Entering a National History Day Competition

When I hit middle school, I was encouraged to compete in our local National History Day competition.  I was hooked from that very first event:  I loved the research, the preparation, the work to analyze historical events and to share their importance, and, yes, the competition.

That’s why I was so very excited when I found out that the National History Day organization has events in North Carolina, and that our district competition isn’t too far away.  I was determined that my kids would compete when they came of age, as well.

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Are you familiar with National History Day?  It’s sort of like a science fair, in that you create projects/entries that are judged for competition, only about history, instead.  Each year there’s an annual theme, and students choose a topic that fits that theme and create projects/entries in the exhibit, documentary, historical paper, performance, or website categories.  Students must explain the significance of their topic in history and in relation to the theme, as well as showcase their work through process papers and annotated bibliographies.  It’s a big deal.  It’s fabulous.

For My Big Helper, that was this year.  She’s now in middle school (where has the time gone??) and so last October she and another brave young man chose topics and began to research.

As this was their first year, and as this level of competition and historical research was new to them both, we did our best to keep it fun.  We traveled to the Davis Library at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill for a lesson from a librarian about how to use their Library of Congress cataloguing system.  She also taught them how to use their many online databases, and the kids searched for materials relevant to their topics.

We had pizza parties and got together to check progress and discuss competition rules.

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Finally, though, the big day arrived, and it was time to head off to Greensboro for the district competition.  Held at the Education Building on the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, the competitors took over that part of campus and were college kids for the day.

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Competition days are a big deal.  You must check in, have your paperwork in order, and get set up.  After that, when it’s your scheduled turn, a team of judges will interview you about your work and conclusions.  For anyone, that time of ‘interview’ is stressful, but for kids new to that type of experience, it can be rough, despite the judges’ kindness.

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One of the highlights for us was always having lunch in the cafeteria.  The UNCG café where we ate was nothing like any college cafeteria I’ve ever seen before, but with Chick-Fil-A and other fun restaurants on site, the kids seemed to enjoy their faux-college kid status.

Late in the afternoon, the award ceremony arrives.  Filling up an auditorium, a professor greets everyone, and the winners in each category are finally announced.  We were all really nervous by this time.  We thought our kids had created solid entries and had a good chance of placing, but, really, who can tell?

It’s not just about winning, either – because winning entries advance to the state competition, and winners there, to the national one.  Competition increases at each level, and everyone wants to advance, but, of course, not everyone can, so … one hopes hard and works harder.

Our friend’s category was announced first, and … he placed second!  We were so very excited, and My Big Helper was hoping even harder for own name to be called at that point.

Yet, her category wasn’t.  They seemed to be calling them in no particular order – junior individual website, senior group performance, junior group project, etc. – and we were starting to think hers would never be announced, when they finally called ‘junior individual exhibit.’

I’m not sure why it works this way, but three entrants in each category advance to the NC State History Day competition – except for in exhibits; then five advance.  My Big Helper didn’t place fifth.

She didn’t place fourth.  Or third.

You know how it goes – each time they prepare to call a new name, you think that now, they’ll call her name now, and she’s going to win, and then it’s someone else.  Your heart falls into your shoes, and you despair that she’s not going to be called, that she didn’t win.  And while it’s not the winning or losing that you care about, she’s oh-so-excited, and you so want her to continue being that excited at that point …..

Not second.

And then, at the very last moment, they called her name!  She placed FIRST in her category!

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It was wonderful to see her so excited.  To know that she’s worked hard and is getting a tangible reward from someone else.  That she’s learning to finish what she starts, and a whole host of other lessons.NHD

Our two competitors are super excited, and well they should be:  they’ve done fantastic work.  It’s not over, though, for now they have the opportunity to take the criticism from the district-level judges and make improvements to their entries before the state competition in a few weeks.

For now, though … yay!  They won! 

Do your kids enter competitions?  Share in the comments below – and come back soon to see why I encourage my kids to compete in these types of events.

