A Few Living Books on Native Americans

Dear Reader,

I am not going to pretend that this is a thorough booklist on Native Americans. There is just too much out there, and a lot of living books to boot. This is a very fertile topic for historical fiction, and many children’s author have made the most of it. But I will share with you my thoughts on the books we used when we recently took a couple of weeks out of our study of American history to concentrate on Native Americans. You can find all our recent booklists on American history here.

Living Books on Native Americans:

The Book of Indians by Holling C. Holling — I was for quite some time not a huge fan of Mr. Holling’s (or Holling, if I may dare to call him by his first name). Homeschoolers always tout his books but I had not liked them or found them very interesting for me or engaging for my children. But we did use a couple of his books for geography recently and they were not terrible. I think part of my problem was that I had looked at these books when my kids were younger, all elementary aged and younger elementary at that, and that for us at least they work a lot better now that the kids are older. In the case of The Book of Indians I think I would have fallen in love with it whenever I had seen it though this was my first time looking at it. I read this book aloud to all my children and the younger two particularly got into it. They fought over whose stuffed animals would get to play the parts and act out the stories as they narrated to us. Kids fighting to narrate is always a good sign. This book starts with an introduction that explains that there were many tribes on Native Americans in the US and that they lived in very different ways which depended a lot upon their natural surroundings. Holling divides these into 4 groups based on their geography and then through the rest of the book tells the stories of fictional children from each section showing how they lived as a matter of course. I highly recommend this book and would say it is for elementary and middle school ages.


The Legend of Blue Jacket by Michael P. Spradlin — This is  along picture book that I had my 9-year-old read.  She did so in 4 sittings I believe though one could go through it more quickly. She seemed to enjoy the story and narrated it well.

indians2Bread and Butter Indian by Anne Colver — Always a good sign: this book is illustrated by Garth Williams whom you may know from the Little House books and Charlotte’s Web. This book was recommended by Truthquest History and was well worth it. I had my 9yo read this one also. It is a chapter book with 8-10 chapters and seemed just right for her level. It is about a young pioneer girl who is lonely for friends and ends up befriending an Indian.


Flaming Arrows by William O. Steele — Steele is another good author and has lots of books on Indians, pioneers and things western. His stories tend to be very adventurous. I had my 13-year-olds each read this one while her brother read another of Steele’s books, The Buffalo Knife, which is not about Native Americans. In Flaming Arrows the Indians are the bad guys and the pioneers are hiding in a  fort to escape them.

Some books we have listened to in the car lately also fit here — the Mr. Tucket series by Gary Paulsen. Like Steele, Paulsen is a prolific writer and many if not all of his books are about life on the frontier. In Paulsen’s, the Naive Amerians are often but not always the bad guys. I think he actually does a fairly good job of giving a balanced view.

That’s the list. It’s short, I know. Do you have particular favorites you would add?



Literary Analysis: Charlotte’s Web

Dear Reader,

Today we made our second attempt at literary analysis. You can read about the first one, on Mr. Popper’s Penguins, here. The whole enterprise on based upon the book Deconstructing Penguins which I really loved and reviewed here. Last link! — You can also read some thoughts I had on how we’re tweaking Deconstructing here.

So to get down to the nitty-gritty. I read my kids Charlotte’s Web over the course of a few weeks. Ideally, each child would read the book himself but I find it’s a lot more likely to get done when I read aloud to them all at once.

I had a list of questions, based on the account given in Deconstructing Penguins (see below). But my oldest had mentioned the previous day that he had some ideas about the book so we started there. His big observation was that when he knows Charlotte is dying, Wilbur begins to use longer words. So we started there and I asked why they thought this was so. It was observed that Wilbur changes and with a little pressing my daughter provided a key word: “maturing.” Wilbur matures in the book. I will say I hadn’t noticed the word thing. The fact that Fern changes is pretty obvious in the book and my kids all noticed it as well. But, though I hadn’t really thought of it, I do think Wilbur changes as well.

