History, Holidays

Happy Memorial Day

For many of us, Memorial Day is nothing more than an extra day off from work, a time for barbecues and a signal that summer is almost here. But this day provides a wonderful opportunity to talk with your children about the meaning behind Memorial Day.

Memorial Day has its roots in Decoration Day, when southerners would decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flags, wreaths and flowers. General Logan declared the first Decoration Day, which was held May 30, 1968. On that day, General Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery, and then 5,000 people decorated more than 20,000 union and confederate graves.

For age-appropriate resources for talking with your children, try:

Memorial Day also reminds us to support our men and women in uniform every day of the year. Children can practice gratitude and letter-writing by making cards and writing letters to troops. You can send them through organizations like A Million Thanks.

How do you talk to your children about Memorial Day?

Books, Geography, History

Perfect Picture Book Friday: The Story of Salt

Illustrator: S. D. Schindler
Publication Info: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006
Intended audience: Ages 7 and up
Genre: nonfiction, picture book
Themes/topics: world history, economics
Opening and synopsis: “It began a few years ago with a rock I bought in a small mountain town in Spain. The rock had pink surfaces with streaks of white and brown. Though it was not a diamond or an emerald or a ruby, it was beautiful. Yet it was only salt.”
Are you ready to learn about the rise and fall of world civilizations? Then follow the salt trade through the ages, for he who controlled the salt, controlled the world. Salt built the Great Wall of China; during the Tang dynasty, half of the Chinese government’s funds came from salt. Mahatma Gandhi’s symbolic Salt March spurred Indian independence. And even in the United States, many towns were settled close to sources of salt.
Why I like this book: As a college history major, I love well-written hi-“stories,” especially those with such a narrow focus but broad historical impact. Kurlansky originally wrote “Salt: A World History” for grown ups in 2003, which I haven’t read….yet. However, for upper elementary, this is a fantastic story of how trade, commerce and the wrestle for resources lie at the center of so many wars and power struggles.
Resources: Eat a meal featuring salt-cured foods and discuss how salt allowed people to preserve food and travel far from home to trade. Think cheese, sauerkraut, pickles, ham, bacon, salt fish. You can make your own pickles using several recipes, but here’s one from Alton Brown at The Food Network. You could try your hand at making your own salt from seawater or saltwater you’ve prepared. Just pour it in a shallow bowl or plate and place it in the sun for several days. The GastroGnome has a stove-top recipe here. In my experience, children love mummies, and salt was vital to the mummification process. Discovery Kids has a mummy-maker game here.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.

All Aboard for National Train Day

A meeting of the engines at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, Utah
From the Library of Congress’s Collections

Saturday, May 12th is National Train Day, which celebrates the train-travel experience. Events will take place in four major cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, as well as smaller venues across the country.

In the four major cities, train stations will include live entertainment, exhibits, kids’ activities, model train displays and tours of Amtrak equipment, freight and commuter trains, and private railroad cars. I think the latter is the most exciting part. We’ve climbed aboard some antique railroad cars at the Travel Town Museum, and nothing beats the luxury of the historic dining and sleeping cars. (NOTE: Travel Town is FREE and located in Griffith Park.)

For Los Angeles-based train enthusiasts, you could add Carney’s to your itinerary, where you can dine on world-famous hot dogs aboard converted train cars. Yum!

Don’t feel left out if you aren’t near one of the major cities. A searchable list of local events can be found here. And there are many.

According to the National Train Day Web site, “National Train Day marks the 143rd anniversary of the creation of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. On May 10, 1869, in Promontory Summit, Utah, the ‘golden spike’ was driven into the final tie that joined 1,776 miles of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways, forever transforming the face and character of America.”

National Train Day is a wonderful excuse to dig into railroad history, and the Web offers several resources. First, check out Golden Spike National Historic Site. There are re-enactment scripts available under the “Kids” tab. The San Francisco Museum has a wealth of historical resources, including biographies of the “Big Four” who conceived the enterprise. Also the New York Times has original articles from the historic occasion online at their vast Learning Network site.


Happy Birthday tomorrow, TJ!

