Caving in Virginia

caving5“Roads Scholars: Caving in Virginia” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, September-October 2019

I am in the dark, dozens of feet underground, covered by mud and perched on a ledge alongside a small group of family and friends. To get here, I lowered myself by rope into a ditch, then crawled on my belly through the cave entrance. We’ve been scrambling over and under rock formations for the past hour. All I can see is the circle that my headlamp illuminates as I turn my head from side-to-side. I have absolutely no idea where we are or how to get out. And our guide has just handed the only map of the cave to my 9-year-old son. Needless to say, I’m a little nervous.

The Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia are dotted with hundreds of caves, formed over centuries by rainwater seeping through the ground and dissolving pockets in the limestone that comprises much of the landscape. Most of the caves are what spelunkers call “wild”—no lights, no handrails, no paved trails—and are located on private land. However, with a licensed guide and the proper equipment, many of these caves can be explored by the novice hiker.

We were first introduced to wild caving through trips offers by our local Recreation Department. A few months later, we organized a group and hired certified guide Lester Zook of Wild Guyde Adventures (wildguyde.com) to take us on a half-day adventure. The spelunkers in our group ranged in age from eight to 65 years old and were all comfortable hiking above ground. We wore helmets, head-lamps and hiking shoes, along with an outer layer of clothing that could (and did) get muddy. Lester spent a lot of time talking about cave safety, taught us how to read a cave map and even the youngest in our group got a chance to navigate. While the formations in the wild cave we explored were not as striking as those in commercial caves, it was more than made up for by the feeling of exploring undiscovered territory.

Most of the trek was hiking upright—on par with many of the moderate trails we’d hiked in Virginia and Arizona. We found that we moved pretty slowly and used our hands a lot more to help us through the cave, as much because the rocks were wet as because it was a difficult trek. We got used to the darkness pretty quickly, and I found the 55 degree temperature perfect. There were a few places where we had to squeeze through smaller spaces or crawl on our knees, so wild caving is certainly not for folks prone to claustrophobia or with health issues.

You should NEVER enter a cave without an experienced guide and the correct equipment. Several municipal recreation departments in the Shenandoah Valley offer guided caving trips for $20-40 per person. There are also several certified guides who lead wild caving treks for small groups, starting at a similar price per person. Search online for “Virginia cave adventures” or ask for a referral at your local hiking outfitter.

When we finally emerged into the sunlight a few hours later, we were exhausted and filthy, but proud of what we’d accomplished and most of us excited to go caving again. (My mom said she’d stick to hiking the desert canyons of Arizona.) We stripped off our outermost layer and threw them into a bag to await our next wild underground adventure.

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SIDEBAR

If crawling on your belly through the mud in the dark is not your idea of fun, then that’s a shame. But you can still see some of Virginia’s amazing underground rock formations by touring a commercial cave. The caverns listed below are fully lit and you will be walking along a paved or gravel pathway, usually with hand railings and stairs. Commercial cave tours generally last one to one-and-a-half hours and rates are $5-$15 for kids, $15-25 for adults. Even with the commercial caverns, the paths tend to be damp and temperatures average 55 degrees year round, so make sure to wear sneakers and bring a sweatshirt. Most of Virginia’s commercial caves are located in the Shenandoah Valley and are listed roughly north to south.

Skyline Caverns, Front Royal: skylinecaverns.com

Skyline is the northernmost commercial cavern in Virginia, located just outside of Front Royal. This cavern includes three underground streams and a waterfall and is one of the only places where you can see a rare needle-like crystal formation called an anthodite. While at Skyline Caverns, visitors can also ride a miniature train and go through a mirror maze.

Shenandoah Caverns, Quicksburg: shenandoahcaverns.com

Shenandoah Caverns is located on Interstate 81 between New Market and Mt. Jackson. It is the only Virginia cavern with an elevator, although you’ll still need to do lots of walking once you get inside. Some of the cool formations at Shenandoah Caverns include Rainbow Lake and formations that look like strips of bacon. Adjacent to the cave are two museums that feature old parade floats and antique department store window displays.

Luray Caverns, Luray: luraycaverns.com 

If you’re driving along Interstate 81 through the Shenandoah Valley, you can’t miss the numerous billboards advertising Luray Caverns, the largest cavern in the eastern United States. Tours of Luray Caverns are mostly stroller-friendly and one of the neat features inside is a stalacpipe organ: a musical instrument made of stalactites. Visitors can make a day of visiting Luray, with an adjacent garden maze, rope adventure park and car museum. Luray Caverns offers a homeschool week in March, and the education page of their website has some geology experiments for kids.

Endless Caverns, New Market: endlesscaverns.com

You’ll know you’re close to this cave when you can see the Hollywood-style sign in the mountains to the east. This is one of two caverns in Virginia to have the unusual shield formations inside. There is a campground on site, in case you want to make a weekend of it and explore some of the historic sites in New Market. Please note, however, that Endless Caverns is closed from mid-November to April 1 and strollers are not permitted on the tours.

Grand Caverns, Grottos: grandcaverns.com

Grand Caverns is our family’s favorite of the Shenandoah Valley caves, both because of the interesting formations and because it’s the closest commercial cave to our Staunton home. There is a small museum on-site and the adjacent municipal park has a playground and outdoor swimming pool. One weekend in early December, Grand Caverns hosts Christmas caroling in the caverns, a popular event. For folks who want something more adventurous than a commercial tour, once a month Grand offers tours of an adjacent cave that has been in disuse since the early 1900s. The Fountain Cave Adventure Tour takes visitors ages 12 years and older along a rugged 100-year-old pathway and requires the use of headlamps (and advance reservations).

Natural Bridge Caverns, Natural Bridge: naturalbridgeva.com/caverns.html

Natural Bridges Caverns is next to the state park complex that includes Natural Bridge and the Monacan Living History Exhibit, the three sites combining to make for a nice day trip. The caverns are open from March through November only, and they offer a homeschool day in the fall.

Dixie Caverns, Salem: dixiecaverns.com

Dixie Caverns is located in Salem, about 20 minutes west of Roanoke. Among its attractions is a wedding bell formation, under which you can get married—with advanced notice.The caverns are adjacent to a campground and an antique mall.

Gap Caverns, Ewing: nps.gov/cuga

Gap Caverns is located within the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, encompassing portions of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. The cave tours are described as moderately strenuous and children under the age of five years are not permitted. At the time of writing, bats in Gap Caverns have been found to have White-nose Syndrome, a fungal infection that is harmless to humans but life-threatening and very contagious to bats. See the NPS website for details on what to wear for a tour. Gap Caverns is open April through September and there are a variety of hiking, camping and Junior Ranger programs in the park. 

Heather Cole wrangles two adventure-loving boys in Staunton, Virginia. She is working on an article about homeschoolers hiking the Appalachian Trail. If you and your kids have thru-hiked, slack-hiked or overnight-hiked on the AT, send her an email.

Westward Expansion

IMG_0358“Road Tripping American History: Westward Expansion” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, September-October 2019

Our homeschool covered the story of westward expansion in two week-long trips to Arizona and Wyoming. There are a number of other places we could have gone, but those coincided well with a visit to family in Phoenix and a family get-together at Yellowstone National Park. (Part of successful road schooling is figuring out how to do it as inexpensively as possible!)