We moved on from there to talk about protagonists and antagonists, a concept which Deconstructing introduces in this chapter. I read them the book’s definition (protagonist moves action forward; antagonist tried to keep it from moving) and we discussed which characters they thought played each of these roles. Our suggestions were: for protagonist, Wilbur, Charlotte and Fern (and later in the discussion Old Sheep was also put forward) and for antagonist Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman and “his crew” (i.e. Lurvy, Mrs. Zuckerman, etc.).

We then listed characteristics for each of these characters. It became obvious pretty quickly that Wilbur was probably not our protagonist since the words we listed for him were along the lines of “follower”, “obedient” and “not an idea man.” But for Charlotte we had “leader,” “thinker”, and the like. With a little pressing we also added “brutal” and “bloodthirsty.” A key phrase one of the kids came up with boiled down to “she is very aware of the shortness of life and her own mortality” (not quite how they said it but they had the idea).

From there we listed qualities of Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman. Of the two, Templeton proved far more interesting. Our words for him included “self-interested”, “self-centered” and “hungry.” My younger son, who has a lot of issues with being in his older brother’s shadow, contributed that he thought Templeton was justified in his behavior and that the other animals never treated him nicely or spoke politely to him. We ended up adding that Templeton was the victim of prejudice (against rats, you know).

We then took a vote on how we thought the protagonist was and it was unanimous for Charlotte. So we began to discuss what action she was trying to move forward. Saving Wilbur of course is the obvious answer so we asked why she does this. I had them read a quote from the end of the book in which Charlotte explains her actions to Wilbur. Basically she says she was trying to lift her life up a little. My older daughter felt that Charlotte was trying to atone for her bloodthirstiness in eating bugs. She really latched onto that idea though I have to say I think the atonement bit is misplaced.

There was quite a bit more discussion involved but let me skip to our conclusions: We decided that Mr. Zuckerman rather than Templeton really opposes Charlotte’s action but that Templeton is a kind of foil (didn’t use that word) to her character in that he lives to eat and is completely focused on his own belly and needs whereas Charlotte eats to live and tries to help someone else. I asked them which character they though the author would side with, that is, which view he was espousing. I thought they’d go for the obvious — that Charlotte’s way is right– but they were not convinced (other than my youngest). That younger son who had stuck up for the rat insisted Templeton’s way was right. The other two thought that neither view was presented as the right one.

Finally, I had asked them which approach to life they thought was right and biblical. Here, with a little teasing out, we decided that while Templeton lives only for himself, so does Charlotte really. She makes it obvious in the end that she helped Wilbur to give her own life meaning so her ultimate end is still self-centered. They were pretty quick to see that though their actions were different that their goals were not really so different and my youngest was the one to state the obvious conclusion: that it would be better to help others unselfishly, without any self-focused motive.

And that was our discussion. I was pleased again with how willing the kids were to discuss the book. There were observations — like the first one on Wilbur’s maturity, especially backed up as it was by a literary device (longer words) — that impressed me. There was not necessarily  a whole lot of agreement on some of the main questions. I’m a little worried about the son who keeps taking the rat’s side, frankly. But overall it went pretty well. Before I go, here are the questions I used to guide the discussion (though one must adapt as one goes, these are a place to start):

  • What is this book about? (see p. 29 of Deconstructing Penguins for ideas from the book)
  • What is a protagonist? Read p. 26 of Deconstructing Penguins for their definition of pro- and antagonist. Give an example from their lives (as in the book, we talked about bedtime and how some family members seek to get certain other ones to bed and how those other ones seek to delay)
  • Who is the protagonist in this book? Make a list of candidates.
  • Who is the antagonist? Again, list candidates.
  • List character traits of the possible protagonists — focus especially on Charlotte.
  • What is Charlotte’s view of the world?
  • List traits for the possible natagonists.
  • What is Charlotte’s goal; what action is she trying to move forward?
  • Who is her antagonist?
  • What does Charlotte say to Wilbur before she dies? Wat does she mean?
  • Is Templeton happy in the end?

If you discuss Charlotte’s Web too, please comment and let me know what conclusions your family reaches.

Next time: Babe, the Gallant Pig.


