Learning Leatherwork with Tandy Leather

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Education can be found everywhere, and I love finding new avenues to learn – that’s why I was so excited to take the kids to Tandy Leather in Raleigh for a leatherworking lesson.


Little did I know just how kind and generous the store manager, Aubrin Rhem, would turn out to be.


Rhem gave the kids large pieces of scrap leather to practice with, and the first step was to dampen the leather.  We took it outside and used spray bottles with water to prep it.


Rhem taught everyone how to put their leather on stone slabs so that the metal stamps could leave clear, distinct impressions when pounded with mallets. 


Then the students practiced for a long time, learning how much pressure to use and at what angle to get good marks.


After stamping and staining their leather bracelets, Rhem gave the kids a tour of his shop.


They were amazed at the variety of leather available.


The same was true for this python skin!  Everyone loved touching it and seeing just how long it was.

After the stain dried, Rhem sealed the leather with sealant and the bracelets dried in the sun again.   

All told, we spent several hours at Tandy Leather, and I had no idea how much we would learn in that time.  My kids came home, chattering about all of the new things they wanted to make with leather next.  They were using new terms that they had learned that day and bouncing with excitement.

Aubrin Rhem was extremely kind and patient with our students, and Tandy Leather places a high emphasis on leatherwork education.  If there’s a Tandy Leather near you, check out their class schedule.  Working with leather is a relaxing, fun, and practical hobby.

Want to know more?  Check out these leather resources:


NEW! Literacy & STEM Challenges for “Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics”

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You might have noticed that we’re big fans of Chris Grabenstein’s Lemoncello books around here.  That’s because they’re chalk-ful of learning opportunities.  There are so many ways that you can learn with these books – and that’s why I’ve written another series of lesson plans for Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics.

Chris Grabenstein 

These lessons are different from any of the others I’ve written: instead of being a series of multidisciplinary research projects, these are all literacy- and STEM-related.  Each project can be carried out multiple ways to best fit the learning style of your students the and space available. 

These projects will test your students creativity and ability to work together.  They will be challenged to solve puzzles, name books, and build contraptions to solve problems.  Each project is directly related to one of Lemoncello’s Olympic tests for his heroes, and the packet includes printable medals that you can copy to distribute to your students.

These projects are perfect for public-schoolers and homeschoolers alike.  They would work beautifully for a book club or for literature circles.  They provide a way to celebrate the book and check for learning while having fun.

Isn’t that the most engaging and memorable kind of lesson?

You can find this and other learning activities here.

If you haven’t read Chris Grabenstein’s books yet, start with these:


New! A Linked Novel Study for ‘Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter’

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Beth Fantaskey

I’ve been hard at work writing a new novel study, and it’s ready! 

Beth Fantaskey‘s newest book Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter is a great way for tweens to learn about the Roarin’ ’20s.  Isabel is a ten-year-old who skips school to sell papers for the Tribune to help her mother when she hears a murder in a nearby alley.  She’s determined to defend the friend who gets blamed for the crime, and becomes friends with the female reporter and the detectives investigating the case. 

This linked unit study will guide your students to safe websites to research the culture of the 20s.  While using a variety of learning styles, your students will learn about the evolution of jazz, the rule of the mobsters, the gender roles of the time, flapper fashion, and popular foods of the time. 

If your students will be studying the 1920s, Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter and this accompanying linked novel study will guide them to the information they need.

Check out these other fun and educational projects:


Writing History at Epic Patriot Camp

Living History

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.

Living History

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.

Living History

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.

Living History

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

Living History

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?

Baking with Mary Todd Lincoln

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We’ve been studying the Civil War, and no study would be complete without learning about the Lincolns.  We found that Mrs. Lincoln held parties with elaborate food, and that she served a certain cake to Abraham when they were courting.

Of course, my dessert-loving Big Helper decided to make that cake. She chose to use this recipe to recreate a vanilla-almond pound cake with a simple glaze.

Baking with Mary Todd Lincoln

This history lesson was fun but not easy.  It took my Big Helper two full hours to mix it up, and she’s not new to baking.  There were several techniques that were new to her, and she took her time, determined to get it all right.