Wyoming & The Oregon Trail

We spent the weeks prior to our trip to Wyoming reading historical fiction about the emigrants who traveled west on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails during the mid-19th century. Some of our favorite included: Bonanza Girl by Patricia Beatty, Aunt Clara Brown: Official Pioneer by Linda Lowery (a rare portrayal of an African American pioneer) and the graphic novel Donner Dinner Party by Nathan Hale. We also read books written from the Native American perspective: Sing Down the Moon by Scott O’Dell (a fictionalized account of the Navajo’s forced migration from their homeland) and Buffalo Song by Joseph Bruchac (a true story about how the Salish tribe helped save the buffalo after their near-extinction by white settlers). Older students might enjoy watching Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary The West, or any of the collections of letters written by westward travelers. For the plane or car ride, you can’t beat the retro Oregon Trail video game, now available online or in a handheld format at some toy stores.

We flew into Denver, Colorado and drove north to Wyoming, stopping first where tens of thousands of westward emigrants stopped: at Fort Laramie. This trading post-turned-military garrison is now a National Historic Site and has a number of restored buildings that date to the period of westward migration. After a tour, we stopped at the post store for a few bottles of sarsaparilla.

Not far from Fort Laramie is one of the best-preserved sections of the original Oregon Trail: the Guernsey Ruts. Standing in the marks cut by thousands of covered wagons through the sandstone rock gives one a powerful sense of just how many people traveled along the trail. Nearby, and not to be missed, is Register Cliff—where emigrants carved their names in the rock as they passed.

From Guernsey, we proceeded to the cowboy town of Casper and the National Historical Trails Interpretive Center. Perched on a hill overlooking the town, the interpretive center has sweeping views of what remains of the scrubland and the North Platte River that emigrants traversed. Inside the free museum are exhibits on the trails, the pioneers and the Native American tribes they encountered. There are also activities where visitors can select what items they would bring with them, try pulling a Mormon hand-cart and take a virtual reality trip across a river on a covered wagon. 

But to really experience what it might have been like to be a westward pioneer, nothing beats an actual covered-wagon trip on Oregon Trail. We opted for a bumpy two-hour trek in a reproduction Conestoga wagon, led by the Casper outfitter Historic Trails West. At one point we held our breath and clung to the side of the wagon as our guide expertly navigated us over a fairly modest hill. The nerve-wracking experience helped us understand why so many pioneers opted to walk alongside their wagons instead!

Tombstone, Arizona: The Wild, Wild West

When one thinks of the wild West, likely one of the first things that comes to mind is the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral—immortalized by dozens of books and movies. Many of those are more legend than truth, but if you’re looking for a town that captures the feeling of a frontier town, you can’t go wrong with Tombstone, Arizona.

Tombstone is located about an hour southeast of Tucson, the nearest major airport. The historic part of downtown has been recreated into a circa 1881 frontier town. (Think a wild west Williamsburg, without quite as much attention to historical accuracy.) The infamous shootout is reenacted four times per day near the site of the actual event. There is also a small museum and film about the events of October 26, 1881. Several of the buildings along historic Allen Street date to the 1880s and have been turned into themed shops or family-friendly saloons. There’s even a said-to-be-haunted historic theater where visitors can search for bullet holes in the walls left by visiting outlaws.

Part of the story of westward expansion is that many of the towns that sprung up around mines and railroad lines did not survive into the 21st century. One such ghost town is Fairbank, located a short drive from Tombstone. Visitors can take a short hike around the former town site and see the remains of the post office and general store. An old schoolhouse has also been partially restored and is sometimes open as a visitor center and gift shop.

Before driving south to Tombstone and Fairbank, we spent several days sightseeing in Tucson. The Arizona History Museum had several great kid-friendly exhibits about the west, including one about Apache leader Geronimo and a recreation of a copper mine. And if you didn’t see enough gunfights in Tombstone, the nearby theme park Old Tucson offers a number of “western experiences” including stunt shows and can-can dancers.

My kids’ favorite part of our westward expansion unit was learning about the outlaws and lawmen. Among the various tall tales, two favorite mostly-nonfiction books were The Legend of Bass Reeves: Being the True and Fictional Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West by Gary Paulsen and Bad Guys: True Stories of Legendary Gunslingers, Sidewinders, Fourflushers, Drygulchers, Bushwhackers, Freebooters, and Downright Bad Guys and Gals of the Wild West by Andrew Glass. The latter added some interesting new lingo to our vocabulary!

Heather Cole is dough boxer, biscuit roller and school marm to a pair of blue belly buttons who take a cotton to seeing the elephant without spending a heap of Lincoln skins. 

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Arizona

Arizona History Museum, Tucson, AZ: arizonahistoricalsociety.org

Fairbank Historic Town Site, AZ: blm.gov/visit/fairbank-historic-townsite

O.K. Corral, Tombstone, AZ: http://www.ok-corral.com

Old Tucson, Tucson, AZ: oldtucson.com

Wyoming

Fort Laramie, WY: nps.gov/fola

Guernsey Ruts & Register Cliff, Guernsey State Park, WY: wyoparks.state.wy.us

Historic Trails West, Casper, WY: historictrailswest.com

National Historical Trails Interpretive Center, Casper, WY: nhtcf.org

Oregon Trail video game: archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990

Eat Your Way Across VA

“Roads Scholar: Eat Your Way Across VA” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, March-May 2019

AidenatMtCrawford1On a trip through Vermont many (pre-kid) years ago, my husband and I stopped at so many dairies, farm stores and breweries that we joked that we could live for a week on free samples. While I don’t advocate taking advantage of small, family-run businesses, I do advocate eating local as much as possible. And it’s so much more fun if you can see how your food is made, or even make it yourself. In our homeschool, we count food field trips as science, home economics, math… even history. To that end, here are some family-friendly destinations for your own food tour across Virginia.

Every food tour should begin with chocolate! The Arlington store for Artisan Confections (artisanconfections.com) is also their production kitchen, so you can often see the chocolatiers at work. If you want to make sure, the store holds “demonstration and tasting nights” where you can make your own delicious chocolate goodies. Demonstration nights are $30 per person and are for ages 13 years and up.

Another option for your chocolate fix is Gearharts Fine Chocolates (gearhartschocolates.com) in Charlottesville, which offers private tours and tastings, starting at $20 per person.

The only thing better than chocolate is an entire county devoted to liquid gold! For two magical weekends a year (the second and third weekends of March), the towns of Monterey and McDowell host the Highland Maple Festival (highlandcounty.org/events/maple-festival). In addition to local businesses selling pancake breakfasts, maple donuts and other sweet treats, the streets are usually packed with artisans and vendors of all types. But the best part of the weekend is visiting the sugar shacks where the sap is tapped from local maple trees and boiled down into thick syrup. The festival website has a map with hours and directions to the sugar shacks and other activities.

If you bring home some maple syrup and want to try making your own buckwheat pancakes, you may want to pick up some stone-ground flour at Wade’s Mill (wadesmill.com) in Raphine. Wade’s Mill is the oldest, continuously operating commercial grist mill surviving in the Shenandoah Valley. Visitors can “mill around” three floors of historic milling equipment and learn about the history and process of traditional stone-ground milling. They operate the historic water wheel Saturdays 10 a.m.-noon and Sundays 3-5 p.m. between March 31 and December 23. Admission and parking are free. They will do group tours with advance reservations and visitors can purchase stone-ground flours and mixes on site.