Field Work Friday – Berry Hill Resort

It’s probably the last place you’d expect to find a bunch of kids – but the Berry Hill Resort and Conference Center is exactly where we went.Berry Hill

Berry Hill was part of a land grant from the British Crown decades before the American Revolution.  The estate was protected from destruction during wartime by the owner’s wealth and political clout and has a long and colorful history.

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Berry Hill has it’s own historian and tour guide, and this retired teacher gives a great tour.  He took us through the mansion, room by room, telling funny stories and sharing how the building has changed over time.

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The main hall is just as impressive as the outside of the mansion.  With twin staircases, this room highlights the original mistress’s favorite aspect of the building:  symmetry.  The downstairs also features marble baseboards from the same quarry as Michelangelo’s David.

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Our guide pointed out more of the unique symmetrical elements around the building – including extra doors that lead only to the wall.  Everyone was amused by that!

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Twenty years ago, the estate was purchased by a French corporation who renovated it extensively.  This beautiful pool was one of their additions!

After visiting the mansion, the pool, and the new on-site hotel, we ate lunch in Darby’s Tavern.  Situated in the old kitchen, we feasted on gourmet sandwiches and salads and played in the beautiful, spring sunshine.

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After lunch, we headed off to explore more of the grounds.  Now encompassing 650 acres, there are many trails leading to historic sites, and we made great use of them.

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We found these old stone remnants near a creek, and we had fun poking around, trying to see if we can figure out how it looked originally.

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The kids also had fun playing near the creek and catching frogs.  My Little Man couldn’t resist this one!

Berry Hill Resort and Conference Center is a beautiful place.  We enjoyed learning about its varied past, but this National Historic Landmark has a bright future.  Now often used for weddings, parties, and conferences, it would make a wonderful venue for any occasion. Should you visit southern Virginia, be sure to check it out.

A Roarin’ ’20s Book Club: “Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter”

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Some books just scream out for a special event, and that’s exactly what happened when I read Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter.  I knew it would make a fantastic book club pick – not only because it offers myriads of possibilities for a special event, but because Fantaskey did an amazing job writing a book that highlights the danger and turmoil of the 1920s while keeping it kid-friendly and fun.

Yes.  It’s about murder and mayhem, but it’s kid friendly and fun.

Yes, those things are complete opposites.  No, the danger and depth of the topic is not downplayed, and no, I don’t know how she did it, either.  She’s that good of a writer.

So what’s Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter all about?  Check it out:

It’s 1920s Chicago—the guns-and-gangster era of Al Capone—and it’s unusual for a girl to be selling the Tribune on the street corner. But ten-year-old Isabel Feeney is unusual . . . unusually obsessed with being a news reporter. She can’t believe her luck when she stumbles into a real-life murder scene and her hero, the famous journalist Maude Collier. The story of how Isabel fights to defend the honor of her accused friend and latches on to the murder case makes for a winning middle grade mystery.
 
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With the 1920s as our theme for the evening and murder and mayhem the idea, I set out to create an unforgettable book club experience, and, as soon as My Big Helper started to read the book, she joined in the fun.
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The girls arrived mid-afternoon with lots of gear in tow, prepared for an all-night book club event (because it just seemed wrong to talk about Isabel’s adventures in broad daylight when so many of them occurred at night).  They immediately changed into dresses and strands of pearls, then were made over by local high school students did their hair and make-up in perfect ’20s style.  With old showtunes playing in the background, they giggled and styled their way through updo’s and mascara until they rivaled Maude Collier for fashion flair.
 
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Then, with glass goblets of Kool-Aid clutched tightly in their hands (because Kool-Aid was invented in the 1920s, didn’t you know?), we talked about the book, focusing on the plot, the fate of Isabel, the role of friendship throughout the story, and how the girls felt about the events of the era.  All the while, they munched on the snacks researched as time-period friendly by My Big Helper:  salted nuts, carrots and celery, and cheese.
 