By the time the cake was complete, she had learned how to separate eggs, how to whip egg whites and fold them into a batter, how to make a glaze, how to butter and glaze a baking dish, and about the proper proportions for a cake.

Mary Todd Lincoln

The finished cake is delicious, but it’s not just cake to the one who made it.  To her, it’s the realization that baking is harder than she thought.  It’s knowing that Abraham Lincoln ate a cake that tasted just like the one that she herself has eaten.  It’s putting her hand into history and blending it with the present.

We’ll definitely be combining more home ec with history.

How do you bring history alive for your kids?

Check out these resources for more information:


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Homeschooling: The Civil War in Action

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We’ve been working our way through American history this year, and we’ve reached a major milestone:  the Civil War.

Civil War

A group of us have formed our own living history co-op, and so this semester we spent the day living the time of the Civil War. 

We started out taking lots of pictures, because the kids look way too cute to pass that up.


Then an older homeschool student visited us to serenade us with ‘Taps’ on his bugle.  The haunting notes were beautiful and echoed through the air.  We could imagine them floating through the camps.

Civil War

Then many of the kids opted to give their reports.  Each one had studied a person alive at the time of the Civil War and had come dressed as their character.  Many had prepped info to share.  My Big Helper chose to study Elizabeth van Lew, a spy for the Union based in Richmond, and My Little Man studied Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, leader of the 54th Massachusetts, the first all-black regiment.

Civil War

Later we dug into our activities.  Each family had planned one.  The kids worked together to build tents, Union-camp style, so they could see how the soldiers lived during the war.

Civil War

Another family built a telegraph from scratch and demonstrated how to use it.  The kids split themselves into two groups and practiced using Morse code to send messages back and forth.

Civil War

One family brought small blocks of balsam wood, and the kids carved out letters to block print them.  Journalists covering the battles would have printed their newspapers this way during the war.

Civil War

My Big Helper is now one of the biggest kids in the group.  She’s had the opportunity to practice planning and giving presentations over the past year, and this event was perfect for her to do another.  She prepared her own activity to teach to the other kids, and she did a great job.  Speaking as van Lew, her character, she shared several codes and the ways that she moved them to her handlers.  Then she gave the kids the way to crack the codes and asked them to translate the messages.

There were several other activities, as well – the kids built games, played games, and learned about the Underground Railroad.  They played in a field hospital lean-to and waved flags and banners.Each family also brought an authentic dish to share, and so we feasted on molasses cookies, hominy, fried potatoes, orangeades, and many other delicious foods for lunch.

While the Civil War was anything but fun, it was important.  This day gave our kids the opportunity to smell some of the smells, to taste the foods, to know the dangers and the skills that people staked their lives upon.

The Civil War means more to my kids than it did a week ago, and they have new skills to go with that new appreciation.

How do you bring history to life for your kids?

These resources will help!

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Book Club, Survival Edition: “The Secret Island”

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I first heard about The Secret Island by Enid Blyton while eavesdropping in the library. 

Awful, right?

I didn’t mean to – but some kids were super excited about a book that they’d read and were happily discussing it with the librarian.  They all seemed so in love with it that I knew we had to check it out.

We loved it as much as those other kids did, and so we chose it for April’s book club pick.

The Secret Island was written long ago and is about a group of children who were living with extended family and were all being mistreated.  They band together and run away to a small island in the middle of a lake, where the live for six months, building a shelter, earning money, and finding food.  While the beginning is sad and the children rather rebellious, there are many opportunities for discussion, and the survival lessons within the book are wonderful.

Book Club

That’s why we went for survival training for this club meeting.  One student’s older brother is a Trail Life-er and volunteered to teach.  He did an amazing job!  Since someone else was teaching, we had a joint boys-and-girls meeting for this book, and while that definitely upped the ‘crazy’ factor for all of us, the kids had a great time.

After we discussed the book, our young teacher got us started with paracord.  He based our meeting on ‘what if we were stranded in the wilderness with only a knife, some paracord, and a survival blanket?’ 

After learning about the benefits of this cording, we headed out into the woods to simulate being lost.  The kids loved this activity.  They quickly banded together into groups and looked for materials with which to build shelters.