Another historical mill is George Washington’s Gristmill in Mt. Vernon (mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/gristmill). They are open April-October and tickets are included with general admission to Mt. Vernon. Their website has some nice videos on the milling process and a virtual tour.

If you still haven’t had enough sugar, visit Red Rocker Candy (redrockercandy.com) in Troy to watch them make their candy-coated pretzels and nuts. Their factory store is open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday 12-5 p.m. and offers free samples. During the summer they also have kids days where, for a small fee, kids can make candy to take home.

Once your sugar craving is sated, what about that salty one? Route 11 Potato Chips (rt11.com) in Mount Jackson fries up an assortment of flavored potato chips for your crunching pleasure. Although you can’t walk through the factory, their retail store has large windows that allow visitors to see the process of making potato chips and staff is happy to answer questions and offer free samples. They recommend you call in advance to make sure they are cooking on the day you wish to visit: 540-477-9664.

Of course you’ll need something to wash down all those treats. Perhaps a tall glass of fresh milk from Mt. Crawford Creamery (mtcrawfordcreamery.com) in Mt. Crawford? Although visitors are not allowed in the processing plant, if you time your visit right you may get to see the Holstein and Jersey cows being milked. (Currently they’re milking around 3:30 p.m.) The creamery also offers organized tours of the dairy and free samples in the farm store. If you visit in the summertime, they have a new ice cream parlor. The creamery is open Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

For another option in the Piedmont region, visit Richland’s Dairy Farm (richlandsdairyfarm.com) in Blackstone. They offer scheduled tours, field trips and a homeschool day in the fall.

If you’re feeling the need to balance out your diet with some healthier food, I’ll remind you that Virginia also has a myriad of pick-your-own farms offering local produce from March through November. Many of the larger farms and orchards offer field trips or an educational component to your visit. For listings, visit: pickyourown.org/VA.htm or vdacs.virginia.gov/vagrown.

Finally, if the grown-ups in your family want to take an adults-only field trip, I’ll suggest this website as a starting point: virginia.org/directory/wineriesandbreweries.

What are your favorite Virginia food destinations? Click on over to the VAHomeschoolers community Facebook page (facebook.com/groups/virginia.homeschooling) to let us know.

Heather Cole edits the Roads Scholars column and wants to know about YOUR favorite Virginia field trip destinations. Email your tips or comments to VoiceEditor@VaHomeschoolers.org attn: Roads Scholars.

Off the Beaten Path in Williamsburg

“Roads Scholar: Off the Beaten Path in Williamsburg” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, January-February 2019

The annual Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers Conference is moving to Williamsburg this spring. For those of you bringing your family (and we hope you do!), here are some things to do in the area before or after the conference.

The Usual Suspects

If you have not yet been to Colonial Williamsburg or the historic sites of Jamestown and Yorktown, then by all means put them on your list. If you visit Jamestown or Yorktown, make sure to ask about the homeschool discount. But if you’re looking for some things a bit off the beaten path…

Free Activities

If the weather is good and your little ones need to burn off some extra energy, Williamsburg has two parks that locals recommend. Freedom Park is located about 10 miles from the conference hotel and is open daily until sunset. There is a playground, two miles of hiking trails and more than 20 miles of mountain biking trails in the park. Freedom Park is also home to the free Williamsburg Botanical Gardens and a Treetop Adventure Course ($28-58 per person). Veterans Park, located about six miles from the conference hotel, is open daily until 10:00 p.m. and is home to Kidsburg, a 30,000-square-foot lighted playground. It also has lighted basketball and tennis courts and Wifi.

Another option for good weather is the Yorktown Beach. Although March will probably be too cold for swimming (except for my kids!), you can take a stroll along the mile-long pedestrian Riverwalk or watch the kids play in the sand. Or visit the nearby Fishing Pier and try your hand at fishing, crabbing or spotting dolphins. No fishing license is required for fishing at the pier.

The College of William and Mary, located adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg, is also worth a visit, if for no other reason than to admire the 18th century buildings or throw a frisbee in the sunken garden in front of the historic Wren Building. Older students may be interested in taking a tour of the college, led by current students. Admissions information sessions and tours are offered twice-daily on weekdays and select weekends. See their website for details.

There are several local businesses providing boat rentals or tours, but for a free trip across the James River, checkout the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry. The car ferry runs from the end of Rte. 31 at the Jamestown Settlement, across the river and back. The ferry runs 24 hours per day, 365 days per year and you can take a car across or ride as a passenger. (But note that there is nowhere to park your car near the ferry dock.) The crossing is 15-20 minutes in each direction.

Indoor Play Areas

If the weather is crummy, the Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex (WISC) and Bounce House/Laser Tag offer pay-to-play rock climbing, laser tag, bounce houses and other activities. WISC is open daily until 8:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays. Admission is $20 per person for 90 minutes, but they offer a homeschool discount during the day on weekdays and a family discount on Sundays. Bounce House/Laser Tag admissions is $9-15 per person and they are open until 8:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Newport News/Hampton

If you’re willing to travel a bit further, the Newport News/Hampton area is about a 30-minute drive from Williamsburg and has several additional family-friendly options.

Got a kid interested in tanks and big guns? The U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Joint Base Langley-Eustis might be worth a visit. Admission and parking are free, although you will be required to show identification and check in at the Guard House on base in order to visit. See their website for details on what is required. The museum is open Tuesday thru Saturday from 9:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

What about ships or the Civil War? The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News has a huge collection of maritime-related artifacts including ship models, scrimshaw and artwork. The museum is also home to a full-scale replica of the USS Monitor, the Civil War ironclad ship, and a theater showing maritime-related films. Best of all, the museum just reduced their admission price to $1 for all. ($6 additional for the movie theater.) The museum is open daily until 5:00 p.m.

Or is your kiddo obsessed with space exploration? The Virginia Air & Space Center at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton has a number of interactive exhibits for aspiring scientists, as well as historic spacecraft and an IMAX theater. There is also a Ham Radio station in the museum and an exhibit especially for preschoolers. Admission starts at $19.50 for adults, $16 for children.

Thanks to the homeschoolers on Facebook who recommended their favorite Williamsburg-area activities. Click on over to The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers’ page for more suggestions or to share your own: facebook.com/groups/virginia.homeschooling/.

Heather Cole edits the Roads Scholars column and is always looking for suggestions on places to visit in Virginia (and beyond) that are off the beaten path. She homeschools her 10- and 11-year-old boys and can be reached at VoiceEditor@vahomeschoolers.org attn: Roads Scholars.

WEBSITES

Bounce House/Laser Tag: bouncehouselasertag.com

College of William & Mary: wm.edu/about/visiting/

Colonial Williamsburg: colonialwilliamsburg.com

Freedom Park: jamescitycountyva.gov/1324/Freedom-Park

Historic Jamestown: historicjamestowne.org

Jamestown Settlement: historyisfun.org

Jamestown-Scotland Ferry: virginiadot.org/travel/ferry-jamestown.asp

Mariners’ Museum: marinersmuseum.org

U.S. Army Transportation Museum: transportation.army.mil/museum/

Veterans Park: tinyurl.com/ycd232o3

Virginia Air & Space Center: vasc.org

Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex: thewisc.com

Yorktown Battlefield, Yorktown, VA: nps.gov/york

Yorktown Beach & Fishing Pier: visityorktown.org/163/Outdoor-Fun

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Visiting Yellowstone

“Visiting Yellowstone: Our First National Park” by Heather S. Cole. 
VA Homeschoolers Voice, January-February 2019.

ystone5The cold, dark days of winter are the perfect time to plan an escape to somewhere warmer. For your 2019 adventures, let me humbly suggest someplace hot. Really hot. Like the middle of a supervolcano.