Recipe: Dairy-Free Chocolate Pie

Dear Reader,

Did you celebrate Pi Day this month? If you didn’t, you missed a big one — 3.1415 . . . Good luck waiting till 2115 to try it again. At any rate, we celebrated by making and eating lots of pie. My one daughter can’t have gluten, dairy or soy but really wanted a chocolate pie so I came up with this recipe. There is nothing healthy about this pie; marshmallow fluff is a major ingredient, but it is dairy-free and was deemed acceptable by all four kids.

Dairy-Free Chocolate Pie


For Crust:

1/4 c melted butter or dairy-free alternative (my dd can actually have butter but we used to use Earth’s Balance Soy Free Spread for her; it was the only butter substitute I found without soy and was pretty good too; it can be found at Wal-Mart among other places)

2 tbsp sugar

1 c almond meal

For Filling:

2 tbsp butter or alternative (see note above)

4 oz semi-sweet chocolate (Enjoy Life has a nice dairy-free chocolate)

7 oz marshmallow fluff

1 c almond milk, divided

1 packet gelatin


1. For crust, preheat oven to 350. Combine 1/4 cup melted butter, sugar and almond meal. Mix well. Press into pie pan and bake in preheated oven for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool while you make the filling.

I find it helps to use wax paper when pressing down the crust; no sticky fingers.

I find it helps to use wax paper when pressing down the crust; no sticky fingers.

Ready to bake; sorry the pictures seem blurry; I had my 9yo take them.

Ready to bake; sorry the pictures seem blurry; I had my 9yo take them.

Fresh from the oven and nicely beginning to brown.

Fresh from the oven and nicely beginning to brown.

2. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the 2 tbsp butter with semi-sweet chocolate and marshmallow fluff, stirring constantly until it is all melted and of uniform consistency. Remove from heat.

That yellow lump is butter not completely melted yet.

That yellow lump is butter not completely melted yet.

3. Put 1/2 c almond milk in a bowl and sprinkle with contents of gelatin packet. Stir.

4. Heat the remaining 1/2 c almond milk in microwave for 1 minute. Stir heated milk into gelatin mixture. Stir for 5 minutes until well combined and gelatin is thoroughly dissolved.

Whisk, whisk, whisk that gelatin.

Whisk, whisk, whisk that gelatin.

4. Stir almond milk mixture into marshmallow fluff mixture. Stir until smooth and well-combined. This can take a little time. It is easier if the fluff is still mostly melted. If it has cooled too much, you can always reheat it on the stove first.

Pouring the milk and gelatin into the chocolate mixture

Pouring the milk and gelatin into the chocolate mixture

5. Pour filling mixture onto crust and refrigerate until firm — at least a few hours but overnight is even better.

Ta-da! There's a happy girl.

Ta-da! There’s a happy girl.




Recipe: Pumpkin Muffins — Gluten-free and Low Carb (THM- S)

Dear Reader,

I love my peanut butter muffin recipe, but sometimes a girl needs a change so I recently adapted them to make pumpkin muffins. These are gluten-free and low-carb and have some extra protein added in. If you are on the THM diet, they are an S.

Pumpkin Muffins:

Makes approx. 9 muffins


3/4 flax meal

3/4 c blanched almond meal (if it doesn’t say blanched, it has a different consistency and will likely give a grainier texture)

1 scoop (1/3 c) protein powder (I sued whey but you could use egg white if you need to avoid dairy)

1/2 c xylitol, truvia, or THM sweet blend

1 tsp salt

1 tsp xantham gum

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

big dash nutmeg

1/2 c canned pumpkin

1/2 c almond milk (or other milk of choice)

1 tsp vanilla

2 eggs or 1/3 c egg whites


Preheat oven to 400. Grease a muffin tin. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the wet ingredients and stir until thoroughly moistened and of a uniform consistency. Drop by spoonfuls into the prepared muffin tin, filling each cup up about half way. Bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Enjoy!

pumpkinmuffins1 pumpkinmuffins3




Nature Inspired Artists’ Gallery

Dear Reader,

Another shameless promotion: my daughter is featured today on the Facebook page of the Mayapple School. Please check it out if you get a chance.