As a University of Virginia alum and former research intern at Monticello, I have a soft spot for Thomas Jefferson. All right, that’s probably an understatement. Most of us who went to “The University” pretty much revere the man, who founded the school. Creating the University and its academical village was one of Jefferson’s greatest accomplishments. Here’s what he had engraved on his grave marker:

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.” (You’ll notice that he omitted his two-term presidency as one of his key accomplishments.)

At his heart, Jefferson was a scholar, a lifelong learner. He was a Renaissance man who was passionate about farming, architecture, applied science and math. His personal library formed the nucleus of the Library of Congress’s collection. And he designed his university so that professors lived alongside students providing endless opportunities for interaction and discussion outside of the classroom.

We celebrate Jefferson’s birthday on April 13th. In honor of what would be his 269th birthday, here are a few resources for children.

Arts/Crafts, Field Trip Ideas, History, Travel

Art Detectives on the Loose

Though I’ve lived in the Los Angeles area for almost 13 years, I’ve only been to the Getty Villa three times. I visited once in 1996 before the museum closed for a nearly 10-year renovation. I went back in 2007 with my almost-one-year-old. In fact, I have fond memories of Cooper “army crawling” on the tile around the fountain in the Outer Peristyle garden.

Then, I didn’t go back for almost five years. It probably had something to do with nap schedules, diaper changes and worries about the boys jostling ancient Greco-Roman pottery. But honestly, the biggest reason I didn’t go back was because I’d rather see a Rembrandt than a Roman drinking vessel.

I know my lack of enthusiasm is a direct result of my limited knowledge. I never studied the Greco-Roman world, and I know little about the culture and art work. One vase looked similar to all the others –until my most recent trip. The Getty has done a tremendous job of making ancient Greece and Rome accessible to children and parents as well.

Getty staff have developed three different sets of “Art Detective” cards. The front of each card directs you to a specific gallery, shows you a picture of an artwork and poses a question. For example, in Gallery 207, we were to find a statue of  a girl and figure out, “Why does this girl have a slot above her dress?” Once we found the piece, we flipped over the card to discover that coin banks were popular with Romans. The metal statue was an ancient piggy bank. Having additional information about the pieces on display made exploring the collection fascinating.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the Family Forum, the boys could dress up like ancient Greeks and Romans. (Note: It was hard to pull them away from the foam swords and shields.) A tactile display revealed how clay pottery was made. A collection of vessels explained the various shapes and functions of the pottery we would find in the collection. For example, drinking cups are wide, flat bowls with two handles. The boys could doodle on pottery using dry erase markers or decorate paper vases with rubbings. The Family Forum brought the collection to life through hands-on learning.

While at the Getty, we made our own perfume the ancient way during a “Spicy Scents” demonstration. We started with a base of olive oil. Then we crushed myrrh, rose, cinnamon, anise, coriander and other spices with a mortar and pestle. We mixed these with the oil to create our own ancient perfume. We learned that long ago, people would use these perfumes to beautify, worship gods, heal, work magic and show off wealth.

Finally, the Mummy of Herakleides was Finley’s favorite. We watched the mummification process video repeatedly. It showed how the Romans in Egypt removed the organs leaving the heart and lungs, salted the body for forty days, covered it in plant resin and honey and wrapped it. Finally, a they placed a portrait on top.

I would recommend the Getty Villa for anyone over the age of 3. While the Getty Center may be more well known, the Villa is original Getty museum. J. Paul Getty built the Roman-inspired villa in 1968  to display his art growing art collection. Aside from his priceless collection, visitors can enjoy the beautiful gardens with views of the Pacific Ocean.

