Homeschooling, How To

How to Use Middle-Grade Fiction Books to Teach US History & More (FREE Printables!)

Using Middle-Grade Fiction Books to Teach US History, Geography, Music, Vocabulary and More (FREE Printables!): Aunt Claire Presents, Published by Laboratory BooksWhen 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.]

Using Middle-Grade Fiction Books to Teach US History, Geography, Music, Vocabulary and More (FREE Printables!): Aunt Claire Presents, Published by Laboratory Books

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 BooksThese 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 School by 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.

Download a FREE Geography Supplement for The Automobile Girls at Newport

Geography Supplement for The Automobile Girls at Newport, by Aunt Claire Presents, Published by Laboratory Books

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!

Click to download the FREE Geography Supplement for The Automobile Girls at Newport

Using Vintage Fiction Books to Teach Geography

Even when vintage books are set in entirely fictional locations, as with Grace Harlowe’s Freshman Year at High Schoolreaders 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.

In Grace Harlowe’s Freshman Year at High School, for instance, the characters perform a play while the Funeral March of a Marionette plays. That’s a whole research-rich rabbit trail right there!

  • What does The Funeral March of a Marionette sound like with full orchestra?
  • What about just piano?
  • When was it written?
  • Who was the composer?
  • How old would this song have been at the time the book was written?
  • Was the piece of music originally written a parody, or was it composed in a serious context?
  • Why do you think it was sometimes later chosen by film and television directors for spooky scenes?
  • Do you agree that the song sounds spooky?
  • Can you get piano sheet music for Funeral March of a Marionette, and learn to play it?

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 Middle-Grade Fiction Books to Teach US History, Geography, Music, Vocabulary and More (FREE Printables!): Aunt Claire Presents, Published by Laboratory Books

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.

Download FREE Printable Vocabulary Supplement for The Automobile Girls at Newport

Middle-Grade Vocabulary Printable for The Automobile Girls at Newport, by Aunt Claire Presents, Published by Laboratory 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.

Click to download the FREE Vocabulary Supplement for The Automobile Girls at Newport

Using Middle-Grade Fiction Books to Teach US History, Geography, Music, Vocabulary and More (FREE Printables!): Aunt Claire Presents, Published by Laboratory Books

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!

And there are two more titles coming out in the spring, too.

I can’t wait to read about the girl aviators! Be sure to follow @auntclairepresents and @laboratory_books on Instagram, so you don’t miss the releases in Spring 2018.

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?

FREE HOMESCHOOL PRINTABLES for middle-grade novel The Automobile Girls at Newport by Aunt Claire Presents, by Laboratory Books


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. 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.

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books, Homeschooling, How To

A Guide to Jean Fritz Books

Jean Fritz’ living history books are a terrific way to incorporate a narrative, storytelling approach into to your homeschool history lessons.  You probably know about her popular U.S. history books, but did you know she was a missionary kid who also wrote books about her time in China?

A few weeks ago, I went through my entire Jean Fritz collection — over half of the books she’s ever written — and put together a guide for the iHomeschool Network blog called How to Choose the Perfect Jean Fritz History Book.  In this topical guide, I list the themes, geographical area, time in history, and suggested reading level for each book, so you can grab the title which best matches where you are right now in your history studies. You’ll see your favorites there, of course, but you just might discover some unknown gems as well, like books about Chinese history, a picture book with saturated 1950s art, and a number of longer novels for the middle grades.

What’s your absolute favorite Jean Fritz book? Mine — no surprise here — is Homesick. Click through to see the rest!

How to Choose the Perfect Jean Fritz History Book

Homeschooling, Poetry & Words

‘Beautiful Feet Books’ History Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

A lot of different books cross my desk, especially as I work on creating an early elementary reading schedule for U.S. History. When I first started to look into Beautiful Feet’s “Early American History For Primary Grades literature guide for grades K-3, I was intrigued. Once I sat down and actually read through it, though, I knew I wouldn’t be using it or incorporating the lessons into my history schedule.

