crane and Grace Harlowe’s Freshman Year at High Schoolby Jessie Graham Flower, A.M.Except for the brilliantly-written introductions, which offer some historical context and cultural background for the stories, the text of the books remains unchanged from the original editions. (And the original cover is hidden under the modern dust-jacket, too!)
These are definitely books about mighty girls — they’re educated, independent, meet with detectives, and act as their own chauffeurs and mechanics. (Can you picture the girls in their Gibson Girl pastels, driving at break-neck speed along a dusty road? So fascinating!) Written just as the Gilded Age was transitioning into the Progressive Age, these books have powerful undercurrents of the suffragette movement, and weave themes of empowerment naturally into the story lines.
These are adventure stories; there’s no doubt about that. The plot twists range from homework and road trips to burglaries, kidnappings, jewel thieves, and even hungry wolves. They have a playful flavor, too, with the occasional foray into spooky Victorian parlor games and Halloween mischief. My favorite part? Reading the Aunt Claire Presents series is an immersive experience in early 1900s life. I love how each book is overflowing with real-life examples of the music, clothing, books, and architecture which made this era so extraordinary. These are ideal books to integrate into your homeschool lessons, since they show a real microcosm of life at the turn of the century.
And did you know? Historical books can be used to teach more than just history. I especially enjoy using old books to teach literature-based geography.
While it’s true not all titles lend themselves to teaching geography well, there are more ways to extract geography from books than you’d think. The Automobile Girls at Newport, though, happens to be perfectly suited for geography exploration. The book’s plot centers around a road trip from New Jersey through Yale to Rhode Island, and author mentions a plethora of actual historical locations by name. To spur further research, I’ve listed several of these in a FREE printable PDF supplement, and included links to photos, both modern day and historic.
This printable also includes the page number where the location is first mentioned, so you can easily find the context. The activities I’ve included are only suggested starting points. You can use the locations as research prompts for independent or directed learning, and enjoy exploring your local library or reputable websites for additional information. There’s so much potential here for any entire geography unit of the Eastern Seaboard!
Even when vintage books are set in entirely fictional locations, as with Grace Harlowe’s Freshman Year at High School, readers can infer information about the climate, landforms, and physical geography by using context clues in the story.
Now there’s a fun writing assignment — making the case for the kind of place in which a given fiction book is set. Astute readers can scour the pages for hints.
Does the author mention inland bodies of water, or oceans?
Do the characters see mountains?
Are prairies or grassy fields mentioned in the story?
Are any plants, flowers, or trees mentioned by name?
If so, what type of climate might support these types of foliage?
At what time of year is the story set?
What does the weather seem to be like?
A well-written book, fiction or otherwise, leaves the reader with a distinct sense of the setting. (These are cues kids can take, too, when creating the setting for their own creative writing ventures or short stories.)
Using Vintage Fiction Books to Teach Music
One of the delightful aspects of old books is how they retain the flavor of the era in which they were written. And this doesn’t end at visual descriptions. I love uncovering what the world of vintage books must have sounded like, beyond the hum of dialogue or the clickety-clack of a train.
And that’s only one song! There are several more songs mentioned in The Automobile Girls at Newport, too. When you learn to pay attention to the songs and music mentioned in old books, a whole world will open up.
Using Vintage Fiction Books to Teach Nuances About History
The narrative, immersive nature of living books offers historical insight textbooks simply cannot. When we learn history from a textbook, we’re told that the Gilded Age ended in 1900. While this is technically true, if we — like the Automobile Girls — were living at the turn of the century, we wouldn’t know that yet. The living, breathing reality is that the end of one era faded naturally and unobtrusively into the birth of another, with amorphous blending and intermingling of each era’s greatest characteristics. No woman stepped out of bed on New Year’s Day 1900, and scrubbed her life clean of any trappings of the Gilded Age. Life went on.
As the Automobile Girls’ adventures demonstrate, the towering edifices on Bellevue Avenue — home of John Jacob Astor and the Vanderbilts — did not crumble at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 1899. Many people continued to bustle about in excess, unaware the days of the railroad tycoons were growing smaller in the rear-view mirror, and unaware just how significant the cultural impact of the dawning Progressive Age would prove to be.
Living books show us that for those living inside history — just as we live inside history now — the ages march on, unnamed and unknown.