Books, History, Science/Math

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Neo Leo

Author/Illustrator: Gene Barretta
Publication Info: Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt Company, 2009
Intended audience: Ages 7 and up (though my five-year-old loves it)
Genre: nonfiction, picture book
Themes/topics: science, inventions, biography, history
Opening and synopsis: ”Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the world around him. He studied animals and people. He watched plants grow and birds fly. He explored mighty rivers. Nature was his teacher. It inspired his remarkable studies and inventions.”
Think airplanes, artificial hearts, tanks and contact lenses are “neo”? Think again. These inventions are so “Leo.”  Inventor Leonardo da Vinci dreamed up and described the concepts years before they came to fruition in modern times. Barretta’s wonderful book describes 15 modern inventions with da Vinci origins, displaying the inventor’s sheer genius.
Why I like this book: Da Vinci is such an inspiring figure, who couldn’t love a book chronicling his achievements? Still, Barretta adds a twist: each invention includes notes in the mirror writing that da Vinci perfected. Children have to hold up the book to a mirror to read the notes and learn more. Barretta also includes a bibliography of books, Web sites and DVDs for further reading.
Resources: Since I took a Renaissance art history class eons ago, we looked at some of da Vinci’s artwork in my old textbooks. The Museum of Science has a fantastic Leonard da Vinci page aimed at parents and teachers….here. TeachersPayTeachers has a FREE downloadable lesson about Leonardo and the Wright Brothers available...here.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.
History, Homeschool, Science/Math

Happy birthday, Albert Einstein!

NOTE: Much of this information is taken from Jason Haas’s biography for kids, which is referenced below.

If Albert Einstein were alive, the father of the theory of relativity would be 133 today. Was Einstein one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of all time? Yes. Did he change the way we think about our universe? Yes. But it’s Einstein’s boundless curiosity that makes him, in my opinion, one of the coolest people ever to walk the planet.

Here’s one of my favorite Einstein quotes:

“When searching for a needle in a haystack, other people quit when they find the needle. I look for what other needles might be in the haystack.” — Einstein

Einstein’s interest in science began when he was very young. His father and uncle installed electrical equipment, and Einstein found the “magic” of electricity fascinating. At age five, Einstein’s father gave the young boy a compass to play with when he was sick. Einstein’s father explained the Earth’s magnetic field. Some say this was when Einstein knew he wanted to learn the mysteries of the universe.

Einstein and traditional German schooling — with its rote memorization and drilling — didn’t mix. He often got into trouble for daydreaming in class when he was bored. At age 10, he started homeschooling himself, reading everything about science that he could. A college student who lived with the family introduced Einstein to Euclid, Darwin and Kant among others.

Einstein eventually returned to school to finish his degree and was admitted to the university. There, he also failed to shine, skipping classes and passing courses only because his friends lent him their notes. So, when Einstein published his theory of relativity, he wasn’t a physics professor. Instead, he was a 26-year-old patent clerk.

As a parent, Einstein’s story causes conflict. I want my children to model Einstein’s insatiable curiosity. However, I don’t want them to follow in Einstein’s footsteps when it comes to the school environment. I think the takeaway is that curiosity — and intelligence — cannot always be measured by how well one does in school. And one can achieve a rich and fulfilling life in many different ways.

If you and your children would like to learn more about Einstein, here are some good resources:

  • Great article by university student Jason Haas explaining Einstein’s development as a scientist, as well as the Theory of Relativity. I used much of his information here.
  • The National Science Teacher’s Association recommends Kathleen Krull’s middle-grade Einstein biography, Albert Einstein
  • Learning Through History has a timeline of Einstein’s life courtesy of NOVA, as well as activities, like building Einstein’s favorite toy, the compass.
  • PBS’s Web site has an Einstein portal, which includes teacher resources. Under teacher resources, you’ll find recommendations for classroom activities.
History, Science/Math

Herschel Discovers Uranus

On March 13, 1781, William Herschel, dubbed the father of modern astronomy, discovered Uranus from his back garden in Bath, England. Or at least that’s how the legend goes. Many people had seen the planet before, but thought it was a star.

Herschel’s discovery of Uranus was a happy accident. He had been systematically surveying the night sky when he noticed one star that seemed different. Herschel became an overnight sensation with his discovery.

He also built many telescopes over his lifetime, often grinding his own glass and making his own eyepieces. Herschel’s other achievements included hypothesizing that stars make up nebulae (or star nurseries as I like t call them) and proposing a theory of stellar evolution. For the latter, Herschel suggested that as time goes by, scattered stars condense together into tightly packed clusters.