If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time at all, you know I’m a Jesus-follower; and if you’re searching for reviews on Beautiful Feet curriculum, you likely know it’s purported to be a Christian curriculum.  I wouldn’t say it represents a Christian worldview, though — certainly not my worldview. But before I get into the implications of how the Beautiful Feet guide teaches morality, let’s address two of the books included in the primary literature list, “The Courage of Sarah Noble” and “The Matchlock Gun“.

In “The Courage of Sarah Noble“, Sarah’s courage is praised, but just what is it that Sarah is facing with such bravery? “Indians [who] will eat you.” Sarah is afraid of things in the dark, because they might be Indians. She freezes “still as a rabbit in danger” when Indian children approach. When she finally musters up the much-applauded courage to interact, she can’t be bothered with “the long, long names of the children, so she called the boy Small John and the girl Mary.” To learn more upsetting details, please do read this review of The Courage of Sarah Noble“. There are billions of books in the  world, and ones like this don’t belong anywhere near my bookshelf.

And then we have the “The Matchlock Gun“, which is so horrifyingly unthinkable in its description of Native American people, that I can hardly bring myself to type it here, but I want you to know what these books contain: “They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then the other coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food.” This is stomach-churningly appalling. And why is young Edward, the main character, so celebrated in this book? Why, because he fired the matchlock gun and “killed more [Indians] than the rest of us put together.”

No. This book has no place on my bookshelf. Additionally disheartening here is the fact that Beautiful Feet is not the only publisher to include these two books on their recommended reading lists. But let’s at least take a look at Beautiful Feet’s “Early American History For Primary Grades” study guide itself. The guide was updated and revised in 2014, so it’s more modern in appearance than previous editions. The 37-page softcover book now covers additional material such as the Westward Expansion,  and has full-color images and web links (although, I counted less than ten links in the course of over one hundred lessons). The content itself was less practical than I was hoping for — comprehension questions are given, but no answers are provided. Lesson prompts are vague, at times not much more than “Introduce Columbus” and “Discuss the value of conscience”.  And there’s a lot more written busywork than I expected in a literature-based curriculum designed for kindergarten through second grade; students are instructed to copy entire dictionary definitions into a notebook. I could be persuaded to overlook some impracticalities, if it were not for my deeper concerns about morality-first instruction.

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

Throughout the guide, the child is asked to interpret every historical figure by measuring the person against a list of character traits, and then make a determination of the person’s virtue. Nearly every one of the 106 lessons instructs the child to extrapolate the good character traits from a biographical segment of a person’s life, and then make an effort to apply these same character traits to his or her own life. This might seem innocent enough at the outset, but little mention is made of the heart itself, or of the transforming power of the gospel (which transforms from the inside out, not the outside in), or of what it means to actually follow Jesus. Perhaps this is because each lesson simply encourages the student to follow a list of moral character traits, not Jesus Christ himself. The hope, it seems, is that through emulating morality from the outside, one might become pure on the inside.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to Beautiful Feet guides alone; there is a tremendous amount of curricula and instructional material framed this way. But there are problems with this approach. When a child is repeatedly, lesson after lesson and year after year, asked to give examples of how a revered historical figure stacks up against a list of Christian virtues, several things are bound to happen. First, this approach ignores the basic fact that every single person who ever lived was inherently complex. So by reducing complex individuals  to one-dimensional figures, heroes inevitably become white-washed, because the focus is always placed on their abundant virtues. The child forms a worldview in which heroes have a lengthy list of abundant positive character traits, and “the bad guys” have very few positive traits. Life, of course, is not this binary. Going into life’s tricky situations believing you will easily be able to spot good vs. evil in either-or terms is not even safe! Teaching that people are good because they exhibit outward traits teaches nothing of the heart (although it does teach how to act “perfectly Christian” on the outside).

Another thing is bound to happen, too, when a child is asked to emulate the outward qualities of heroes who have almost exclusively positive character traits. When the child first encounters a sense of failure in his or her private life, the child is very likely to see even a minor struggle as a massive moral failure. After all, the child has never known any “good person of Christian virtue” to have struggles or moral failings — so the child concludes that he/she must not be good, either. When discernment between good and evil is determined by actions and accomplished by checklist, one too many moral failings on the checklist will automatically shift a person over into the “bad guy” category. And if “goodness and badness” are assessed based on a self-imposed list, what room is there for grace?