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Next, the girls broke into teams for a rousing game of Pictionary.  I prepared the materials ahead, with all of the items to be drawn chosen from the book and written on slips of paper.  I tucked these into a Mason jar, and, armed, with white boards and markers. the girls tried to draw each one. 
 
They really got into this game.  They played for a long time, until they had drawn out every slip of paper, sometimes asking me for more information about the buildings or terms from the story.  Some laughed until they fell over, and the competition of the game fell by the wayside as they giggled their way through drawing things like ‘crutches’ and ‘the Chicago-Tribune Tower.’
 
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After a short break, they moved to the kitchen for dinner.  Again, my Big Helper had planned the menu after researching popular foods of the era, and while this meal wasn’t something eaten by Isabel in the story, we think she would have enjoyed it.  The fancy dinner she planned required similar decoration, and so, with the incredible help of good friends, the girls ate under black and gold streamers, with gold lame curtains in the doorways, foil confetti on the tables, candles everywhere, and jazz playing softly in the background.  We served baked ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, Jell-O salad, and bread with peach butter.  The giggles continued as the girls pretended to be Maude’s counterparts but couldn’t look at each other without bursting out into laughter.  Dinner wasn’t over quickly, but it was a most enjoyable meal.
 
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Afterwards the girls got down to business.  With full tummies and the fall of night, it was time to be like Isabel and solve a murder mystery.  After so much time researching, planning, and prepping, my brain was exhausted by this point – and so I purchased a for-kids mystery online.  The girls broke into two teams and scoured fact sheets to find clues.  They answered questions, made charts, and came up empty – so they shared their information, and, as they talked it out, they solved the mystery.
 
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That success deserved a treat, so we served dessert next – ice cream sundaes with warm chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles – because, you guessed it, they were popular in the 1920s!  Having a kid who loves research is a beautiful thing.  The giggling continued as they downed the ice cream and moved to the living room, where they settled in to watch the original Cheaper by the Dozen.
 
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After a much-too-short night, we served bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast.  We cleaned up quickly, because Isabel author Beth Fantaskey was available to Skype!  This was a real treat.  I love when authors not only choose to write quality books for kids, but they’re also willing to invest some time in connecting in a real-world way with them.  The girls were nervous heading into this experience, but they had prepped questions in advance and were eager to ask them.  The time delay caused by the technology threw them for a loop at times, but they persevered and asked every question.  They wanted to know about writing history, story experience, personal experiences, and more.  The best part – to me – was when Fantaskey shared that there might be another Isabel story in the future.  As Isabel is smart, brave, and has big dreams for the future, I’d like to see another story featuring her.
 
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Our last activity was to attempt the Charleston.  While Isabel only got a glimpse into a speakeasy and didn’t live the glitzy life of the ’20s, she knew it existed and wanted parts of it for herself.  Armed with a YouTube tutorial and more giggles, the girls attempted to nail the steps while understanding the gist of the whole thing.  Nobody got very far, but it was fun!
 
Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter is the perfect book for someone teaching about American life in the 1920s.  It made a great book club pick and introduction to our history unit of that time.  Because Fantaskey sets the scene so well, I wrote a unit study to accompany this book.  My Big Helper worked her way through that as she read Isabel, and she was well prepared for both book club and our historical studies.  If you’d like more information about this unit study, can find it in my Teachers Pay Teachers store here.  There’s much to be learned from this book, but it’s great fun, too, and includes many deep questions about culture, gender roles, and friendship.  It’s suitable for tweens, but I can see people much older reading and falling in love with Isabel.  Give it a try!
 
What are your kids reading right now?       
 
Check out these resources to get your Isabel Feeney party started!
 


