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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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: or

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:

What are your favorite Virginia food destinations? Click on over to the VAHomeschoolers community Facebook page ( 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 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:

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 attn: Roads Scholars.


Bounce House/Laser Tag:

College of William & Mary:

Colonial Williamsburg:

Freedom Park:

Historic Jamestown:

Jamestown Settlement:

Jamestown-Scotland Ferry:

Mariners’ Museum:

U.S. Army Transportation Museum:

Veterans Park:

Virginia Air & Space Center:

Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex:

Yorktown Battlefield, Yorktown, VA:

Yorktown Beach & Fishing Pier:


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 ( 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 ( has several Yellowstone-related lesson plans and the Yellowstone Forever online bookstore ( 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.


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:


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 And we hit the road.


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 ( 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 (, 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 (, 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 ( 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 ( 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.


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 ( 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.