Last fall, our extended family spent two weeks in Wyoming, including a week in one of the world’s largest volcanic fields: Yellowstone National Park. We had spent several weeks prior to the trip learning about geysers, hot springs and fumaroles, but it did not come close to preparing us for the otherworldly experience of walking through a field of gurgling mud pots and technicolor hot springs. Or watching in amazement as a mama bison and her baby suddenly appeared out of a haze of sulphur-stinking clouds. Or peering eagerly through binoculars to watch a trio of grizzly bears make their way along a stream in search of the last wild berries of the season. It was truly the trip of a lifetime.

Yellowstone was founded as the world’s first national park in 1872. For decades, European explorers had been sharing tales of a land in the west where the earth trembled and roared like thunder, where springs boiled and spit water a hundred feet into the air. But it wasn’t until a 1871 U.S. Geological Survey expedition—accompanied by artist Thomas Moran and photographer William H. Jackson—returned with documentation of this strange land that efforts were made to preserve this unique place. Over the next century, Yellowstone became a proving ground for the changing ideas of what a national park should be: a playground for the wealthy? A recreation of some idyllic pre-industrial wilderness? Or something in-between? There are several books that detail the complicated history of the park—including the removal and reintroduction of wolves and the debate over the role of wildfire in the park. Empire of Shadows by George Black and Engineering Eden by Jordan Fisher Smith are my recommendations for adults; the National Geographic documentary Wolves: A Legend Returns to Yellowstone is great for all ages.

Things to See

The thermal features that have amazed visitors for centuries exist because the bulk of Yellowstone National Park sits on land that was subject to huge volcanic eruptions over the past two million years. Some 630,000 years ago, the center of this supervolcano collapsed, forming what is known as the Yellowstone Caldera: a 1500-square-mile crater that sits atop a bed of molten lava. It is the heat from this lava, combined with water and particular types of rock formations, that fuel the geysers, hot springs and other thermal features. Old Faithful is the most famous of Yellowstone’s geysers, but there are thousands of other thermal features throughout the park.

A highlight of our trip to Yellowstone was waiting for the eruption of the world’s largest geyser: Steamboat Geyser. Unlike Old Faithful, which erupts just about every 70 minutes, Steamboat has gone as long as 50 years between eruptions. Beginning in the spring of 2018, however, Steamboat started erupting every five to seven days. We happened by Steamboat on day five of it’s cycle and spent some time with a group of geyser gazers who had camped out in anticipation of the next eruption. We stopped by again on day six, with no luck. That cycle, Steamboat erupted in the early morning of day seven; we missed the actual eruption, but did see (and get drenched by) the jets of steam that the geyser was still sending into the air several hours later.

In addition to the amazing thermal features, folks go to Yellowstone to see the wildlife. And we certainly did. On our first morning in the park we saw bison, elk and moose—all close enough that we needed to remind the kids that we were required to stay at least 25 yards away. A few days later, a group of human-habituated female moose forced us to pack up and relocate our lunch when they wandered too close to our picnic table. And on our final day in the park, we finally encountered a Yellowstone traffic jam, courtesy of a herd of bison making their way from one side of the road to the other. We saw so much wildlife that one day, that when we saw a group of people by the side of the road with binoculars (a telltale sign that there is something interesting nearby), we weren’t going to bother to pull over until we overheard the magic word “bear.” It turned out that the wildlife watchers had spotted a mama grizzly bear and her two cubs—well worth a half-hour detour from our plans for the day.

Planning Your Trip

We went to Yellowstone in early September—the weather was pleasant during the day, but cool enough that we required hats and gloves in the early morning and after dark. Apparently the park is packed during the months of July and August; several rangers encouraged us to return to the park during the winter when wildlife are easiest to spot against a snowy background.

Although it is, in theory, possible to drive through the park in a day, you would only barely see the highlights of the park and one bison-caused traffic jam could derail your entire schedule. The 3,471-square-mile park is roughly divided into quadrants by park roads, and we tried to visit one quadrant each day, with repeat trips to the centrally-located Canyon Village area for special ranger programs and souvenir shopping. One week was enough time to see most of what we wanted to see, with the caveat that we did not have time to do any backcountry hiking or water activities. We also did not partake in any of the concessionaire-led programs or tours, nor did we eat at any of the restaurants in the park. (Although, had we been without kids, I definitely would have had a nice dinner at the Old Faithful Inn.)

There are lots of options for lodging in the park, from rustic camping to a modern hotel. We opted for an AirB&B in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, just outside the western entrance to the park. It allowed us to cook our own meals and do laundry, while also having quick access to the park.

Regarding transportation: you absolutely need a personal vehicle to tour Yellowstone. We saw lots of tourbuses, but busses and RVs were not permitted on some of the smaller roads in the park (which had the best thermal features). We wanted to see several other sights in Wyoming, so we opted to fly into Denver International Airport and rented a car there to drive to Yellowstone. Salt Lake City, Utah, Jackson and Cody, Wyoming are also also options for airports. Or you could drive there from Virginia—in which case we want you to write about that trip for VaHomeschoolers Voice!

Teaching Resources

If you are like me and feel like your kids need some “book learning” to go with all their experiential education, I recommend you start with the official Yellowstone National Park website (nps.gov/yell). They have videos, fact sheets and activities that can be done at home before your trip. Once at Yellowstone, kids can complete both Junior Ranger and Young Scientist booklets to earn patches. If you want something more formal, the National Park Service’s “Teaching with Historic Places” website (nps.gov/subjects/teachingwithhistoricplaces) has several Yellowstone-related lesson plans and the Yellowstone Forever online bookstore (shop.yellowstone.org) has a wide selection of books about the park, including kids books.

Heather Cole is the mom of 10- and 11-year-old boys, neither of whom fell into any thermal features while in Yellowstone. She credits this to reading them the introductory chapter of Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park.

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Road Schooling Virginian Presidents

“Road Schooling the Homes of Virginian Presidents” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, November-December 2018

colegeorgewashingtonPop quiz: What state was birthplace to the greatest number of U.S. presidents? If you said Virginia, you’re right. Bonus points if you can name all eight presidents and their Old Dominion homes.

As a recent transplant, I was intrigued to come across this bit of trivia a few months ago. We had already visited Mount Vernon and Monticello, so why not make a whole unit study of Virginia presidents? It seemed like a good way to spend a summer (or winter) break. We grabbed some kid-friendly biographies and hit the road.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, home of our first president, is located on the Potomac River south of the Washington, D.C. metro area. We went there during their Revolutionary War Weekend in early May and had so much fun talking to re-enactors and watching battles that we never actually made it on the house tour!

Mount Vernon offers a variety of thematic tours, demonstrations and children’s activities throughout the year. Next time we plan to go on their National Treasure Tour that takes visitors behind-the-scenes and to some of the locations that were in the 2007 Disney movie of the same name. The museum also offers discounted homeschool days in the spring and fall.