 

Studying the Wild West: Building a Pioneer Wagon

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We’ve been studying Western expansion for a few months now, and the kids were fascinated by the Oregon Trail.  I mean, whole families traveling thousands of miles in a covered wagon – how could you not want to know exactly how that worked?  Because of that fascination, we decided to build our own pioneer wagon.

We started with wooden pallets donated by a local auto parts store.  My Big Helper used hammers and crow bars to pry the boards off the pallet and to pull out the nails.  We kept a bucket nearby to put the nails and scraps in and sorted the boards into nail-free piles as we removed them.

My Big Helper has used a hammer for a few projects before, but she found it difficult to remove the nails.  We spent lots of time experimenting with angles and weight to determine how to maximize the force available.  After playing around a bit, she was able to remove all of them on her own.

When we had a stack of nail-free boards, My Big Helper and My Little Man started to lay them out.  They choose which boards would be used for which part of the wagon and arranged them in the driveway.

We used the thicker, pallet-edge pieces to support the sides and middle of the wagon bottom.  The kids each took a side and nailed the boards into the supports.  While that sounds easy, it was much harder than expected.  We had some short nails that we could pound in fairly easily, but they were a little too short – we needed to use some longer nails to be sure that the wagon was sturdy.  The longer ones were too long for some of the boards, though, which is why we used both sizes.

My Little Man found those nails especially challenging.  The hammers were heavy for him to use with one hand, but who can hit a nail square on the head with two?  If he didn’t hit the head squarely, then the whole nail bent.  It became quite frustrating, but after experimenting with several hammers and practicing his swing, My Little Man was able to pound in several nails well.

Sawing the boards to the correct length with a hand saw wasn’t easy, either.  My Big Helper got very frustrated during this process – it was the first time she lost her smile.  After talking it over, she realized just how important it is to keep going even when you’re tired.  She was able to compare this to how the pioneers might have felt way back on the Oregon Trail – and then I cut the rest of the boards with my jigsaw after she measured them for me.

The kids repeated the process they used for the bottom with the sides.

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And soon it was time to assemble the undercarriage.  The kids took lots of measurements, and then we went off to Lowe’s to buy some expensive nuts and washers.

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We used a metal bar for the axle and used clamps to hold it in place.  The kids figured out how to use the nuts and spacers to hold the wheels in place.

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Since one of the bicycle tires we were using seemed a bit flat, the kids worked together to add air to the tire.

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When our metal axle wasn’t strong enough, they took the wheels apart and added PVC pipe in an attempt to make it stronger.

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Finally, it was time to sand the boards’ rough edges.  There were many, since these were older pallet boards that had spent time outside – but our power sander took care of it quickly.

The kids used another old board and a hinge to make a wagon tongue, …

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and then they tried it out.

The wagon looked great – but the axles weren’t strong enough to support the weight of the wagon.  Despite our modifications, we decided that it just wasn’t ready to pull other kids in.  The kids are determined to figure it out, though, and so work on the wagon continues.

Our efforts weren’t in vain, though.  The kids learned myriads of lessons about measurement and weight and force and angles.  They learned about levers and axles and hinges and tools. 

I taught lessons with labs about simple machines years ago when I taught in public school, and my kids learned those lessons well; but nothing can take the place of authentic, purposeful learning.  This project took days, but by the time we finished, the kids were more confident and were generating their own ideas and potential solutions to the problems we encountered.

I love homeschooling.

What projects do you do with your kids?

For more information about prairie wagons, check out these resources:

 

Book Clubbing in the Wild West: Climbing Mountains

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I love being able to make hands-on plans for book club.  I love that we’re not only about books and discussion but about really getting into the books with all of our senses.  That’s why I was so excited for the kids to read Missing on Superstition Mountain by Elise Broach this month, and just like Henry and his friends, we climbed a mountain.

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On a warm Saturday morning, we met at Hanging Rock State Park in Danbury, North Carolina for a mountain adventure.  After quickly discussing the role of the dangerous Superstition Mountain to Henry, we set off.

