We’ve Come Full Circle: Ken Burns, The Civil War, and Homeschooling Memories

This week, my younger finishes up his third American history class from Online G3, and the last topic of the course is the causes of the Civil War. He has three months before starting the course that covers that war, but he’s ready to study it now. So today, we started watching The Civil War, a Ken Burns film from PBS. It runs 660 minutes and covers just what the title says. It will take some time to get through, but he’s all enthusiasm.

I’m all memories.

My older came home from school seven and a half years ago, in January 2005. He’d grown enormously in a fine Montessori preschool for ages four and five. Under the tutelage an open-minded teacher who truly valued his intellect and respected his limitations, he’d grown to adore and appreciate math and geography. He’d weathered (barely) first grade in another Montessori school, where output was valued more than the joy of learning. In that year, he learned to dread the pencil and that learning was more about the amount of paper one produced than making connections about the real world. He’d barely tolerated half of second grade at a public gifted and talented school, all the while wondering where the math and science were. Since he was offered nothing new to learn in those subjects, he assumed he wasn’t smart enough to be taught them. Halfway through the year, out of options and nearly out of hope, we released him and brought him home.

Over the Christmas break, I researched and planned, ordering only what I felt sure we’d use, avoiding the temptations that were in the Rainbow Resource Catalogue and our local teachers’ supply store. I bought a balance scale, gram weights, some Key Press Key To.. math workbooks, a Wordly Wise vocabulary book, copies of Usborne’s and Kingfisher’s history encyclopedias, Handwriting Without Tears Printing 1 and 2, and the entire set of Joy Hakim’s History of US. Overall, my choices were wise well-used. (If only I’d continued to use such restraint.)

Back to Ken Burns. I asked my son that December what he wanted to do for history. My own history education had been abysmal. I recalled next to nothing of the names and dates that filled my elementary and high school classes. I’d hated the subject so much I’d avoided history entirely during my undergraduate years, earning credits instead in courses on race relations and other tangential studies that avoided the word “history” in the title. So when I opened the question to him, I did so part because I had nothing to offer from my own knowledge on the subject but also because I wanted him to shape his own education.

His reply was short. The Civil War.

Groan. Aside from the bare-boned facts about the war (Lincoln, slavery, who won, and approximate dates), I was ignorant about that subject. Okay, I was ignorant about most of history, so this choice didn’t unnerve me more than any other would have. So I did what any sane homeschooler would do before the proliferation of online forums and chats. I went to the library.

I left the children’s sections with stacks of books on the Civil War but no videos. I wandered to the adult documentaries and found the Ken Burns title. I vaguely remembered good reviews of the series, which I’d of course not watched on PBS because I really despised history. But now I had a mission. Home it came.

We took our time with the videos, the library books, and the Joy Hakim book on the war. The more we read and watched, the more my interest grew. His grew right along with mine, and in those few hours his younger brother attended preschool, we took in all we could about that part of American history, following rabbit trails as we went. During our study, I came to understand just how hard the physical act of writing was for him. His brain and hands, which worked so well in concert at the piano, were enemies with a pencil and paper. I learned to scribe for him, writing out paragraph-long descriptions of the events, places, and people we studied on oversized index cards which went into a timeline box.

But I felt we needed a project, a way to demonstrate all we’d learned. If I sound enmeshed in this learning experience, it’s because I was. Finally, history was coming alive. It was a story, the telling of what actual humans had experienced. It chronicled the best and worst of humanity, along with a bunch of what was incredibly average and everyday. We were both smitten. So together, we designed and created a board game about the Civil War. Using the internet to find images and our books to find questions, we made a trivia game of sorts. I typed what he told me to type, and together we created questions and decided upon the rules. Those hands that could only write with pain and struggle worked hard to cut and glue. He laid out the board to his liking.  A coating of contact paper covered the top, and we were ready to finally play. Of course having created it, we were quite good at playing, and winning was fairly easy, but, boy, were we proud.

The next year, we started at the beginning of the Hakim books, reaching for our library card for books and videos all along the way. We moved from Hakim to Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World series, with a stack of library books following us from room to room and a steady stream of videos gracing the TV stand. We were hooked, and by the time my younger was five, we’d hooked him, too.

So we’ve come full circle, returning to where we began. As the first strains of the fiddle playing the Ashokan Farewell theme song for The Civil War, my older smiled and turned to me. “I remember that!” he noted with pride and a sense of nostalgia. My smile returned his, and we settled into the start of the series. With far more history into my knowledge banks, connections came quickly, and I soon was tormenting both boys with liberal use of the pause button and bits of information I just had to share.  Afterward, I dug out the game board, rules, and pieces for us to admire and then admit that we were too rusty to play yet. The details will come back. The important parts — the whys and wherefores — implanted deeply and have informed the history study that followed that first attempt to understand where humans have blundered and succeeded.

But more important, my older regained his love of learning through that first history study. Not all our time was that blissful. I made my share of blunders and missteps that first year (and in every year since). But together, we made our way to learning at home, and a few years later, his younger brother joined us. I don’t get it right all the time, and neither do they. They’re learning, and that’s the point. I’m learning, too, and that’s just delightful.


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