Using Vintage Fiction Books to Encourage Annotation and Close Reading to Uncover Historical Clues
Encourage your young readers to annotate the book as they read! Annotation is such a great skill to develop. Allow them to mark directly on the book pages — a fine-point mechanical pencil is perfect for this. Help your child develop a personalized system for annotation — asterisks next to unknown vocabulary, brackets around phrases or topics they’d like to look up later, etc. You can learn so much about a book’s historical and cultural context by diving into what the characters are talking about. Pay attention to topics such as —
What books are the characters reading?
What foods do they eat? Are these the same foods you eat?
Do they talk about clothing unfamiliar to you?
What music do they talk about, sing, or play?
What holidays do they celebrate?
What aspects of life seem normal to the characters, but strike you as odd?
Do the characters talk about or mention any names of people who aren’t characters in the book? Use these names as clues to research!
For instance, in the Automobile Girls, one of the girls says, “You did look…like a sort of desperate, feminine Darius Green with his flying machine!” Unless you’re annotating, you’d probably skip right over the mention of Darius Green. But if you’re working on your close reading detective skills, you’d underline the name, wonder who he was, and look it up. With a little research, you’d discover a narrative poem called “Darius Green and His Flying-Machine”, published in in 1867. And then, you’d see Houghton-Mifflin re-released it again in 1910, and you’d remember the Automobile Girls was originally released in 1910, too. You can even read the 1910 version of Darius Green and his Flying-Machine!
Close reading is such a great opportunity to share a literary experience with the book characters themselves. Developing your investigative reading skills opens up a huge, undiscovered world inside the already-rich world of books.
Apart from technology, the passage of time is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the evolution of language. Dialogue-rich stories such as the ones reprinted by Aunt Claire Presents offer us the unique opportunity to hear the exclamations, idioms, and turns of phrases en vogue over hundred years ago. But beyond the historical vocabulary, there are also dozens and dozens of relevant bits of vocabulary worth studying. Don’t buy into the myth that old books can only teach you old words; that’s simply not true. I’ve created a FREE downloadable PDF containing all the notable vocabulary words in The Automobile Girls at Newport. I’ve defined — or given a synonym for — each word, and showed the context as it appeared in the book. And, I’ve organized the printable supplement by chapter, too, making it an easy-to-use reference tool. As your child annotates unfamiliar words in the book, he or she can use the vocabulary supplement to look up those words.
Using Vintage Fiction Books to Enrich Homeschool Lessons
While I don’t advocate pummeling the life out of reading for pleasure by requiring kids to do homework based on the books they’ve read during free time, I do believe you can intentionally assign fun books as schoolwork. After all, there shouldn’t be a required-reading/free-reading dichotomy. Books which are enjoyable to read should appear in both categories, and these books are a perfect example. Truly considering using the fun-to-read Aunt Claire Presents series in a unit about life in American in 1910!
How about you? Have you ever considering using fictional books in your lessons? How have you integrated adventure stories or vintage stories into your homeschool days?
— Disclosure of Material Connection:: I received two titles from the Aunt Claire Presents seriesin exchange for reviewing this product and publishing this post, and I was also compensated for my time. All the photographs, opinions, and experiences shared here are in my own words and are my own honest evaluation. I was not required to write a positive review.
— We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
Wondering where to buy inexpensive homeschool curriculum? Trying to figure out the best places to shop online for used homeschool books? Here’s the ultimate resource: a list of my favorite places to buy — and sell! — used curriculum and books. Let’s start with the websites.
Best Websites to Buy / Sell Used Homeschool Curriculum
Homeschool Classifieds has been around for a long time. If you don’t mind having to scroll through long text lists (and then emailing the seller to see if the item is still available) you can often find things not easily found elsewhere. I’ve made many purchases through this venue; just ask lots of questions and ask for pictures of the item before you send money (always use Goods & Services, not Friends & Family, on PayPal).
My best tip? Look for buyers with 100% positive feedback — or even better, a “Top Rated Plus” insignia next to their username. And if anything in the listing or the condition of the item seems unclear, send a message to the buyer and ask before you bid. If you’re auction-averse (I am), then just browse the Buy-it-Now listings.
Karen has a physical store in Kentucky, but she also sells on Homeschool Classifieds, and often lists item on the Kurriculum Korner page on Facebook, too. If you need something specific, email her! I’ve purchased from her several times, and have had great experiences each time. (Unlike Homeschool Classifieds and eBay, of course, this isn’t a channel for you to sell your used books.)