Although our group set a brisk pace at the beginning, it wasn’t long before we slowed down considerably.  While the park service ranks the main Hanging Rock trail as a moderate one, the first half is very steep, and the second half requires climbing up rough, rustic rock steps. 

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We paused for a picture before heading up those steps.  Where were we going, exactly?

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We were going to the top of this! 

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We stopped along the way to play in some neat rock formations.  The kids loved climbing into fissures, small craggy areas, and mini caves, then posing for pictures everywhere they went.  It was fun to see them enjoying it so much.

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After lots more climbing, we made it to the top!  We stopped for a picture before scattering to the far corners of the large rock on top of the mountain.

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So where were we, really?  My husband and My Big Helper ventured out onto Hanging Rock itself, but it was so crowded that they didn’t stay long.  They said that it felt too much as if a random elbow-bump could knock one off.  Given that, they didn’t hang around.  There were other places that were just as pretty ….

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Like these huge boulders just around the corner from Hanging Rock itself.  Even though we were far away from the edge, this made My Little Man nervous, and he went back to the mountain as soon as we were done.  We all enjoyed snacking on the rock and enjoying the views, though.

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Though the cliff side of the rocks were not his favorite thing, My Little Man loved the underside of the upper rocks.  How strong would one have to be to hold this one up?

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Climbing the mountain was a major adventure.  It was difficult and exhausting, with a few banged knees and racing pulses.  We were tempted to quit and worried about the danger from the uneven ground, 2500-foot drop, and the crowds at the top.  We realized, though, like Henry, that blazing a new trail was fun.  It made us feel strong.  That conquering the mountain made us more observant of the nature around us and the strength within our muscles. 

If you’ve never pitted yourself against a mountain, give it a try.  You might be surprised at what you’ll learn.

For more mountain-climbing resources, check out these:

 

 

Studying the Wild West: Going on a Trail Ride

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We’re studying the Wild West this semester, and it’s impossible to do so without noting the importance of the horse to this expansion.  From pioneers moving west to the Pony Express, stagecoaches, and cowboys, horses played a huge role in it all.  With that in mind, I scheduled a horse lesson and trail ride so that we could learn about horses firsthand.

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Our lesson took place at a nearby church camp that includes stables.  Chris Burtner, their equestrian director, met us on a beautiful fall morning and talked to the kids about some horse basics: anatomy, behaviors, and horse etiquette.  There’s a lot to learn!

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She also taught the kids about the frog, a soft, triangular part of the horse’s foot and how to care for it.  While she cleaned the frogs before the students came, an important aspect of horse care, she showed them how it’s done.

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Next, everyone learned about the tack necessary for basic riding: saddles, saddle pads, curry combs, bits, reins, and bridles.

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When they knew the basics, the students each retrieved a basket with the necessary tools for currying their horses.  Each was responsible for preparing his own horse to ride, and this gave them all time to bond with their animals.

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My Big Helper especially liked this part.  I think they all fell a little bit in love with their mounts during this part of the lesson.

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When there was no remaining dirt that might chafe the horse after being saddled, the kids were instructed individually about that process.  My Little Man was excited to learn each step of this process, and Burtner kindly walked him through it, checking behind him as he went.

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He was quite proud of his accomplishment!

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After everyone had curried, saddled, and mounted their horses, they headed out for a trail ride.  The forest was beautiful, and while several of the kids looked scared as they held the reins for the first time, they all returned with huge smiles on their faces.  Several asked immediately if they could head back out to the woods!

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Unfortunately, time didn’t allow another ride, and so the kids learned how to unsaddle their horses, as well.  They put away their tack and rubbed down the horses following their ride.

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Since this ride, I’ve heard the kids who attended ask for more lessons.  They loved it!

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I’ve heard more than that, though:  the kids have talked about the feel of the horse, the way it felt to ride so high from the ground, and about how it smelled and sounded.  They’re using proper vocabulary when talking about the horses and equipment, and I can’t wait to read the way that their experiences factor into their stories and ideas about the role of horses in the Wild West.