This curriculum guide also instructs children to memorize “The Conscience Poem”, several rhyming stanzas devised  by Rea Berg, who co-authored this guide with Joshua Berg. At first, I hoped this poem could easily be overlooked as an inconsequential side-note, but that’s not the case. “The Conscience Poem” is a central focus of the lessons, and is used in lessons 8 through 51 . The poem explains conscience as the inner “voice” or “light” by which a child “understand(s) God’s justice, truth, and love”, and ends with these lines, ”…and this is the confidence I will have / that God is pleased with me.”

No.

This is so damaging. First of all, one’s inner voice isn’t even a Biblical concept! God’s still small voice, yes. Ours? No. We simply cannot teach children that their own thoughts are the sole determination of God’s displeasure or pleasure. We can’t teach that their worth and value is determined by how they feel about themselves, or by how they imagine God might be thinking about them on any given day.  God already made that clear in John 3:16, “For God so loved...” Not that “For man was so wretched…” or “For man knew God was so angry…”, but “For God so loved…

We don’t need to keep self-assessing God’s love for us. We don’t need to keep wondering what God thinks of us. He already demonstrated that. His bloodshed and resurrection settled that question once and for all. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished.” He was the sacrifice, the Lamb of great price, and we do not need to struggle daily to apply virtues in order to guarantee God’s favor. That’s not the gospel! And it’s not what I want to teach my daughter.

It’s also worth noting that for all its talk of Christian virtue, the character traits in this guide aren’t even taken from Scripture. One would expect, at least, this character-driven type of of morality-based education to be centered around the fruits of the spirit found in Galatians 5 — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control — but this list is never mentioned in this guide. Instead, the ambiguous ideals of “industry”, “virtue”, and “moral sense” are emphasized, as is an excerpt from Tennyson’s Oenone which praises “self-respect, self-knowledge, and self-control”. (Of course, it would not change the spirit of the curriculum even if the list of virtues had been taken directly from the Bible; even the fruits of the spirit are not a way to achieve righteousness. )

Overall, the guide teaches that a person’s goodness is measured by moral tendencies or lack thereof, and teaches that a child’s value and God’s pleasure are measured and determined by how well the child thinks he/she has applied a list of moral virtues. Contrast this with the perspective Rich Mullins sang about in “Let Mercy Lead:

“Aidan, you’re young
but Aidan, you’re growing fast…
…and you’ll need something more
to guide your heart
as you grow into a man

Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs,
and in every footprint that you leave,
there’ll be a drop of grace.

If we can reach
beyond the wisdom of this age
into the foolishness of God,
that foolishness will save
those who believe…

…Aidan the day will come
you’ll run the race
that takes us way beyond
all our trials and all our failures,
and all the good we dream of.
But you can’t see yet where it is you’re heading,
but one day you’ll see
the face of love...”

It’s about mercy, always. It’s about grace, always. It’s about God’s endless love, always. Mercy, grace, and love can’t be quantified. They can’t be put on a checklist, and applied to life. Morality doesn’t set anyone free. Perfection doesn’t set anyone free. Good character doesn’t set anyone free. Only Jesus — the face of love — can do that.

When you’re presenting the world for the first time to five-, six-, or seven-year-olds (the Beautiful Feet guide is intended for grades K-3), you have a serious responsibility. This responsibility is not just to shelter their tender hearts from the violent darkness all around us, but to show them the world and equip them with courage and with faith. I want to teach my daughter that the most courageous people in history were not those with the highest stack of character traits, but those who believed God could overcome darkness. Morality does not overcome darkness. Virtue does not overcome darkness. Only God can do that. And we have to be careful not to oversimplify life to the point that we end up teaching false doctrine.

So perhaps, as my strong and sensitive daughter grows up in this big ol’ world, I’ll say to her as Frederick Buechner said best —

 “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction