Teaching Literature-Based History without a Curriculum

Teaching Literature-Based History without a Curriculum

Truly, the biggest hurdle to cobbling my own history curriculum together has been organizing the resources in such a way that I know where they are, I remember all of the ideas that I had, and I don’t leave anything out. 

Book Review: Bound by Ice: A True North Pole Survival Story

Bound by Ice: A True North Pole Survival Story
by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace (Calkins Creek)

Have a kid who enjoys true-life survival stories? Is your family studying polar explorers, post-Civil War America, or the Arctic? This page-turning nonfiction book for ages 10 and up would be a great addition to your reading list.

Award-winning authors Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace tell the story of U.S. naval officer George Washington De Long’s ill-fated 1879 attempt to reach the North Pole on the U.S.S. Jeannette, exploring what went wrong on the voyage and bringing the ship’s crew to vivid, memorable life. Using the extensive records kept by De Long and other crew members as source material, the Wallaces give readers a close-up look as the Jeannette gets locked in by ice and De Long and his men fight for life through one dramatic setback after another.

One of the things that kept me gobbling up this book were its many surprises. One of the first surprises was learning that in the 19th century, many people believed that there might be a tropical sea at the North Pole. The desire to discover and explore this fabled tropical seascape was part of what drove George W. De Long on his journey.

The book also has an interesting connection to today’s debates over fake news and media sensationalism. One of the funders of the voyage was James George Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald and purveyor of outrageous, sometimes completely fabricated news stories, including an account of escaped zoo animals in New York City goring and mauling people—a completely phony tale. The Herald’s fictionalized accounts of the Jeannette’s voyage misled the crew’s loved ones and fanned wild rumors throughout the two years the crew was out of touch with the rest of the world.

At a time when science is being increasingly disregarded and disrespected by many policymakers, this book feels like a cautionary tale with startling relevance.

Another interesting aspect of the Wallaces’ account is the way it demonstrates the danger of making important, life-and-death decisions on the basis of junk science. De Long based much of his planning for his polar voyage on the theories of a so-called North Pole authority who argued that explorers could easily reach the North Pole in two months if they followed a warm Pacific current called the Kuro Siwo. This ill-informed “expert” predicted that explorers would find polar regions “more or less free from ice” and theorized that an expedition could safely complete a North Pole expedition in a couple of months. 

At a time when science is being increasingly disregarded and disrespected by many policymakers, this book feels like a cautionary tale with startling relevance.

One of the biggest pleasures of Bound by Ice is the way the Wallaces bring the members of the expedition to life with small, vivid details. We learn that Civil War hero and chief engineer George Melville was annoyed by the ship meteorologist’s tendency to burst into snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan songs. We discover that the ship naturalist was tortured by dreams of pumpkin pie, “the particular weakness of a New England Yankee,” as he put it, when the men’s diets had dwindled down to a monotonous round of canned vegetables and seal and polar bear meat. 

Another compelling aspect of the book is the tender love story between De Long and his wife Emma. The authors thread excerpts from De Long’s letters to Emma throughout the adventure, reminding readers of the very personal stakes involved in this real-life drama.

The story of the Jeannette definitely has tragic elements. But it’s also a deeply inspiring story of persistence, teamwork, and devotion to making a contribution to science and history. Readers will come away with a new perspective on the North Pole and a fresh appreciation for the sacrifices that explorers have made to expand our knowledge of the world. 

Summer Boot Camp: 5 Ways to Get Excited about Teaching U.S. History

History is more than just names, dates, wars, treaties, and timelines. If your homeschool history class could use a boost of inspiration, use this summer to kick things up a notch with these history resources and ideas.

History is more than just names, dates, wars, treaties, and timelines. If your homeschool history class could use a boost of inspiration, use this summer to kick things up a notch with these history resources and ideas.


Go Beyond the Textbook: History professor Will Fitzhugh believes that history teachers and students should be reading good history books—not just textbooks. Some of his faves for your summer reading list: Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough, Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, and The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough.



History, Meet Technology: Historian Thomas Ketchell explores the complex question of whether facts matter in an age of instant-access information and how to use technology to make history relevant and engaging in this Ted talk. Ketchell’s ideas about Twitter and Minecraft in the classroom may not be a perfect fit for your homeschool, but they’ll definitely make you think about new ways of considering history.



Rethink Where You Begin: If your U.S. History plans start on the Bering Strait bridge, historian Annette Atkins says you may be missing the chance to make history truly relevant for your student. In this essay, Atkins explains why she starts her history classes with current events—and how that gets students excited about diving into the past.



Shift Your Emphasis: The point of history isn’t to memorize a bunch of facts but to be able to interpret and analyze historical documents and events so that we can construct meaningful narratives about the past. Why Won't You Just Tell us the Answer?: Teaching historical Thinking in Grades 7- 12 walks you through how to shift your history studies from memorization toward interpretive and interrogative examination.



Encourage Deep Research: The Concord Review publishes original historical research by high school students. For kids who are passionate about history, crafting a 4,000- to 6,000-plus-word essay in strict Turabian style to submit for publication can be a highlight of a U.S. history class. Browse some of the published work— it’s quite impressive—and consider encouraging your student to submit.

This list is excerpted from our Summer Boot Camp Guide in the summer 2016 issue of HSL.

HSL Book Deal of the Day 5.21.17: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

The original computers weren't machines, they were people—specifically women who, armed with slide rules and sharpened pencils, performed the complex calculations needed to get the space program (literally) off the ground. This book shines a long overdue spotlight on the women scientists and mathematicians who contributed to the early work of the space program, and it's a great read on its own or as part of a larger study with The Glass Universe and Hidden Figures.

We're highlighting our picks for best book deal of the day on the blog, but you can always find our favorite Kindle book deals here.

9 Fun Extras (Under $25) That Will Give Your Spring Homeschool a Boost

Add a little oomph to your sunny days homeschool with these spring extras, designed to make learning (almost!) as much fun as the prospect of playing outside.

Topics in History: Investigating Watergate

Topics in History: Investigating Watergate

How did a break-in at a campaign office lead to the resignation of the President of the United States? This list of resources will help you investigate this chapter of U.S. history.

Little Unit Study: Abraham Lincoln

He led the United States through one of its bloodiest conflicts, ended slavery, and gave some of history’s most memorable speeches. Celebrate Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 with these resources 

Homeschool Unit Study: Abraham Lincoln

“The Presidency, even to the most experienced politicians, is no bed of roses,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in his 1850 eulogy for President Zachary Taylor. Lincoln was a decade away from his own presidency, and he must have felt the truth of his own words many times in the years that followed, as he sat in the White House, leader of a nation at war with itself. Schools tend to gloss up Lincoln’s story, focusing on his plain-speaking, rail- splitting, self-determined path to the nation’s highest office, but there’s much more to the sixteenth President than a simple story can tell. Don’t be afraid to dig deep — Honest Abe is worth the effort.

Best Movie

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Abraham Lincoln has featured in twenty-something movies since his first appearance in Birth of a Nation (1915), but Spielberg’s Lincoln (2013) is arguably one of the best. Much of the script is pulled verbatim from letters and memoirs, and though there are some historical details to nitpick, Spielberg’s efforts to be scrupulous pay off. This is the Lincoln movie to see.

Runner-Up: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)


Best Scholarly Book

President Barack Obama (himself a former Illinois lawyer) has said that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is the book he’d want to have with him on a desert island. Historian Goodwin is at her best exploring the conflicting personalities and factions that defined the Lincoln White House.

Runner-Up: Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson


Best Kid’s Book

Grace's Letter to Lincoln
By Peter Roop, Connie Roop

True story: When Abraham Lincoln was running for his first term as President, a little girl from New York wrote him a letter, suggesting that he consider growing a beard to make his thin face more attractive. Grace’s Letter to Lincoln, by Peter and Connie Roop, tells the lightly fictionalized story of eleven-year-old Grace Bedell’s famous letter. One of the more interesting things about this book is that it portrays a young girl’s obvious political interest during a time when women weren’t allowed to vote. 

Runner-Up: The Boys’ Life of Abraham Lincoln by Helen Nicolay


Best Virtual Field Trip

You can — and should — spend hours browsing the Abraham Lincoln collection online at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American history. Including Lincoln’s iconic top hat, the wool shawl he wore in the office, a copy of the original Emancipation Proclamation, and more artifacts and analysis, this virtual field trip may be the ultimate Lincoln experience.


Best Lincoln Biography

How does a man go from being “a piece of floating driftwood” to leading a country through a crisis? That’s the question historian Douglas L. Wilson attempts to answer in his biography Honor’s Voice, painting the many stumbling blocks and difficulties the young attorney ran into on his way to the White House.

Runner-Up: The Young Eagle by Kenneth J. Winkle


Best Collected Lincoln

Perhaps the best way to get to know anyone is through his own writing. The Portable Abraham Lincoln, edited by Andrew Delbanco, includes the speeches and letters that made Lincoln famous, as well as more personal, lesser-known writings. Compelling stuff.


Best Extra Credit

Lincoln's Grave Robbers
By Steve Sheinkin

Bet you didn’t know about the 1875 plot to rob Lincoln’s grave and hold his body for ransom — and that’s a shame because it’s a rip-roaring good story. Happily, Steve Sheinkin tells it brilliantly in his can’t-put-down book Lincoln’s Grave Robbers.

Unit Study: Ellis Island

Unit Study: Ellis Island

Ellis Island may have been closed for sixty years, but you can explore its lasting impact with books, videos, and hands-on activities.

When Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892, it marked the beginning of a new phase of U.S. immigration policy. More than twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, many fleeing deteriorating economic conditions and increasing political instability in Europe. A healthy immigrant with her papers in order could make it through Ellis Is- land’s immigration processing and legally enter the United States in three to five hours. Though only two percent of immigrants were denied entry (usually because of contagious illnesses or low likelihood of finding employment), stories of families separated by the newly bureaucratic process are heart-wrenching. Ellis Island officially closed on November 12, 1954.



Dreaming of America: An Ellis Island Story makes a nice picture book introduction to the history of Ellis Island, relating the story of 15-year-old Annie Moore, the first person processed through the immigration center. 

Letters from Rifka is the fictional account of a Russian girl who finally makes it to the United States, only to be held in the Ellis Island hospital.

In The Orphan of Ellis Island, a modern-day foster kid finds himself transported to the past on a school field trip. 

Island of Hope, Island of Tears: The Story of Those Who Entered the New World Through Ellis Island in Their Own Words is a good primary source read for older students.



The History Channel documentary Ellis Island, narrated by Mandy Patinkin, relates the history of Ellis Island through the experiences of some of the immigrants who passed through its halls. 

PBS’s Forgotten Ellis Island (2008) focuses on the center’s immigrant hospital, where contagious arrivals were detained for treatment. 

For older students, The Immigrant (2013) shows the darker side of the immigration process.



Search for your own ancestors in the Ellis Island online passenger database. 

If you can’t get to New York City for an in-person field trip, take a virtual one instead with Scholastic’s interactive Ellis Island experience.

This was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of home | school | life.

Layers of Learning: A Curriculum for Multiple Ages

Layers of Learning is history-centric, unit study-style curriculum that's great across different age groups

Another school year is about to begin. I can’t wait! For the first time, all three of my children will be homeschooling together. Like many of you, I’m contemplating how to best address my kids’ individual learning styles and interests without breaking the bank buying curriculum. I also know that the lessons and projects we enjoy most tend to be those that we work on together as a family. Both of these factors point to unit studies as an option worth considering.  

Unit studies are a series of activities organized around one theme. Homeschoolers can design their own unit studies or save time by choosing from the enormous range of options that can be purchased. 

For those buying unit studies, the Layers of Learning program may be just what you are looking for. Authors Michelle Copher and Karen Loutzenhiser have created a series of unit studies focusing on history, geography, science, and the arts. Their program is designed for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.   

Year One begins in Mesopotamia and ends with a look at the Roman Empire. Year Two continues from the Medieval Period (400 AD) to the Renaissance. Throughout Year Three, students focus on the Age of Exploration and the Colonial period. Year Four, still in development, will focus specifically on the past 200 years. According to the website, it will be completed this year. 

Here’s how it works. Regardless of age, students begin with Year 1 Unit 1. Each unit takes approximately two weeks to complete and contains a wide range of activities and suggested book titles. Students simple pursue the topics, projects, and readings that are of greatest interest. It takes four years to cycle through these materials once. Upon completing the cycle, students return to Year 1 Unit 1 moving on to some of the more challenging materials included in the unit. In other words, students who begin Layers of Learning as first graders would go on to cycle through the full program 2 more times.  

For this review, I looked at the year two-unit one Layers of Learning guide, which focuses on Byzantines, Turkey, Climate and Seasons, and Byzantine Art.  Jam packed with maps, art, and other eye catching visuals, the unit’s pages are not overly text heavy. Throughout the program, additional information is provided in a series of sidebars with headings like “Fabulous Facts” and “Additional Layer.” The “Teacher Tips” provided in the margins are relevant and helpful. “Writing Workshop" boxes contain writing prompts that will appeal to a wide range of age. 

A booklist with recommended readings connected to the unit’s theme is also included. These book suggestions are grouped for readers in grades 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12. 

Layers of Learning has something for everyone. Each unit includes hands-on activities, creative writing projects, science experiments, and art projects that can be adapted to suit a variety of ages and learning styles. 

In the unit that I reviewed, in order to better organize and assimilate information, students are encouraged to reference a Byzantine timeline. Thoughtful points for discussion are provided and include questions such as “Do you think there should be a state church or state religion? What are the pros and cons of religion mingled with government?”  There is an opportunity to play a traditional Byzantine board game, make Byzantine clothing, and to work on Venn diagrams while exploring the similarities and differences between the Romans and Byzantines. 

The geography section of this unit features hands-on map work, a look at Turkish sports, and the opportunity to prepare a Turkish feast, as well as sections on the Turkish flag. 

Opportunities to make a sundial, keep a weather log, and examine the greenhouse effect are just a sampling of the concepts explored in the science section of this unit. Many of the projects are hands-on and will especially appeal to younger learners. 

A study of Byzantine era art is the perfect launch for a study of mosaics, gold leafing, and embroidery. The authors provide innovative project ideas to cultivate appreciation and understanding of these traditional arts.  

Layers of Learning is a fun and flexible program that can simplify the process of teaching multiple ages. It would work equally well with one child. Families may find working through each of the four-year cycles works best for their situation. However, single units, which can be purchased separately, could also be used as a standalone unit or to supplement another curriculum. 

Visit Layers of Learning’s website to purchase PDF downloads of all available units. These downloads can be ordered separately for $4.99 or in bundles for $78.80. Hardcopy versions are also available from selected retailers listed on the website. 

With the new school year comes inevitable change. Whether you are introducing your new kindergartener to the wonderful world of homeschooling, watching your homeschool grow smaller as older children leave the nest, or find yourself somewhere in between, best wishes for the year ahead. I hope you find curriculum that sparks wonder and curiosity, makes your workload lighter, and most of all brings joy. 

Editor's Note: Rebecca's review focuses on the medieval year, which includes secular science, but we've discovered that some of the Layers of Learning curricula include problematic "neutral science." Because of this, we do not recommend using Layers of Learning for your science curriculum. —Amy

Unit Study Idea: The African-American Struggle for Civil Rights, Past and Present

Unit Study Idea: The African-American Struggle for Civil Rights, Past and Present

Carrie’s family wanted to study the history of civil rights in the United States, and they found the project incredibly rewarding. These were some of their favorite resources.

Topics in History: Mary, Queen of Scots

Great reading list for studying Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots

Mysterious deaths! Tragic beauties! Political drama! Honestly, it’s no wonder the life of Mary Stuart, queen of France and Scotland, has inspired a televised teen drama. Mary’s life and eventual execution have intrigued creative types for centuries. Was Mary really a manipulative black widow determined to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I and reign over England and Scotland? Or was she an innocent victim of a time when women’s political power was controlled by men? Four hundred and seventy years after she was crowned Queen of Scotland, Mary and her motives remain a mystery. Once you’ve read (and watched) a few versions of her story, you’ll no doubt have your own opinion.

In Books

The mysterious death of Lord Darnley was the beginning of the end for Mary. Weir thinks Mary is innocent of her second husband’s murder — Weir puts the blame on the very nobles who accused their Queen — but her Mary is definitely guilty of poor judgment. 