The Mount Vernon website has a nice virtual tour of the estate, background information on Washington, lesson plans and thematic homeschool guides.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence called Charlottesville home. We paired our visit to Monticello with lunch at the nearby Mitchie Tavern, which serves a buffet-style lunch in an 18th century tavern, complete with period-costumed wait staff. If the weather is warm, you could also pack a picnic and have lunch on the grounds of the Jefferson-designed Rotunda at the University of Virginia, just a short drive away.

Monticello offers a number of tours, including those focused on the lives of the enslaved residents of the estate. We took the Family Friendly Tour, which is offered during late December and select other times throughout the year. The tour guide began by giving each child an object related to Jefferson to hold (an oversized nickel, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a quill pen), then asked the children to share their object with the rest of the group at a relevant point in the tour. This ingenious tactic served the dual purpose of keeping little hands busy and engaging the kids in the tour.

Monticello also hosts a Home Educators’ Day in the fall and their website has background information and lesson plans on Jefferson.

James Madison’s Montpelier

Thirty miles northeast of Charlottesville, near the town of Orange, is the home of our fourth president, James Madison. Best remembered as architect and promoter of the US Constitution, Madison also served in our first Congress prior to being elected president in 1808.

Montpelier offers a variety of thematic tours, and we chose their family tour: Discovering Montpelier. This tour was our absolute favorite of all the presidential home tours. Rather than marching through the details of Madison’s biography, this tour focused instead on how historians know the things they do about the past. In each room, the tour guide shared an artifact from Madison’s life (a letter, a painting, a scrap of wallpaper) and talked about how it was discovered and how it shed light on something about him, his family or the house. The guide ended the tour by reminding us that archaeologists continue to make discoveries about the house, and sent us to their Archaeological Lab to see how newly discovered artifacts are cleaned, labeled and stored.

My 10-year-old was absolutely enthralled by that idea that he, too, could make an archaeological discovery. When he found a bit of metal half-buried near the Montpelier parking lot, he was ready to launch a full-scale dig to uncover more artifacts. I told him to start saving his allowance: Montpelier offers week-long “expeditions” where kids (ages 12+ and accompanied by a parent) can work alongside professional archaeologists on an actual dig on the grounds of Montpelier. The Montpelier website has information about this and other educational programs at the estate, as well as several articles relating to Madison and the US Constitution.

James Monroe’s Highland

It’s one thing for a kid to uncover a previously-overlooked metal artifact, but what happens when the discovery is a whole new building? The staff at James Monroe’s Highland faced just this dilemma in 2016, when an archaeological dig uncovered the foundation of a 1799 building under the front garden. It turns out that the building they had been interpreting as our fifth president’s home was not his original home, but instead a smaller guest house on the estate. (The original home burned down after Monroe sold the property.)

The tour of Highland focused on the varied accomplishments of our fifth president: Revolutionary War veteran, Virginia governor, ambassador, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase. Staff explained that they are hoping to undertake a larger archaeological dig to learn more about Monroe’s original home and have recently rolled-out a “augmented reality” tour to give visitors an idea of how the estate may have looked during Monroe’s life.

Highland is located in Charlottesville, just a short drive from Monticello. The museum does not currently offer specialized family tours, but can do a discounted school group tour for ten or more people.

William Henry Harrison’s Berkeley Plantation

William Henry Harrison, our ninth president, is notorious for serving the shortest term in office (a mere 31 days) and being the first US president to die in office (of what was then believed to be pneumonia). I was eager to see how interpreters at his Charles City birthplace would tell the story of his brief presidency.

The 45-minute tour of Berkeley Plantation actually made only cursory mention of Harrison and, instead, focused on telling the fascinating history of the colonial-era estate, which was also the birthplace of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and served as a Union encampment during the Civil War. The museum, located on the James River between Richmond and Williamsburg, offers a kids scavenger hunt and discounted homeschool events twice a year.

John Tyler’s Sherwood Forest

The home of our 10th president, John Tyler, is located just a few miles down a winding Rte. 5 from Berkeley Plantation. Sherwood Forest was purchased by Tyler in 1842 and is currently owned by his grandson. (A great mathematical exercise would be to figure out how that is possible. Hint: it involves second marriages!) The house is only open for tours by appointment, but visitors can take a self-guided tour of the grounds. The highlight of our walk around Sherwood Forest, according to my kids, was their encounter with the Tyler family cat: “We met the grand-cat of a president!”

Zachary Taylor’s Montebello

Our 12th president was born in Orange County, but just barely. His father was in the process of moving the family to Kentucky when some of their traveling companions contracted measles. The whole group was quarantined, and took up temporary residence on an estate named Montebello, near Gordonsville, where Taylor was born. The actual house is no longer standing, but is marked by a historical marker.

Woodrow Wilson’s Birthplace

The most recent president born in Virginia was Woodrow Wilson. Born in Staunton, he served as our 28th president from 1913-1921. My kids toured his Staunton home through a one-day class offered by the Staunton Recreation Department. The highlights of the tour, according to my kids, were seeing Wilson’s “cool car” (a 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine) and the guns in the museum’s World War I exhibition.

Visits to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum include a guided tour of the house where he was born and self-guided explorations of the adjacent museum exhibits about Wilson’s life and presidency. The museum does not currently offer specialized family tours or homeschool programs, but does have several kid-friendly museum scavenger hunts.

Heather Cole is based in Staunton and homeschools her boys all over Virginia. She is the new editor of the “Roads Scholars” column and wants to hear from you about the best field trip destinations in Virginia. What are your favorite places to visit? What are the “hidden secrets” in your hometown? Do you have a favorite museum, beach or historic site that you’d like to share? Email your tips to: VoiceEditor@VaHomeschoolers.org.

 

When Your Baby Comes Back

“When Your Baby Comes Back” by Heather S. Cole
Fostering Families Today, July/August 2018 & September/October 2018

PART ONE

The veteran foster parents in my online support group all said the same thing: I should mourn my loss and move on. Even if Jackson came back into foster care, they said, it would be better for me not to know. They warned me that he would not be the same child. That he wouldn’t remember me. That the intervening weeks or months would transform him from a happy, easygoing toddler into an angry, detached stranger.

Yet, still I wished, prayed, imagined the phone call from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) asking if we’d take him back. I crafted in my mind a story that would leave no question as to Jackson’s future. There would be a late night brawl, maybe an overdose; the adults would be arrested, the sleeping children whisked into a social worker’s waiting car. I spared no sympathy for Jackson’s biological parents. I just wanted enough evidence for DCF to be able to permanently terminate their parental rights so that he could come back home for good.

In the fall of 2007, my husband and I welcomed into our family a 10-month-old baby boy who had been in foster care since shortly after his birth. Jackson was our first child. He was the light of our lives and our son in every way but one: the legal one. DCF was at the beginning of the long legal process to terminate his birth parents’ parental rights, but assured us that it would just be a matter of time before we could finalize Jackson’s adoption.

Almost a year later — after months of delays, postponements, continuances and lawyer reassignments — a family court judge determined that DCF had failed to prove Jackson’s birthparents unfit. Ten days after the judge’s decision, we loaded Jackson’s things into the trunk of a social worker’s car, buckled him carefully into an unfamiliar car seat, and said goodbye.