“Gamification” and Education

Dear Reader,

I recently read an article in Harvard Magazine (Mar-Apr, 2015) called “Computing in the Classroom.” The author, Sophia Nguyen, reports on the work of some big thinkers in the field of education and how in particular they see games (and as the title suggests this seems to be mainly computer games) playing into education. A lot of the ideas and words in the article were new to me and I will not pretend I understood it all. But I would like to give you my summary and thoughts.

Nguyen begins by looking at the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who is so famous even I have heard of him. He is known as a behaviorist who experimented not only on pigeons and the like but also on his own children (or so I have read elsewhere). He tried to control people and animals through what he did to them. An example which the article uses is   getting a pigeon to roll a ball back and forth with its beak in order to earn food pellets. Perfectly innocent, in my opinion, when a pigeon is involved. Not so innocent when the goal is the education of our children. Here is where the term “gamification” first gets introduced — it seems to refer to when businesses or schools use things that seem like games to try to get their employees or students to do what they want them to:

“For businesses, gamification-based training promises to maximize profits and employee productivity; for schools, it seems like a way to motivate students to perform rote memorization—and to do so cost-effectively. The education system continues to pursue Skinner’s goal of efficiency and automation.” (p. 49)

The article then goes on to say, quoting Paul Reville, a professor of educational policy, that this system is outmoded (thank God!) and that we need something which will better prepare our kids for technological careers. Up to this point, I am with Nguyen and her sources. What she says sounds a lot like what I have read in John Taylor Gatto’s books (see a couple of reviews here and here) — that is, our modern educational system was designed to make automatons to work in factories and we need to replace it.

The question is: what do we replace it with? Nguyen begins this section by citing another professor, Jessica Hammer, who says that “deep game experiences: need to involve “meaningful choices” and “the open-ended, experimental spirit of play” (p. 49). She then looks at the sorts of games which have been successful at getting kids involved and getting them to learn and those which haven’t. Nguyen mentions Pokemon cards as being a great example of something that got kids to learn and read. As a Charlotte Mason-style educator, though, I cringed when these trading cards were called “‘the best literacy curriculum ever conceived'” (p. 51). There seems to be in this statement only a desire for quantity — can our kids read? how many can read?– and no concern for the quality of what is being introduced.

Which brings me to the real heart of what I want to say: We need to know what we are trying to do with kids. Nguyen’s article assumes a certain goal for education which seems to be to produce kids who can “pursue work and personal interests in the twenty-first century” (p. 51) and to equip them for “high-skill, high-knowledge jobs in a postindustrial information age” (p. 49). The underlying assumption seems to be that Skinner’s approach fails because the world has changed and that therefore education needs to change to keep up. Nguyen speaks of Skinner’s machine operating “through the narrowest if windows” whereas today “the windows are so much larger” (p. 54).

While I agree with the criticisms of Skinner’s work, I am not sure the solutions here explored are any better. There is still a fundamental assumption that we, the educators, must manipulate the students and mold them into what we want them to be. And then there are all the assumptions about what they should be — productive workers within a given system. The system may have changed over the years, but the goals really have not. We are still treating children like pigeons. All that has changed is that our pigeons (guinea pigs might be a better term) have a lot more complex tasks to perform. It all comes back for me to Charlotte Mason’s first principle: children are born persons. When we forget that, we go astray and can’t find our way back. We are asking how do we educate kids to make them what they should be when we should be asking who they will be.

It seems to me there is also a hint here of something like a Montessori or Waldorf type education in which an artificial environment is created for children. The idea behind all this “gamification” being that we create scenarios which will mimic the “real world” in order to prepare our kids for that “real world.” In the quote from Hammer above, she speaks of the “spirit of play” but as others have argued (see this review of Peter Gray’s work for instance), it is real play children need, not something adults try to construct to mimic play. We will never be as good at producing for them what they naturally create for themselves.

It all comes back to prsonhood again. We need to care who our children are, not what role they will fulfill in our scheme of things or how productice they will be. And we need to respect them as persons by not trying to manipulate them through games and artificially constructed frameworks which are playful but are not true play.