Have your children ever ridden a horse?

Check out these resources for more information about horses and the Wild West:

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Book Clubbing on the Orphan Train: “A Family Apart”

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This month’s girls’ book club selection was one I’ve had for years:  about twenty years, in fact.  We read A Family Apart by Joan Lowry Nixon, the first in the Orphan Train Adventure series.

The story opens in New York City with an Irish family whose father has died.  Ma is trying hard to keep everyone fed and clothed, but when one of the boys makes a poor choice, she gives them all to Reverend Brace-Loring, who sends them west on the Orphan Train for new homes and better lives.  A Family Apart is about the adventures of Frances, the oldest sister in the family, as she struggles to adjust to life on a Midwestern farm.

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Frances encounters an abundance of food not found in her New York tenement, and so we baked one of those dishes:  an apple pie.  We used Grandma’s recipe and made it just as she taught me – which is how her grandma taught her.  Counting back all those years, that puts this recipe originating at about the same time as when Frances enjoyed it!

None of the girls had ever peeled an apple before, so that was our first adventure.  It took some practice to get it right, but they soon conquered the piles of apples we needed.

After mixing up the crust, they took turns rolling it out and assembling the pies.

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Doesn’t it look yummy?

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Next we went outside to write letters to Frances’ Ma.  Throughout the book, Frances is angry with her mother for ending her west, and the theme of sacrifice is discussed from many angles.  The girls pretended to be Frances at the end of the story, when she has gained some understanding of this difficult concept, and wrote to Ma to explain.

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Frances had a lot going on in the story, though, and missing her mother didn’t top the list.  She had to learn how to live on the frontier, and for a city girl, that was difficult.  One of her new chores was to milk the family cow. 

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The girls practiced on these gloves.  They raced to see who could milk their ‘gloves’ fastest.

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Then, since one of the early chores was to then carry the milk, the girls grabbed the handles of their ‘pails’ and ran it around the yard, trying not to spill any of their milk.

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We also talked about the Pony Express and how it worked.  To simulate that, the girls donned messenger bags, straddled bamboo poles, and formed teams to compete in a relay race, Pony Express style.

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By the time they had done all of that, the pies were out of the oven and ready to eat. 

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It didn’t last long, though – the girls devoured that pie!

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We had lots of fun celebrating A Family Apart.  There are many more threads to tug if you choose to read this book.  I’d love to hear what you choose to do!

Rolling Sculptures: Art Deco @ the NC Museum of Art

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My Little Man adores cars, so when I heard that the North Carolina Museum of Art was hosting a new exhibit of rolling sculptures featuring 14 art deco cars from the 1930s and 1940s, I knew we had to go.

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The exhibit opened on a Saturday morning, and we headed to the museum early to check out the car show happening in the parking lot that day.  I have absolutely no idea what sort of car this is, but I loved looking at the curvy lines of it.  It made me think of an old-fashioned Mickey Mouse car!

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That’s what I discovered about many of these – that while I don’t understand the ‘wow’ factor that car-minded people might get, the artistic quality of these vehicles when compared to modern-day ones was something I could relate to.

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Inside the exhibit, this was my son’s favorite.  He loved it – and while it looks small in the picture, it really wasn’t!  It reminded me of an antique VW bus.

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This Pierce Silver Arrow was really impressive.  I thought My Little Man would totally love it … and he was talking about them before we headed into the exhibit itself, ….

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but then he caught a glimpse of this one.  We couldn’t do anything else until we had thoroughly examined it.

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That’s where he spotted this Bugatti.  This is his favorite type of car, and the details were fascinating.  It was covered with obvious seams and rivets for the sheer beauty of the detail work!  I don’t suppose this Bugatti was ever an everyday sort of car, but you just don’t see these kinds of curves on our cars today.  While we know more about aerodynamics than in the ’30s, all models have very similar shapes.  The way that the rivets decorated the metal seams reminded me of the way that people use overstitching to decorate special shirts. 