At first we sustained ourselves with the belief that Jackson’s departure was only temporary. His birthmother had a newborn baby that she was, reportedly, barely able to manage. She had no job, no family support, a history of domestic violence with her live-in boyfriend and a pretty serious substance abuse problem. We figured that one long, hot summer weekend in public housing with two children under the age of 2 would do her in. They’d get drunk or high, get in a fight, the police would be called and our little boy would be back in our arms before his last sippy cup of milk had a chance to sour in our fridge. We kept his crib set up, his car seat strapped into the back of our Subaru, his tiny toothbrush in its holder next to the sink. Then we waited. And waited. And scoured the police logs in the local newspaper.

Summer turned to fall, and then to winter. Slowly, I began packing keepsakes into a plastic bin in the attic: photographs, board books, a pair of tiny faux-leather shoes. The car seat came out when we needed room for visiting relatives, as did the crib. When our social worker started emailing with information on other children available for adoption, we updated our paperwork and said yes. We finalized our son Charlie’s adoption in 2009 and brought home our son AJ in 2011. We were parents again, to two vibrant, active, beautiful toddlers whom we never would have met if Jackson had stayed. Yet, even as we moved on as a family of four, we insisted that our social worker keep our homestudy active. Just in case. In the end, it would be nearly four years before we would set eyes on Jackson again.

It was the spring of 2012 when we finally got the call from DCF. I recognized the number on my cell phone and knew instantly what it meant. My heart pounded as I answered, but there was no hesitation in my response: of course we would take Jackson. And, yes, his younger brother, too. I would like to say that I took a few moments to consider the impact their arrival would have on our other two children. I wish I would have at least called my husband at work and let his logic temper my emotions. Instead I rushed home, the only thought pounding through my brain: He’s coming back. My baby’s finally coming back.

A few hours later, the four of us were sitting around the dining room table, lingering over a frozen lasagna dinner that none of us had really tasted, when finally a brown Dodge Caravan pulled into the driveway. My chest tightened as we all scrambled from our seats to the front door.

“Let me go first,” I whispered, gently pushing past my husband and children and stumbling down the front steps.

It was dusk, the streetlights just starting to come on, with a light drizzle of rain. My hand shook as I opened the car door and peered into the backseat. The first thing I saw was a head of blonde curls. Patrick. We had seen him just once before, during his birthparents’ trial. I had commented then on his curly blonde hair — how much he looked like his father. The child nearest to me had matching blonde hair, but straight, with just a slight wave where it touched the nape of his neck. He had already climbed out of his car seat and was rummaging on the floor gathering up papers and crayons and putting them into a filthy gray backpack.

“Gimme that,” he said, grabbing a small plastic toy from his brother’s hand. When he spoke, Jackson’s voice was lower, raspier than I imagined it would be. When he looked up at me and accepted my hand of assistance out of the car, his sky blue eyes flitted across my face then looked away. I was a stranger. My stomach sank and I had a moment of doubt. But just as quickly, I forced the thoughts out of my mind.

Once inside the house, Jackson and Patrick stood silent in the hallway, looking small but surprisingly fierce. Charlie and AJ stood and stared back. This was it: the moment we had hoped and wished for, for so very long. I crouched down to their level and made the introductions, trying to keep my voice as light and cheerful as possible. After a few moments, the universal language of toys won out and Jackson and Patrick followed Charlie and AJ into the family room to play matchbox cars. I breathed a small sigh of relief. Their social worker handed me their sparse belongings: oversized winter coats and a backpack each with a few school papers and a change of underwear. Everything reeked of cigarette smoke.

“I picked them up right up from daycare,” he said, a bit apologetically.

“That’s OK,” I said. “They’re the same size as our boys. We have plenty of clothes. How long will they be here?”

“I don’t know. We’re in court tomorrow. Could be a few days; could be longer.”

He said his goodbyes to the boys and left.

Josh and I sat on the couch and watched the kids play. Four little boys. Four blonde heads bent over tiny toy cars. I was too filled with joy and relief to give any thought to the long-term consequences of what we had just done. All that mattered was that our son was home. A little rough around the edges, but we’d get him a bath and a haircut in the morning. We congratulated ourselves on never giving up on Jackson, on believing, in the words of John Lennon, “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”

If this were a fairy tale — the kind that social workers tell to prospective adoptive parents — then Jackson and Patrick would have been fast-tracked to adoption and never left our home again. We would have bought a bigger house and a bigger car and I would have happily quit my job to raise a gaggle of loud and crazy boys. It would have been hard, financially and emotionally, and friends and family would have thought we were crazy. But we would have known that it was meant to be, and would have thanked the fates that gave us four handsome, loving sons.

But that’s not what happened. I don’t know if that is ever what happens.

***

As I write this, it has been more than six years since that cool spring night when Jackson came back. In the end, he and his brother would stay with us for exactly 184 days. Six months. March through August.

At first I was just so relieved to have Jackson back that nothing else mattered. We bought the boys new shoes and new clothes and piles of books and toys. Four years of bottled up love poured out and it felt amazing to finally be able to give things to Jackson and do things for him and make sure that he had a belly full of healthy food and a warm bed to sleep in each night. Then there was the steady stream of well-wishers — friends who had known Jackson from before or who had heard his story — who brought banana bread and lasagna and bags of groceries straight from the store. A work colleague dropped off a truckload of bikes and scooters. A friend of a friend took up a collection among her book club members. In those first few weeks we were enveloped by a cloud of love and support and floated on the confidence that at last things were working out the way they should.

But the honeymoon was so very short. Then came the rages and the tantrums and the sleepless nights. The myriad doctor and dentist appointments. The weekly visits with birthparents. Plus the regular challenges of feeding, clothing, entertaining and cleaning up after four active preschoolers. I was exhausted. My temper was short. It was everything I had wanted, but nothing like I had imagined.

Read the rest of the story in the September/October 2018 issue of Fostering Families Today.

***

PART TWO

When 20-month-old Jackson was reunified with his birthmother after nearly a year in our home, my husband Josh and I were devastated. He was our first foster child, the one that social workers assured us we could adopt. Eventually we adopted two other children, but for years we held onto the hope that somehow Jackson would return to our lives. Four years later that finally happened: DCF asks us to take Jackson (now 5) and his 4-year-old brother Patrick as a foster placement. They join our adopted son Charlie (age 4) and our pre-adoptive son AJ (age 3). I am thrilled to have Jackson back, but devastated by how different the reality is from what I had imagined.

At first we assumed Jackson and Patrick would go quickly to a family member. They had an 18-year-old half-sister and an aunt who was now in their lives. We imagined a relationship like we had with Charlie and AJ’s former foster parents: visits, phone calls, exchanging Christmas cards. We’d be like extended family. When no relative stepped up, we let ourselves start thinking about the boys staying with us for the long term. We bought an SUV, started looking at larger houses. Then a social worker mentioned rehab, and suddenly we realized that DCF was going to give their birthparents another chance. And, as the “few days” that the boys were supposed to stay turned to weeks and then months, my feelings toward Jackson got complicated. I loved him. He was mine. Yet we had both led separate lives these past four years. He had formed attachments to his birth family; I had two other children to consider. We had promised that we would always be there for Jackson, no matter what. But at what cost?