Living History Books: Washington and Adams

Dear Reader,

As we slowly work our way through American history, I have been sharing what books we have used. You can find all the links to previous posts here. We have just finished 3 weeks on the presidencies of Washington and Adams. I found relatively little to use on this period. I am, of course, limited to what our library system has so you may find different titles. There are lots of biographies, especially on Washington, available, but my goal this time was to look more at each man’s time in office than at the man himself. I will recommend The Bulletproof George Washington, a book which we have used in the past.

Here is the rest of the list:

For spines (books which I read aloud to all the kids to give us an overview and make sure there are no huge gaps) we continue to go through H.E. Marshall’s This Country of Ours and Helene Guerber’s  Story of the Great Republic. I find each of these volumes fairly simple on this time period. They explain the events well, especially for my younger kids, but they feel a little light. My solution has been to use both of them in the hopes that one will cover events the other might miss.

Biographies by Mike Venezia — In addition to our spines, I read aloud to the kids the relevant biographies by Venezia. If you have younger kids and don’t know this author, check him out. He has biographies on all the presidents as well as many artists and composers. Each one had cartoon-style pictures as well as other pictures and presents the information in  a fun way. I suspect that these are not good living books and that CM herself would not approve of them. But my kids look forward to them. They are funny and they are fun and they can be read in one sitting so not much is lost.

Venezia on Washington

Venezia on Washington

With a little extra time to fill, I also read aloud John Jay by Stuart A. Kallen. This was not a stellar living book but it was okay. I’ll say again: There was little I could find on specific events in this time period.washington6

I had my 4th and 5th graders read two of the same books. The first is George Washington by Ingrid and Edgar D’Aulaire. The D’Aulaires have wonderful volumes on a number of historic figures. They are beautifully illustrated and at the level of long picture books. I broke this one up into four sections for each of them which was quite doable. I would call these books upper elementary age though one could read them aloud to a first or second grader as well.


The other book my younger two read was George Washington and the First Balloon Flight by Edmund  Lindop. It was a nice tale of the first balloon trip and it includes a dog on the story, always a plus. The level is again long picture book or beginning chapter book and each read it in four sittings without being strained.



My 4th grader also read Abigail Adams: Dear Partner by Helen Stone Peterson. It was a nice little biography, an easy chapter book which she read in 8 sittings. She seemed to enjoy it and was able to connect it to other events we had studied. We laughed when she read that Abigail Adams went to Europe and was pleasantly surprised to find the ocean waters there swimmable — we brave the New England beaches every summer!


For a little more hearty educational meat, I had my 5th grader read The Whiskey Rebellion by Katy Schiel. This is not really a living book, but I was hard-pressed to find anything from our library system about Washington’s time in office (as opposed to the person himself). It seemed like an okay book– not just a list of facts– and he understood it well.

washington3My 8th grader read George and Martha Washington at Home in New York  by Beatrice Siegel. I had thought it a bit dry when I skimmed through it but she did okay with it and didn’t seem bored by it so I guess it was a decent book for her. It is not hard. I would call it middle school level but a 5th grader could probably tackle it too.

washington4I had both my 8th and 9th graders read The Whiskey Rebellion by David C. Knight. This was a pretty good book. It explained the events well and kept their attention. It is one of the choices from this section that I am most pleased with.

washington7My 9th grader also read selections from George Washington and the Founding of a Nation by Albert Marrin. Marrin is a favorite author of mine and he has books on tons of topics — not just history but science too; his book on oil was the first we read and it was excellent. My son had read Marrin on the Revolution and our time on this topic was limited but if one were spending longer on the time, it would be worth reading the whole book.


Path of the Pale Horse by Paul Fleischman. From his narartions this was  a bit of a weird story though he is not the clearest narrator. It is the st ory of the yellow fever epidemic that swept Philadelphia in 1793. But there is a but of a mystery to it as well. It seemed like it was an intriguing book for kids.

And that’s what we read this time. Next up: some books on Native Americans!

Happy Reading


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