Some went for a teepee-style structure, which looked pretty easy to build – but where would all these kids sleep?

Book Club

Others tried to build a more traditional house, with sides and a roof, using the blanket as the roof.  (Still another group went lean-to style, but I never was able to get a picture of theirs.)

Book Club

Upon returning to our house, we returned our attention to paracord.  Our leader taught the kids how to make paracord bracelets that they could wear to be prepared in an emergency.  It took a little while for the kids to figure out how to make them, but as each one caught on, s/he taught another, well demonstrating the ‘each one teach one’ philosophy.  Soon everyone was sporting a camo paracord bracelet!

Book Club

While we had been doing all of this, a peach cobbler prepared by our teacher had been cooking away in a Dutch oven in the driveway.  With only a small amount of time left, he broke out the ice cream and cobbler and we celebrated our new survival skills in a very delicious way.

Our young teacher had other activities planned, as well, that would have taught amazing other skills, but the kids were so enthralled with shelter building and bracelet making that time didn’t allow for any more. 

Although a young teenager, our leader did a great job of planning and sharing his skills with our group of kids.  Their enthusiasm always keeps me on my toes, and despite the fact that he’s not much older than some of the book clubbers themselves, he was quite professional and was able to answer all of their questions.  I love when I see one of our younger ones showing responsibility and dependability, and this young man has it in spades.

Although it’s been several days since the book club event, my kids have been peppering me with questions about what they learned from their survival guide.  They’re interested in heading to REI to look at survival equipment and in trying out their new skills. 

The Secret Island would be a story great for arcing into an overnight campout, a camping unit, or a mission project to help kids – like the ones in the book – whose at-home conditions are less than ideal.

What sort of survival skills do your kids have?

Check out these survival products to host your own Secret Island-style event:


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Learning to Write with Author Jenny L. Cote

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Our recent visit to Patrick Henry’s Red Hill was exciting for more reasons than the hands-on ones I shared yesterday.  It’s where we got to meet author Jenny L. Cote for a writing workshop.

Jenny L. Cote

I’ve always wanted to go to a book signing, and although I’ve gotten a few invitations from authors whose books I’ve reviewed (eeek!  excitement!)  they’ve always been too far away.

That’s why I was extra excited to sign us up for a writing workshop with author Jenny L. Cote following homeschool day at Red Hill.

The event was scheduled by Red Hill and was entitled, “If This Be Fiction, Make the Most of It!”  Cote used this parody of a famous Patrick Henry quote to teach about the various ways that an author prepares and plans the story (and her next three books will involve Patrick Henry).

Cote shared about writing techniques, like researching, but she extended each concept beyond the basic.  She challenged the listeners to go beyond the library and the internet to the world beyond.  She asked us to think big and dream bigger and to take action on those ideas.  The workshop was not a do-this-then-that kind of class but more of an inspirational lecture based on the author’s own experiences.  She has traveled the world doing research for her books and had loads of amazing stories and pictures to share.

Hearing Jenny L. Cote speak made me wish I had a story in my head that I could zoom off to research (another dream of mine – maybe someday?) but her visit wasn’t just about writing itself.  Her lessons were really all about life.

Shouldn’t we all dream big?  Trust God for miracles?  Approach Him boldly?  See beyond the words on a page to the miraculous wonders they share?

My Big Helper finished Cote’s first book on our way to Red Hill, and she was bubbling over with excitement about it.  She purchased the next two and Cote signed all three.  Now My Little Man is reading the story and he’s just as enthralled as his big sister is.

I love when an author inspires a reader to greatness.  I love when a book makes you loath to put it down.

Cote has done both with my children, and after meeting her, I’m quite excited to begin them myself.

Want to read Cote’s books for yourself?  You can find them all here:


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Getting Colonial with Patrick Henry

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I love history.  I love field trips.  I really love when I can combine the two.  That’s why I was extra excited to find out that Patrick Henry’s final home was within an hour of our home.

Patrick Henry

Due to a busy and stressful week and the forecast of thunderstorms, I wasn’t in the greatest frame of mind the night before the trip, though.  I even considered skipping it altogether.