My husband, Josh, and I have radically different memories of our six months with four preschool boys. When asked, he speaks of long sunny Saturdays at the beach; crowding into a sticky booth at the local pizza parlor with a large pepperoni and two large lemonades; and a game we’d play called “little ducks” where the boys would line up behind us, hands on their hips, and make quacking noises as we filed across the street or into a store. Despite the uncertainty about the boys’ future, Josh was able to remain in the moment and take each day as it came. I, the inveterate planner, was unable to cope with the unknown. I was constantly both planning for forever and bracing myself for the trauma of Jackson’s departure. It was an impossible mental exercise, and my memories of those months exist only in fragments, in moments fraught with anxiety — even panic — as I tried to reconcile my fantasies with the reality before me.

We are at the beach. The boys are running along the piles of rocks that form the border between the sand and the sidewalk. A child falls. There is a crack, followed by a high-pitched wail. I gather him into my arms and see blood and a gap in his front teeth. My first thought is of their birthparent visit in three days and I am overcome by panic. How will I explain this to the social worker? What will I say to prevent them from taking him?

It is 8 o’clock on a Sunday night and I am sitting on the floor of the boys’ bedroom, my back pressed against the closed door and my hands in front of my face as I try to protect myself from the toys and books that are being flung in my direction. It is roasting hot in the room but I have closed the windows so that the neighbors don’t hear the expletives that are spewing from Jackson’s mouth. When he eventually exhausts himself, more than an hour later, I join Josh downstairs where the other three boys are watching the end of a movie with the volume turned up too loud. My heart is pounding and my hands shake as I open a bottle of Chardonnay, drink three glasses and pass out on the couch.

We are sitting on the same couch, a few weeks later, and open between us is a photo album. I turn the pages slowly, pointing out people he doesn’t remember, places he doesn’t recognize, events that he has no memory of attending. In each of the photographs, usually front and center, is a baby — then toddler — with a wide smile and sparkling blue eyes. “Is that me?” Jackson whispers, and I nod and pull him in for a hug. For the rest of the time he is with us, whenever we meet someone new he will ask me, “Did I know them from before?” He seems pleased when my answer is yes.

It is a Tuesday morning and I wake early to make the boys a special breakfast. Things have been rough the past few weeks, but I’m determined to make a fresh start. They’re only kids. They’ve been through so much. I’m the adult. I can do better. I set the table with cloth napkins and lay out a spread of blueberry muffins, fruit salad and chocolate milk. Three children gobble down their breakfast, but one refuses. Jackson has eaten nothing but cold cereal and peanut butter sandwiches since his arrival and I’m determined to get something nutritious into his little body. I insist that he eat something. He refuses. I tell him he’s not leaving the table until he does. His eyes shoot daggers at me. I yell. I plead. I try to force small bits of fruit between his clenched lips. But he will go hungry before he relents. I finally send him to play with the others and clear the table.

We are at the dentist’s office. Not the one we usually go to, but the dingy one located next to the DMV in a neglected shopping mall. The dentist—the only one who will take the boys’ insurance—looks at me with disgust as he tells me that the boys will need surgery to remove their rotten and infected teeth. He gives me the address of a hospital in a nearby city and mutters something I can barely hear. My face flushes with anger but all I can stammer is, “I’m just the foster mom.”

I am sitting on the floor outside the bathroom and wiping the bottom of a pale, skinny 5-year-old Jackson. As I tug a pair of size 3 training diapers up his legs, I beg him, again, to let me know the next time he has an accident. “I’m not mad,” I say, trying to mean it. “It’s just not good to sit in that all day.” He refuses to make eye contact and shoves past me. As I watch him descend the stairs I slump against the wall and remember the first time I changed his diaper more than four years ago: how he giggled when I didn’t get the new one on fast enough and I ended up with a damp shirt. How I tickled his feet and blew raspberries on his tummy, then swept him up into a hug as we laughed and laughed and laughed.

I am on the phone with DCF, again. The boys’ social worker has not returned any of my phone calls or emails, but this time I have finally reached a district supervisor and I press the phone to one ear and my palm to the other as I try to hear her over the chaos of four preschoolers. No, she tells me, they can’t provide funding for daycare and the only child therapist they can refer me to is an hour and a half away. “But I have a job,” I say, my voice cracking under the strain of staying calm. “And two other kids. They’re having crazy tantrums, and pooping their pants. I don’t know what to do.” There is a pause on the other end, then I hear her cold response: “I can put in a request to have the boys moved if you can’t manage their behavior.” My stomach sinks and I assure her that we don’t want that, we’ll figure something out.

It is a beautiful summer Saturday and Josh is at the beach with the four boys. Throughout the day he texts me photos of the boys playing in the surf and building sandcastles. I spend the day doing laundry, grocery shopping, sending emails to social workers and seething. When they finally pile in through the front door later that evening — sandy and sunburnt — I scold. The car is filthy. They need baths. They’ve eaten nothing but junk food. Josh looks at me in bewilderment. “I thought you’d be happy that I got them out of your hair for the day.” I glare back. “I can’t do this all by myself,” I snap, then storm out of the room.

I am sitting in the front passenger seat of our Subaru with my arms wrapped around Jackson as he screams and thrashes. It is late — past 10 o’clock — and I had been afraid that the noise would wake the other boys. Usually I am not able to predict what will set off their rages, but tonight I know: we had received word that they will be leaving — within the week — to live with their birthmother in a residential rehab program several towns away. When his screams soften to sobs, I relax my grip and reposition him so his head is on my chest and I can stroke his hair. “Will I see you again?” Jackson asks. I can feel my eyes fill with tears but know that I can’t lie to him. “I don’t know.”.

This time, Jackson helps me pack up his things, selecting his favorite books and toys. We visit the playground of the school that he will attend and do a drive-by of the facility where they will live. This time when we say goodbye, there are no tears. The four boys exchange fist-bumps, we hug, and the boys buckle themselves into the social worker’s car. I am sad, but relieved. Shattered, but hopeful. Whatever happens, there are still two other little boys who need me.    

It is the fall, the boys have been gone for several weeks, and I work up the courage to call their birthmother. My plan is to suggest a meeting at a local park. The four boys could play and I could pass along some winter clothes that I picked up on sale. She is polite, but dismissive. I offer to call back again in a few days, to give her some time to think about it. I try not to sound too eager, too desperate. Later that week I receive a letter from DCF stating that I’m in violation of their confidentiality agreement and demanding that I cease contact. I am floored. I’d like to fight back, make the argument to DCF that it’s in the all the boys’ best interests to keep in touch. But we haven’t yet finalized AJ’s adoption — thanks to a two-year-long legal snafu — and I’m terrified that they’ll try to take him, too.

Six months go by and Josh and I find ourselves in the hallway outside a therapist’s office, paging through old issues of Newsweek and Yankee Magazine. Things should be better: we’ve finalized AJ’s adoption and I’ve quit my job to spend more time with our boys. This should be a time to rebuild our family, to reconnect as a family of four. But I am now the one creating chaos. I yell, scold, pick fights. Josh describes all this to the therapist and I shrug, unable to justify my behavior any more than I can control it. The therapist calls it depression and prescribes meds. But I know that the therapist is wrong: I’m not depressed, I’m angry. Furious. As full of rage as a traumatized 5-year-old tearing apart his bedroom. This is not what is supposed to happen. This is not how our story with Jackson is meant to end. We waited. We did our best when he returned. What are we supposed to do now? This time he’ll remember us.

I am not a religious person. I suspect the journey of foster-adoption may be easier for those who believe in a greater plan, who can turn their grief over to a higher power. I also recommend the support of a good therapist who understands that there is no such thing as a “foster” child, but only a child and a parent and a bond that reaches beyond genetics or the law. For me, the solace eventually came in the form of the two little boys who stayed and a husband with infinite patience. And time. Lots of time.