My Little Man loved leading me to one vehicle after another, and I loved watching his excitement throughout the exhibit.  It’s definitely worth the exhibit fee.  If you’re anywhere near Raleigh, NC, in the next few months, go check it out.

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To learn more about art deco cars, check out these resources:

 

Writing History at Epic Patriot Camp

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Last week my kids experienced the most amazing camp ever.  It was Epic Patriot Camp, sponsored by the National Park Service, held at the Abingdon Muster Grounds, and taught, in part, by the wonderful author Jenny L. Cote.

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For six hours each day, the lived the Revolutionary Battle of King’s Mountain.  Over the course of the week, they were given a real person who participated in some way at the Battle.  They researched this person and wrote his/her story – while wearing period clothing and receiving technical writing lessons from Cote herself.

It wasn’t just costumes and quills, though – the National Park Service went all out.  The week was full of hands-on lessons about colonial life.  The kids did weapons drills with wooden muskets and watched a reenactor shoot a real one, and then they made musket balls and powder cartridges.  They hiked around the Grounds and examined the native plants, learning about herbal remedies and properties of many of them.  They learned how to write with a quill pen and ink and used wax and seals to mark their journals.  Each day, they continued to research their historical people, add to their stories, and conference with Cote herself.

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The final day was huge, though.  The campers stayed the night at the grounds and slept in colonial-style canvas tents!  They helped to cook their dinner over the campfire, washed dishes, played graces, and spent time around the fire.  The Little Man in the picture above?  The picture doesn’t do him justice.  He was incredibly mud-spattered and stinky when I picked him up – but he couldn’t stop smiling.

The next morning we were treated to a special tea and ceremony.  The kids had the chance to show off what they had learned by sharing parts of their stories.

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They also performed a reenactment of the Battle of King’s Mountain for us.  They really got into it!

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I was impressed each day with the tight, well-planned lessons planned by Cote and the leaders from the NPS.  I loved the hands-on activities and the enthusiasm which I saw pouring out of my kids – but there was one aspect I didn’t expect:  homework.

As homeschoolers, we don’t encounter homework very often.  We’re typically done with our schoolwork long before dinnertime – and so we had planned some fun outings for our evenings away.

Those didn’t go quite as expected, partly because there was homework.  Extra credit assignments, really, that weren’t required, but the kids were adamant that they do them.  They wanted to know more than what they were learning at camp.  They wanted to do their very best for Jenny L. Cote – and they wanted to win her prize.

The kids excitedly shared after their first day at camp that Cote would be watching for the most epic story to be written that week and that the writer of that very story would make an appearance as an animal character in her next book.

As big fans of Cote’s work, that’s all it took: we adjusted our evening outings to accommodate (several hours of) extra credit work each night.  As crazy as it sounds – because who gets excited about homework in the summertime? – the kids couldn’t wait to settle in at the kitchen table and get started each night.

At the final tea, however, we all found ourselves nervous.  There were 18 campers in attendance and many were older than my kids.  Knowing how badly they wanted to win, I was crossing my fingers for them both, but realistically speaking, I knew that the camp was full of smart, talented writers. 

The campers turned out to be so smart and talented that Cote created many more awards than just her original one.  I loved hearing the descriptions of what the campers had done throughout the week to earn these honors.

In the end, however, Cote announced that My Big Helper had won the chance to be an animal in her next book – and we were so shocked that neither of us were certain whose name she called!  (Turns out we each asked other people when the ceremony was over.)

My Big Helper is looking forward to that future day when she’s found in the pages of a Cote book, but she didn’t learn only about writing.  Writing was a big part of it – she came home with pages of notes and techniques, her mind full of stories and examples Cote told during the lessons.