As for Uranus, it’s the seventh planet from the sun. Only Neptune is farther away. Uranus’s air is not fit for breathing. It’s mostly hydrogen and helium with some methane, which give the icy planet its unique color. Uranus has rings, just like Saturn, 13 in all. The last two were found just seven years ago thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, which continues to provide a new view of the planet. So far scientists have found 27 moons orbiting the planet. And, to this writer’s delight, each one is named for a character from the works of William Shakespeare or Alexander Pope.

Do you have a child who wants to learn more? Check out NASA’s Solar System page for children…..here.

Books, History

Perfect Picture Book Friday: Lightship

Title: Lightship
Author/Illustrator: Brian Floca
Publication Info: A Richard Jackson Book | Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, 2007
Genre: Historical fiction
Intended audience: Ages 3-7 ( I think it’s more of interest to ages 4 and up)
Themes/topics: History, vehicles, helping others, perseverance
Synopsis and opening line: Floca’s Lightship is a lyrical history of lightships, lighthouses on the sea. These ships first served in America in the 1820s and marked the way in areas where lighthouses could not be built. Working aboard a lightship was a dangerous job requiring dedication and teamwork in close quarters. Floca chronicles the crew, routines and challenges of a lightship called The Ambrose, relying on extensive historical research.
Here is Floca’s first line: “Here is a ship that holds her place. She has a captain and a crew: helmsman, oiler, engineer, deckhand, fireman, radioman, messman, cook, and cat.”
The book received starred reviews and numerous awards:
• A Robert F. Sibert Honor Book
• Booklist’s “Top of the List” Youth Picture Book for 2007
• Winner of the 2007 Cybil Award for Best Nonfiction Picture Book
• An American Library Association Notable Children’s Book
• A New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing Selection
• A Banks Street Best Books of the Year selection
• A Junior Library Guild Premier Selection
• A 2009-2010 Buckaroo Award Nominee (WY)
Resources: Lightship contains a labeled schematic of the lightship, as well as an author’s note briefly explaining the boats’ history. Floca’s Web site includes a coloring page, additional reading resources, notes on where you can visit retired lightships, as well as plans for building your own lightship.
Why I like this book: How do I love Brian Floca? Let me count the ways. As in his Apollo 11 book, Moonshot, Floca marries science-based history with simple poetry. His books constantly remind me that writing nonfiction for elementary schoolers does not mean throwing a constant stream of facts at them. Simple, well-written phrases convey the mood and just the right amount of information.
Every Friday bloggers review “Perfect Picture Books.” Find a complete list of book reviews organized by topic, genre and blogger at author Susanna Leonard Hill’s site.
Books, History, Holidays

Happy Rosa Parks Day (Feb. 4th)

Well, let me start by saying I’ve won an award! I’ll have more in a day or two, so stay tuned. Because I want to blog about the award later in the week, I’ve swapped some blog ideas around and am posting Rosa Parks Day a few days early.

The U.S. celebrates Rosa Parks Day on February 4th (Saturday this year). Rosa Parks, a seamstress, became famous on Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. In the segregated South, African Americans were forced to sit towards the back of the bus and give up their seats to white passengers. Ms. Parks was arrested and fined for her defiance setting off the Montgomery bus boycotts. Many people mark her protest as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

What few realize is that Rosa Parks was an activist and NAACP member at the time of her arrest. Her refusal to give up her seat was not a spur-of-the-moment decision born out of tiredness, but part of a larger, organized movement. In fact, the NAACP had been looking for a case to use as the basis of a law suit. Unfortunately, many myths about Rosa Parks still perpetuate, especially in children’s literature. Nikki Giovanni’s book, Rosa, is one of few that attempts to put Rosa Park’s case in context.

Teaching children about Rosa Parks is a great way to kick off Black History Month. The Museum of Living history boasts a wonderful biography of Rosa Parks…..here. The site also includes a 1995 interview and many photos from the period. Scholastic.com’s Teacher section contains many resources about her life and importance.

If you are a classroom teacher, here’s a wonderful lesson plan for grades 4 through 7 by Mandy Roman, which will help students experience what it was like to sit at the back of the bus. Teach-nology has a host of free Black History Month lesson plans as well, which are perfect for upper elementary and middle school students.