I share that so you can understand just how amazing this field trip was – because it took a lot to get me out of my initial funk, but it wasn’t long before I was fully on board with this Patrick Henry’s mission.

Patrick Henry

I love taking the kids to living-history kinds of places because they can see and smell and hear things we can’t recreate at home.

The people at Red Hill went all out, though, because they let the kids participate in every. single. activity.

They got to TOUCH stuff, too. 

Not many living history places do that.  The artifacts are too delicate to allow mass quantities of people to touch them, but Red Hill made it happen.

Split into groups, we rotated through stations throughout the plantation, and our group began in a shelter at the edge of the forest, with the house and the mountains in sight, with Patrick Henry Jolly, great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the famous Patrick Henry.

Mr. Jolly spoke to us about his ancestor’s early life; about his education, work ethic, and family.  We learned about his most famous speeches and why he made them.  Even this presentation was interactive, however, because in the end we all stood and Mr. Jolly gave us an acting lesson so that we could get into the character of Patrick Henry.  We acted and recited a few lines from the famous “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech before getting autographs and moving on to our next station.

Patrick Henry

This one was even better (sorry, Mr. Jolly) because My Big Helper has wanted to learn to weave for years but has not been allowed to touch a loom at any of the events we’ve been to –  and it’s not a purchase that’s in our foreseeable future.  The teacher at this station taught another adult how to use the loom, and while some of the kids began to weave …

Patrick Henry

she worked with others at a spinning wheel.  It looked like quite a lot of fun – and after each student had made some yarn, she cut a piece off and tied it around their wrist to take home.  How cool is that?

Patrick Henry

The Colonial medicine station was particularly interesting to me, even though the weather worsened at this point.  We learned how to make tinctures, teas, salves, infusions, and decoctions.  I was seriously disappointed that the steady rain prevented us from going to the fire to make whatever they had prepared, because it sounded great to me. 

Patrick Henry

We were particularly amazed at the blacksmith’s shop, where, after learning about the importance of this trade for the survival of a plantation, each student was invited to don safety gear and attempt to make a nail.  To pound hot steel.  Flying sparks.  Hot tools.  For real.  This was exciting.

Patrick Henry

None of the students succeeded in making their own nail completely, but the blacksmith helped them all out, and each student left with a finished nail.

Patrick Henry

At the pottery shop, we learned about the history of pottery.  The students got to work with air-dry clay to make simple medallions that they could place on a necklace.

Patrick Henry

Then the real fun began, because each one got a turn at the kick-wheel to help shape this lump of clay.  Nobody knew what was being made, but by the time each student had followed the teacher’s directions, they had worked together to make a creamer, handle, spout, and all.

Patrick Henry

We also toured the house, visited the gift shop and museum, and had lunch, and at that point the organized homeschool day event was over – but we weren’t finished.

Having seen the family cemetery on the map, we headed over to check it out.  It is always interesting to me to see old gravestones, and we all enjoy studying the carving and thinking about the special people remembered by these stones.  My Big Helper made a bouquet of wildflowers and added them to the stone.

Patrick Henry

She found the flowers here, in the fields behind the house leading down to the Staunton River.  The buttercups were blooming and the fields were beautiful, and we all had fun running around and taking in the view.

Patrick Henry

Having met up with Patrick Henry again, he clued us in to a part of the plantation that wasn’t on our map – the Quarter Place Trail and the African-American cemetery.  This clearing in the forest was the slave cemetery prior to the Civil War, although some people continued to be buried there until 1923.  Marked only by forest rocks, there is little evidence that any number of graves exist here.  The location and difference in site from the other grave sites made for an interesting discussion on the way home.

Our trip to Red Hill taught us a great deal about a man who should be remembered for more than just a few famous words.  Patrick Henry didn’t just talk about his beliefs as many others did, but he took action at a time when that required great courage.  His bravery, intelligence, and ingenuity is what helped to shape both the American Revolution and this nation, and these are traits I hope to teach our children.

All in all, this was one of the best living history field trips we’ve taken in a very long time.  I can’t wait to go back.

Want to know more about Patrick Henry?  Check out this resource:


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