“Road Schooling American History: The American Revolution” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, June-August 2018
I’m a public historian by training. While I was in graduate school, I helped K-12 social studies and history teachers figure out how to use primary sources in their classrooms. I’ve worked in archives and museums and used primary sources in my own research. Yet I’ll admit that my first instinct when homeschooling history with my own kids was to turn to the experts—historians, authors, documentarians—rather than letting my children loose on the “real stuff” of history. We visited several museums and historical sites—which were immensely valuable in bringing the past to life—but I taught an entire semester on the colonial period of American history without showing my kids a single land grant, treaty or narrative written by the people who lived through the events we discussed. They are too young to understand the language, I told myself. They won’t appreciate the historical context. We have so much material to cover, we just don’t have the time.
In retrospect, that was a mistake. History is not a passive pursuit: listening to other people tell us what happened in the past and why it mattered. History is interactive, dynamic and ever-changing. Interacting with primary sources allows us to become historians: to hear the voices of those who lived through events in the past, to use our previous knowledge to interpret these voices, and to compare multiple sources to grapple with the complexity of the past. This interaction and interpretation is what makes history FUN!
When we began homeschooling the American Revolution, I was challenged to find a way to bring my 8- and 9-year-old boys up-to-speed on the facts of this period in American history quickly enough that we could spend some time playing with primary sources. My solution was television. We used as our “spine” the animated television series Liberty’s Kids. Although it has been criticized for it’s too-gentle portrayal of slavery, I found the series to be surprisingly historically accurate and absolutely captivating for my kids. We covered the American Revolution in a pretty straight-forward chronological fashion. We would watch an episode or two of Liberty’s Kids, read a relevant book and then either visit a historic site or explore a primary source related to the topic.
We were fortunate to be able to coordinate our study of the American Revolution with a road trip to visit family and friends in New England. While in Massachusetts, we visited Minute Man National Historical Park—location of the battles of Lexington and Concord—and walked in the footsteps of Paul Revere and the minutemen. We visited the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum where the boys spent an afternoon practicing throwing crates of tea off the side of the recreated boat. While at the museum, we were each given a card with biographical information about one of the Sons of Liberty, and we had fun researching what happened to our person after the events of that day. If we had more time, there are a myriad of other sites that we could have visited along Boston’s Freedom Trail, including the home of Paul Revere and the location of the Boston Massacre. While visiting family in Vermont, we took a detour to Fort Ticonderoga in New York—which played a role in three wars in America’s early history—and the kids burned off extra energy running up and down the walls of the fort and pretending to shoot cannons at the other tourists.
Closer to home, we coordinated a visit to George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon with their annual “Revolutionary War Weekend.” My kids were so enthralled with watching the battles and talking to the re-enactors, that we didn’t even bother to tour the house. Several weeks later, we took a wonderful children’s tour of Monticello—home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence—in Charlottesville, followed by an 18th century “period meal” at the nearby Michie Tavern. We ended our unit study with a visit to Yorktown, site of the last major battle of the war. Thanks to Liberty’s Kids, my kids were familiar enough with the events at Yorktown that we were able to march over the redoubts and along the American siege lines and imagine what those last days of the war might have been like for the American, French and British soldiers fighting there.
As for the primary sources that I was determined to use with my kids… I’ll give myself a A for effort and a C for execution. During our study, we read the preambles to both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The language was too complicated for them to really understand and they puzzled over the old-fashioned handwriting for about two seconds. It wasn’t until we watched the movie National Treasure (2004)—where Nicolas Cage finds a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence—that the kids got excited to recognize the document and it’s home in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
We had slightly better luck looking at some period art. The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill and Washington Crossing the Delaware are both well-know paintings that you would likely recognize by sight, if not name. For both paintings, we looked at digital versions online and I asked the boys to describe what they saw happening and who they thought the people depicted might be. We also talked about why paintings like these were made and the issue of perspective/point of view in artwork. I’m not sure how much they really understood, but these are topics I plan to revisit.
I was also able to check “music” off our to-do list when we learned to sing two songs from the American Revolution: “Yankee Doodle” and “In the Days of ’76.” Thanks to the internet, we were able to print out sheet music and spent some time puzzling through the meanings of the lyrics. The kids were particularly tickled to learn that both the Americans and the British sang “Yankee Doodle”—with totally different lyrics and meanings.
If my kids were a bit older—or I had a lot more time—I would also have included in our primary source study the poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Written on the eve of the Civil War by an avowed abolitionist, the poem is terribly (and intentionally) historically inaccurate, yet depicts what most people think they know about that famous night in 1775. With middle or high school students, the poem could lead to wonderful discussions about myth-making, popular culture and how we remember the past. It would also be a great way to transition to a study of the Civil War. Instead, my kids and I wrapped up our study of the American Revolution with several rounds of Professor Noggin’s “American Revolution” card game. We completed this unit almost a year ago, and just last week my youngest put his grandfather to shame by winning the game by a landslide. I’ll consider that a success!
Heather Cole is a writer, historian and homeschooling mom of two 10-year-old boys. She has worked as a museum educator, ran a state-wide oral history project and worked on federal grants to train K-12 teachers on using local history resources in the classroom. She and her family moved to Staunton from the Boston area in 2014 and started homeschooling the following year.