I feel like Thrift Books is one of the best kept secrets, but maybe it will be more well known now that half.com has met its demise. Most titles at Thrift Books are under $4, and for each order, there’s free shipping once you spend $10. What’s not to love? You’ll probably need another bookshelf soon anyway.
[Disclosure: The link above for Thrift Books is a referral link. No other links in this post are referral or affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase from Thrift Books, you’ll receive a coupon for 15% off your first purchase, and I’ll receive a coupon for 20% off. I will receive no other compensation or product. As always, I’ll only recommend products or services I personally use and love, and I’ll always disclose such links.]
Best Facebook Groups to Buy/Sell Used General Homeschool Curriculum
The vast majority of what’s in our bookshelves has been purchased either at thrift stores (more about that later), or in one of the many sale groups on Facebook.
Note that these closed groups are not the same as Marketplace! Marketplace on Facebook offers a framework, like Craigslist, for anyone to post an item for sale. Facebook Groups, on the other hand, are dedicated communities centered around a common interest — in this case, the buying and selling of specific categories of books. Facebook sale groups are super convenient, and I especially love how easy it is to ask questions or find out more about the condition/content of the items for sale.
What sale groups should you join? That depends what you wish to buy or sell. There are some broad groups for used homeschool curriculum in general, and other more specialized ones focused on particular publishers. Each group has different set of moderators and a different set of rules, so you’ll need to read those before you start buying or selling in that group. (These rules are typically in a pinned post or in the group’s description area, and often you won’t be able to see them until you’ve been admitted or approved as a member.)
Let’s start with the general groups designed for all types of used homeschool curriculum.
This is by far the largest homeschool Facebook sale group I’ve encountered. There are nearly ~60K members at the time of this posting! Be sure to read the rules carefully. To maintain the group at such a large size, the Homeschool Curriculum Marketplace moderators are very strict.
The guidelines of Used Homeschool Books, Buy, Sell, Trade (~8K) prohibit sale of entertainment books, allowing curriculum and educational books only. Your interpretation may vary.
Best Facebook Groups to Buy/Sell Used Classical Homeschool Curriculum
If you’re looking for curriculum that’s more specialized or from a specific publisher, it makes sense to use one of the more niche groups, rather than sorting through hundreds of entries. Here a few of the groups dedicated to classical curriculum.
This is a newer group (disclosure: I admin this one) but it’s a great place if you’re looking for Veritas Press materials. If you’re looking for discussion, then you’ll want to head over to Veritas Press Homeschoolers, which I also admin.
Each of these two different groups is about the same size (~12K members). While both are centered around Classical Conversations resale, people do freely buy and sell other non-CC curriculum, too. I would say the Exchange group has more of these non-CC items, which makes it a great resource even if you’re not a Classical Conversations family.
A bit larger (just over ~1K), this one, like the other Tapestry group, has a wealth of wonderful books, even if you’re not a TOG user. In fact, it really could have been listed under the next category, too — literature-based curriculum.
Best Facebook Groups to Buy/Sell Used Literature-Based Homeschool Curriculum
That’s a lot of acronyms! Let’s see…My Father’s World, Beautiful Feet, Mystery of History, Sonlight, Story of the World…phew! Note also, this one has very particular moderator guidelines for how to list items, so if you’re planning on selling, be sure to read the pinned post / group description first.
This is a wonderful resource for used Charlotte Mason curriculum. A nice-sized group, at ~8K members, it has lots of especially beautiful vintage books for sale.
But what if you’re just not into buying books online?
Best Ways to Find Local Used Homeschool Curriculum Sales
If you want to skip online buying / selling altogether, you have several options. The best sales are, in my experience, generally held in April, May and June. Any earlier or much later, and you won’t have as much luck. Keep those dates in mind when inquiring about local sales, too.
Used Book Sales at State Homeschool Conventions
Many homeschool conferences coordinate a huge annual consignment sale, often just for one night right before the conference begins. Check with your local organizations to see what’s available in your area.
Used Curriculum Sales Hosted by Local Homeschool Groups
In the early spring, I’ll sometimes email the largest area local homeschool groups in the, to ask if they’ll be hosting a sale. I’ve gotten some of my best deals at these small local sales.
Second-hand / Thrift Stores
When it comes to the book sections of thrift stores, they’re not all created equal. And time of year matters, too. I’ve found almost no homeschool curriculum locally, but when I visit my parents and browse second-hand stores there, I need a second suitcase to haul all my goodies home.
Location-Specific Used Homeschool Curriculum Groups on Facebook
Beyond the general “online garage sale” pages for your local area, do some searching within Facebook to see if there’s a used homeschool curriculum group specifically for your region (Orlando, for example, has several!) These can be terrific, because you can often arrange meet-ups to swap money/books, and save money on shipping.
And a bonus, because I am asked this next question all the time —
Where is the best place to buy Singapore Math books?
I’ve snagged some great deals in the general curriculum sale groups, but that does require time, since used Singapore Math books go very quickly. eBay is sometimes an option, but since Singapore materials also holds its value so well, eBay prices aren’t really that much less than new. I often purchase new from the Singapore Math website. My top tip? Check the Singapore Math Bargain Corner. Several times, the item I was seeking was listed at a discount due to minor aesthetic damage. (And let’s be real, it would be aesthetically flawed after a week in our house, anyway. (Read more about why Singapore Math works best for us.)
What about you? How do you keep your bookshelves filled?
Did I miss your favorite place to buy used homeschool books, or leave out a Facebook group you admin? Add a note in the comments, and I’ll add it to the appropriate category above.
If you found this resource helpful, why not pin it?
This school year, I’ve had the delightful opportunity to teach art history at our local homeschool co-op. As we work through various techniques and employ different art media, I often steer the conversation to famous artists who weren’t recognized or appreciated during their lifetime, but came to be highly regarded and respected later on. As we create together, I try to help the students let go of misconceptions about art.
After all, why is this human inability to accept new kinds of art so common? Why were so many now-beloved artists dismissed outright at first, only to have the art critics reverse their position later? What is it that people fundamentally misunderstand about art — over and over and over?
Important Truths About Art to Emphasize in an Elementary Art History Class
Whether we are children or adults, we often come into a study of art really quite intimidated by it all. The glorious masters and their astounding reproductions of the natural world have left us breathless, and quite convinced that only someone who can paint a scene indistinguishable from reality can be considered an artist.
But that’s not true.
Art isn’t always photorealistic.
In my art history class — we have a history portion and a hands-on art project — students are not required to replicate reality. Before you assume I’m going all Cy Twombly on you, think about it. You don’t hear anyone arguing that a Monet isn’t art, even though his waterlilies are a far cry from a photographic representation.
The truth is, most art takes liberties with reality. Even paintings in no danger of being confused with modern abstraction, like The Lady of Shallot, are not an exact photocopy of nature. And neither is much of ancient art, romanticism, sculpture, impressionism, or any number of other art styles.
I often encounter children (and adults!) who believe if an artist is drawing an apple, the final drawing needs to be indistinguishable from a photo of an apple. While this is one style of art, it’s not the only way.
Freedom to interpret, not copy, a scene is an especially important point to emphasize to budding artists who struggle with perfectionism, become easily discouraged, or are just still working on fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination: a finished art piece does not need to be a duplicate of the object the artist has attempted to represent.
Artists convey feeling, mood, emotion and meaning through color, form, line, and any number of other constructs, not just through photorealism. (And if the painting or sculpture represents a feeling or an idea, there’s not even a concrete, pictorial reality to compare!)
After all, art is intensely individual.
While there are unchangeable laws of physics governing light, shadows, and shape, the truth still remains that no two masters, given the same scene, would have put it to canvas the same manner.
When we are all creating together, I look for opportunities to highlight the incredible, creative differences between my student’s projects. I emphasize the little details which make each piece of art — and each young artist — unique.
Sometimes, when a student begins to struggle with comparison, I’ll pull out one of my art books, and open up to different works of art — for example, Klimt’s Rosebushes under the Tree, Rembrandt’sThe Three Trees, Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom, and Crola’sOaks — and ask a series of questions reinforcing individuality and reiterating how wonderful it is that there is no one way to paint a tree.
I tell my students, it’s the same for each of them. Their art will not always match the art of the person sitting next to them, and that’s wonderful! Imagine a world in which everyone just imitated each other, never straying from what was expected or accepted. How boring and uninteresting would that be?
Ultimately, I want all kids to recognize how art allows individuals to express the same message in a very different way.
Why Henri Rousseau Matters
Henri Rousseau, I think, embodies these ideals of individualism quite powerfully. He wasn’t like any other painter of his time, and his work was soundly rejected. Why? Because he showed us the world in a very different way. He didn’t paint the way people expected him to, and critics didn’t like that.
He had no artistic training, did not come from a creative background, and didn’t take up art into he was in his forties.