Mary was only nine months old when was crowned Queen of Scotland and seventeen years old when she became the Queen of France. Lasky focuses her attention on what may have been the only truly happy time in Mary’s life — her childhood growing up at the French court with her fiancé Francis, the heir to the French throne.


Mary Queen of Scots
By Antonia Fraser

Mary wasn’t a very good queen, concedes Fraser in her groundbreaking biography. But she certainly wasn’t guilty of the murders and conspiracies that led to her execution in England.



Unlike her cousin Elizabeth who never traveled outside of England, Mary lived in England, Scotland, and France during her life. Cheetham brings the geography of Mary’s life to the forefront, telling her story through the places she lived.


Scotland Under Mary Stuart
By Madeleine Bingham

What was life like for women in the 1500s who didn’t happen to be born into the Scottish royal family? Bingham answers that question, illuminating the vast differences between Mary’s tumultuous life and the life a common woman of the time would have led.


George takes a sympathetic approach, painting the queen as an emotionally and politically naïve young woman whose bad decisions ultimately led to her downfall.


Queen's Own Fool (Stuart Quartet)
By Jane Yolen, Robert Harris

Why were so many people loyal to the Scottish queen? In her book, Yolen examines the charming, affectionate, and generous Mary through the eyes of her fool, Nicola, and the members of her adoring court.


A Traveller in Time
By Alison Uttley

When bookish Penelope travels back in time from the 1930s to the 1500s, she becomes caught up in her ancestors’ efforts to restore the captive-in-England Mary to the throne. Uttley explores some of the legal, religious, and personal reasons Elizabeth I’s subjects may have supported Mary.


Adieux de Marie Stuart  (c. 1876)
By Pierre-Jean de Béranger

De Béranger’s nineteenth-century poem paints the young Queen Mary as a tragic, romantic heroine whose fate is sealed when she departs the shores of her beloved France.


On the screen

Mary of Scotland
Starring Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March

Katharine Hepburn plays Mary as a martyr in this romantic tragedy. Interestingly, the Earl of Bothwell, generally regarded as a manipulative scoundrel, gets the heartthrob treatment in this film version.


Mary and Elizabeth meet face-to-face in this drama, an event that never occurred in historical fact. Mary, played by Vanessa Redgrave, is an emotionally impulsive young woman who is easily manipulated into making bad decisions by her more rational cousin in this film.


Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Rhys Ifans, Jordi Molla

Mary, played by Samantha Morton, is not much more than a pawn in a bigger Catholic conspiracy in this film.


Elizabeth R
Starring Glenda Jackson, Robin Ellis

The “Horrible Conspiracies” episode of this BBC miniseries focuses on Mary’s years of captivity in England and ultimate execution, as seen through the eyes of Elizabeth I and her councilors. 


The Wonderful World of Disney: The Truth About Mother Goose  (1957)

An animated short about Mary’s life attributes the origins of the Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary nursery rhyme to the Scottish queen.

Summer Reading: If You Liked Hamilton

This one’s a bit of a spin, but with all the Hamilton fans out there, we thought it would be fun to round up some read-this-next books for people who just can’t get enough Ham.


Don Brown always does a brilliant job distilling complex information for younger readers (have you read his Hurricane Katrina book yet?), and Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History, a dual history of two of Hamilton’s key figures, is no exception.



Think Hamilton-adjacent and dive into the life of the most famous traitor in Revolutionary history with The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery. Arnold is as fascinating a character as Hamilton.



Dig into a biography of Alexander Hamilton’s life that actually includes some of the best parts of the musical (including a reference to Angelica Schuyler who doesn’t show up in other Hamilton children’s lit). Jean Fritz’s Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider is the Ron Chernow equivalent for the elementary school set.



Fever 1793
By Laurie Halse Anderson

Fever 1793 tells the story of one girl’s experiences during Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic, which also affected Hamilton and his wife. This is gripping historical fiction based on real events.



Burr: A Novel
By Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal’s Burr isn’t just our next podcast read—it’s a complex, almost Shakespearean tale of the man behind one of history’s most famous duels. Read it with us!