Both kids came home with so much more, though.  They’re more confident writers.  They’re more enthusiastic about writing than ever before, but they’ve also fallen deeper in love with history.  They’re able to put themselves into the story and see the events from multiple perspectives.  They’re able to see each scene with all their senses, describing in detail how it might smell and feel and taste to be there.  They’re full of stories of Patriots and Loyalists of whom I had never heard and know how they’re interconnected.  They know how they changed history and know how to do the research to find out more.  Better yet, they know how to analyze it to see what it all means.  They even met other kids from Tennessee, New Jersey, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Missouri – because that’s how far other people traveled to attend.

When I discovered this camp on Cote’s website, I never imagined anything this amazing – and that’s saying something; I know I’m a pretty tough critic of lesson plans and teaching.  I expected some writing excitement and fun history projects, but Epic Patriot Camp truly lived up to its name.  With tight lessons, generous supplies, kind and enthusiastic teachers, and the encouragement to take their projects as far and as hard as they wanted, Epic Patriot Camp is the best experience we’ve had in years.

The NPS’s Camp Leader, Katherine Lynne, is sure that Epic Patriot Camp will return next year, possibly to some new locations.  I’d encourage you to watch for the announcement that registration is open and to sign your kids up if it’s at all possible for you to get there.  It’s well worth the effort.

*I shared only pictures that I personally took, but there are many more fabulous pictures available on Jenny L. Cote’s Facebook page.  Scroll down to find her Epic Patriot Camp 2016 posts and check them out.

Touring the National Civil War Museum

Did you know that there’s a National Civil War Museum?  I didn’t – or that it was located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, oddly enough – at least, I didn’t until my grandmother told me.

Civil War

She’s always pointing us toward fantastic field trip sites, and so we knew this would be a great one.

Civil War

I was impressed right off by the building.  After getting off the highway, MapQuest directed me through several older neighborhoods, so I was surprised to reach the summit of a hill and find this beautiful brick building awaiting us.  The museum looked official, yet inviting, and we couldn’t wait to get inside.

Civil War

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the National Civil War Museum was a surprise from the very beginning.  You begin at the very top, where videos explain how the war’s start affected people in all parts of American society.  There are artifacts and slave posters and vignettes set up to show how slaves were treated.

My Little Man was enthralled when he first saw this battlefield diorama.  He circled it over and over, examining the troop positions from all sides.

Civil War

One aspect of this museum that really stood out was its non-bias.  There were both Southern and Northern points-of-view, and both were equally represented.  That was clear throughout the museum, and my kids were excited to see it true at this musical display, as well.  They stood and listened for a long time, until they had heard every single song at least once.  There were songs popular with politicians, battle songs, slave songs, dancing songs, etc. – three in each category.  Many I’d never heard of before, and both kids were thrilled to hear the wide range of music.

Civil War

Another unexpected plus to the museum is the authenticity of the historical displays.  I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t expecting to see so many real artifacts on display throughout the museum.  There were clothing worn in battle by famous generals, like the glove above, as well as bullets, slave collars, uniforms, medical instruments, and much more.

There were two aspects of the war that we had hoped to see in exhibits that were missing:  the role of women in the war and something about the Monitor and the Merrimac.  We had studied both, but while there was a simple, small display about women, no specific names were even mentioned.  Given that there were several famous spies, in addition to the role that women played in keeping the home fires burning while their men were at war, as well as new places in nursing and volunteer positions, we had hoped to learn new information here.  Also, the iron-clad ships were mentioned in another display but not these two famous ones, and we thought they warranted a larger mention somewhere.

Civil War

When we left the museum, we headed outside to the porch.  The museum overlooks the original site of Camp Curtain, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers were trained during the Civil War, and now the museum looks out over the city of Harrisburg (although you see little of the actual downtown area here).  The views are pretty, but the National Civil War Museum itself is a treasure trove of interactive historical information just waiting to be discovered.

It’s well worth the trip.

How will you bring life to war studies?