When he did begin to paint, he didn’t paint what he knew. Instead, he painted things he’d never seen. He never left France, yet painted elaborate and imaginary jungles.
He looked at houseplants and imagined them double, triple, and quadruple their size, and these became his jungle foliage.
He thought about what animals might roam far away lands, and these partly-fictional creatures became his Surprised! tigers and exotic monkeys. People called them “grotesque”.
He was mocked when he entered the art scene — and yet, kept on painting.
He was laughed at — and yet, kept on painting.
People looked at his work and told him it seemed as though he painted with his feet —and yet, he kept on submitting his paintings to galleries, year after year.
He was belittled by the establishment. He was told to change his style — and yet, kept on painting.
“‘The place rocks with laughter’, one critic wrote”  after seeing Rousseau’s paintings in a public gallery — and yet, Rousseau never gave up.
Today, of course, no one is laughing, and the art world can’t get enough of his dreamlike botanical works and quirky tropical animals.
The Best Picture Book about Henri Rousseau
“The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau” by Michelle Markel will introduce kids to many of Rousseau’s most famous paintings. Perhaps most importantly, it will offer a great lesson in individuality, empathy, and perseverance. Several of my more sensitive students were moved to compassionate tears by Rousseau’s life story — and then buoyed, encouraged, and motivated to keep on painting!
Every page of this book is saturated edge-to-edge in Rousseau’s trademark style. The publisher’s book trailer, linked above, is really wonderful as well.
How to Paint a Surprised Tiger Like Henri Rousseau: A Hands-On Elementary Art Project
With Rousseau’s iconic Surprised! painting as the inspiration, I led the students in a guided pencil drawing on watercolor paper.
(Not sure how to execute a guided drawing? A white board works well. You draw a stroke on the white board, and have the students draw the same stroke on their paper. Since young students have a hard time translating a sense of scale from a huge whiteboard to a small 8.5×11″ or 9×12″ space, I find that using a hand-held white board approximately the same size as the students’ papers makes for a less frustrated class overall. We used Art Projects for Kids’ excellent “How to Draw a Tiger Face” tutorial for guidance.)
Rather than simply mimic of the sample drawing, I asked each child to draw the facial expression however they wished, after thinking about how a tiger caught in a storm might feel. Would the tiger be worried? Elated? Indifferent?
Once the students had sketched out their tiger, we turned to watercolor, using the simple concept of light to dark — filling in the tiger with yellow, accenting with orange, then red, and finally filling in the dark brown / black areas — before adding jungle foliage and grass. Since grass blades are generally wider at the bottom and narrower at the top, some students might have a better time at this if they flip their painting upside down. This way, they’ll be able to direct their brush strokes from top down, rather than trying to paint from the bottom of the page upwards.
If kids are willing to let the unexpected happen, they can add a drippy rain storm (there’s slanted silvery gray-green rain throughout Surprised!). Paint the desired storm color across the sky, then hold the art upright and allow the watery paint to “rain” down on the tiger and greenery. Not everyone will be willing to let the paint run or even want to paint a storm — and that’s okay!
It’s really fun to teach little ones about Rousseau! He’s such an example of perseverance in the face of odds. I especially think Rousseau can encourage kids who are hesitant artists, kids who doubt their own abilities, or kids who have perfectionistic tendencies.
Henri Rousseau never stepped foot in a jungle, but didn’t let that stop him from painting jungles.The animals in his art didn’t look the animals on anyone else’s canvas, but he wasn’t bothered by it. The images he created were flatter and less 3D than the art his peers were producing — but he kept on painting.
Rousseau’s imaginative, stylized worlds have a fairy-tale feel about them — an atmosphere of suspense, an element of danger, and an overarching sense of the unknown, yet all within the safe confines of the canvas.
These are all the ingredients for adventure.
This is where learning happens.
Sometimes as adults we can tend to be a bit of afraid of abstract, stylized, or otherwise interpretive art, since we aren’t quite sure what we are seeing. But be not afraid. And don’t pass that fear onto your children. As the wise Francis Schaeffer said,
“Christians . . . ought not to be threatened by fantasy and imagination. Great painting is not ‘photographic’: think of the Old Testament art commanded by God. There were blue pomegranates on the robes of the priest who went into the Holy of Holies. In nature there are no blue pomegranates. Christian artists do not need to be threatened by fantasy and imagination, for they have a basis for knowing the difference between them and the real world ‘out there.’ The Christian is the really free person–he is free to have imagination. This too is our heritage. The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”