***

The day we brought Jackson home for the first time was a beautiful fall day in October 2007. Giddy with the excitement of new parents, we tucked his arms into a bright red fleece jacket and strapped Jackson into his new stroller for a walk. As we paraded proudly down the street, a neighbor who we had only barely met stopped us, exclaiming “I didn’t know you were pregnant!” We explained, and it turned out that he and his wife were new parents to a pair of 4-month-old twins. Kate and I became fast friends and spent most of the next year watching our three little boys crawl, then toddle, then walk around each other’s family rooms and back yards. We imagined lifelong friendships between the boys.

When Jackson came back four years later, Kate and her family had moved out of town. But as soon as she got word, she showed up on our doorstep with a pot of beef stew and a loaf of Italian bread. The four boys were playing matchbox cars in the family room and we stood in the doorway, watching them, for several minutes. “He’s small,” she noted. I nodded. “Did he recognize you?” I shook my head. She looked away from the boys and our eyes met. Unlike our other visitors, I suspect Kate understood the complexity of what we were facing even before I did. After a long moment, Kate pulled me into a hug and whispered, so quiet that I could pretend not to hear, “Is it good to have him back, or does this only make it worse?”

Even today, more than a decade after the first time I held Jackson in my arms, I’m not sure how to answer.

###

Copies of this essay are available from Fostering Families Today.

Road Schooling the American Revolution

“Road Schooling American History: The American Revolution” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, June-August 2018

coleminutemenI’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.

Road Schooling the 13 Colonies

“Road Schooling American History: The 13 Colonies” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, March-May 2018

jamestown2It is a fall ritual that many of us who attended public school will remember: rows of little boys and girls in black construction paper hats and brightly-colored feathered headbands file onto the stage of the school gymnasium. A few students carry baskets of food: turkey, applies, cranberries, maybe a pumpkin pie. They place the offerings around a crepe paper fire, join hands and sing a song or two about the Pilgrims, the Indians and the First Thanksgiving in the new world. Parents clap proudly, and everyone adjourns to the cafeteria for apple cider and popcorn.

When my husband and I pulled our second- and third-grade boys from public school and began our homeschooling journey, I was determined that we would teach American history differently from how we’d been taught. No textbooks, no worksheets, no silly reenactments of Thanksgiving that bore no resemblance to the historical event. We would teach history the way it should be taught: by hearing the stories and experiencing the places of our past first-hand. Fortunately, many of those places are right here in Virginia.

So we loaded our car with a few necessities: a timeline, an historical atlas and a few picture books that I’d screened for historical accuracy. We selected a soundtrack: the hilarious history parody songs from mrbettsclass.com. And we hit the road.

Jamestown

The boys and I began our study of American history at Jamestown. There are two sites that together tell the story of the Virginia Company settlers and the indigenous Powhatan and are each worth a full day’s visit. Historic Jamestowne (historicjamestowne.org) is on the site of the original 1607 James Fort and is still an active archaeological dig. We took a tour of the fort remains with a knowledgable and engaging National Park ranger and then spent the afternoon in the onsite archaeology museum. The exhibits in the museum tell the story of the men and women who settled at Jamestown, but—more interestingly—also tell the story of how present day archaeologists and historians study the artifacts from the past to learn about what happened at Jamestown. The most fascinating story was how, in just 2012, scientific testing of a skull and leg bone led forensic archaeologists to conclude that there had been cannibalism during the early years at Jamestown.

Jamestown Settlement (historyisfun.org), located nearby, comprises a recreated Powhatan village, a reproduction of one of the boats that brought the settlers to Jamestown, a recreation of James Fort (circa 1610-1614) and a museum about all of the above. Living history interpreters were at each location and spent time showing the kids what life was like in the village, on the boats and in the fort. The boys tried sewing moccasins and playing corn cob darts at the Powhatan village, hauled water to the fort and watched musket-firing demonstration. The museum also has a special exhibition about Pocahontas that tells the story of the real little girl behind the Disney movie.

Native American History & Literature

From Jamestown, we travelled (figuratively) north to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, then through the mid-Atlantic colony of Pennsylvania and finally down to North Carolina. We couldn’t manage actual road trips to these destinations, but did our best with a few maps and some good children’s literature. For each colony we studied, we started by learning about the people who lived there first—the Wampanoag, the Delaware, the Choctow—then talked about the European settlers.

It can be difficult to find books that depict marginalized groups in a respectful and historically accurate way. When in doubt, I look to the experts: authors from those groups. Louise Erdrich, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve and Joseph Bruchac are among those who write beautiful children’s books about Native American history and culture. The website for Louise Erdrich’s bookstore, Birchbark Books (birchbarkbooks.com), also has a nicely curated collection of Native American books for adults and children.

I was particularly concerned about how to tackle the subject of Thanksgiving, since it has become so mired in myth and stereotypes. I sought guidance from the experts at Plimoth Plantation (plimoth.org) and we read several children’s books they recommended, followed by a chat about how and why we came to celebrate Thanksgiving the way we do today.

Frontier Culture Museum

I also wanted to make sure the kids understood the diversity of the people who lived in the thirteen colonies. There were wealthy landowners and colonial governors, but also indentured servants, small farmers, tradesmen and religious dissidents. There were also thousands of men, women and children brought to the colonies against their will and enslaved on plantations, farms and homes in every one of the colonies. Their experiences, both at home and in the new world, shaped the culture of what the colonies, and eventually the United States, would become.

Nowhere in Virginia captures those stories better than the Frontier Culture Museum (frontiermuseum.org) in Staunton. The outdoor living history museum is set up in two parts: one side is the “old world” where the lives of people from England, Germany, Ireland and West Africa are depicted just prior to their departure (or kidnapping) to America. The other side of the museum represents several periods in early American history (1740, 1820, 1850) with homes, a school house and church. Costumed interpreters demonstrate how cultures and customs from the old world came together as people from these diverse areas settled near each other in the Shenandoah Valley. We have been to the museum several times and, depending on the season, kids can try their hands at cooking, weaving, grinding corn, feeding animals and all sorts of other activities from the period. They also run a great summer camp that both of my boys have attended.

Williamsburg

We sometimes think of the colonial period as a 160-year-long march from Jamestown to the American Revolution. But the 17th century was rife with conflict between various Native American tribes, colonists and soldiers from both England and France, and the success of the colonies was in no way guaranteed. While we didn’t have the time to study every conflict, we did select a few battles from the French and Indian War and discussed what this country might look like if the English had lost.

We wrapped up our study of the thirteen colonies at the place most people think of when they think of the colonial period: Williamsburg (colonialwilliamsburg.com). We visited during their March homeschool days, which was their off-season and thus had less going on than during the summer. However, we still spent a full two days touring the buildings and listening to costumed interpreters talk about life on the eve of the American Revolution. The boys were particularly intrigued by all the craft buildings, where they learned how books, guns, shoes and wigs were made during the 18th century. It was also interesting to contrast the relative grandeur of Williamsburg with life on the frontier in Staunton, and that allowed us to talk about how life changed in the colonies over time. Williamsburg also served as a great transition to the next phase of American history on our agenda: the American Revolution.

Heather Cole is a writer, historian and homeschooling mom of two very active boys-now ages 9 and 10. 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.