I didn't develop a fascination for history until I started teaching at home. Or perhaps I ought to say learning at home! Oh, my father was a wonderful storyteller, regaling us with anecdotes from famous characters and events out of the past, but I didn't associate storytelling with history until I learned about "living books." As you may already know, a "living book" is non-fiction written by an author who is fascinated with a subject and eager to pass on that passion to the reader, writing in an engaging style that sticks with you when you read. I find that "living books" lend themselves to vivid narrations, and eager listeners, during read-aloud time.
Imagine that! "History" is not dry-and-dusty, rote memorization of people and places and dates, but relevant and absorbing!
Another important component of history is context. It's not just about being able to recite what happened, and who was there at the time. But when did the person live, when did the event take place, and what else was happening at the time elsewhere? We have a saying for that concept, around here: "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..."
I know that during the lifetime of George Washington, important events took place. The Declaration of Independence was written, and the Constitution, related to the American Revolution. I knew, in a foggy sort of way, that the French Revolution took place a little later. I could name some of Washington's contemporaries: the ones who appeared alongside him in my American History book, during the Revolutionary War.
It was not until we read George Washington's World, however, that I realized that Bach and Mozart were composing music, Pompeii and the Rosetta Stone were discovered, and Catherine was Empress of Russia, during Washington's lifetime. In my compartmentalized schooling, I had studied these, and yet never associated them with the life and times of Washington. (He belonged to American History, as you know. Catherine belonged to European History, and Bach and Mozart were relegated to Music History. What? Do you mean to tell me that all these histories are somehow related?)
Using a timeline in our studies, before discovering Genevieve Foster's biographies, helped me place, in context, people and events that I'd never realized were contemporaries. But reading this author's vivid storytelling has brought them to life. The author infuses scenes with her imagining of the figures' thoughts and emotions, woven in and around the narration of known historical fact. Mere names suddenly "make sense" as they fall into the story. William Pitt. Alexander Hamilton. Shogun. Napoleon. French and Indian Wars.
I cannot do too much to stress the importance of context in learning history, especially looking in retrospect at my own education. I learned a lot of dates and names and places by rote, but if you were to ask me to find the places on the globe, or relate two famous historical contemporaries, I might be at a loss. At least, I might have been at a loss, before beginning our homeschool journey. I feel as if I'm gaining the education I never had, alongside my children.
In our studies we use a globe and maps and a poster-sized timeline. You can't get much on the timeline; you have to write small and be brief, but it's mainly a reminder of the people we've read about in "living books" written by great storytellers who were excited about their subject and wished to convey that excitement to their readers. While I could have my students simply memorize the simple names and dates that appear on the timeline - at least with the timeline they could have a little sense of context - I prefer that they learn about these people as if they were real, living, breathing people. Come to think of it, that's what they were.
The book is broken into six parts, each detailing historical figures and events that happened around the world during specific parts of George Washington's lifespan:
When George Washington Was a Boy
When George Washington Was a Soldier
When George Washington Was a Farmer
When George Washington Was the Commander
When George Washington Was Just a Citizen
When George Washington Was President
Each section begins with a two-page spread of people who were living, and some events that took place, during the time covered in that section. There are pen and ink illustrations and a brief description of each, such as "Aviation: Man's first voyage in the air was made in a balloon, after the test flight taken by a cock, a sheep and a duck" and "Australia received its first ship load of English settlers," "John Adams accompanied by Abigail went to England to represent the United States," and many more, all in the time period between George Washington being "Commander" and "President," when he was "Just a Citizen." Events all over the world are touched upon.
Though my older students could easily have read this to themselves, we used this book as a read-aloud, and it was enjoyed from youngest to oldest. I read a few pages, and my listeners vied to be the first to narrate. This enthusiasm, coupled with the vivid narrations I got from my students, was a sign that Genevieve Foster is a wonderful storyteller, well able to bring history to life. We heard about historical events, about culture, about slavery and the rise of the abolition movement, about inventions and discoveries in the fields of medicine, archaeology, chemistry, and manufacturing. Battles were fought, rulers rose to power and were deposed, explorers sailed, scientists made exciting discoveries, while composers, poets, and artists created the masterpieces that have long survived their passing.
One caution is that because the author is trying to show history through the eyes of the characters presented, varying systems of belief are shown without comment or judgment. Rousseau's belief in the intrinsic goodness of man is presented with the same dispassionate tone as pilgrimage to Mecca and the crowning of the new King of England in Westminster Abbey (with the superstitious overtones of the onlookers' observations). This is one of the things we focus on in our discussions, comparing the beliefs presented here with the truths we read every day in the Scriptures.
Illustrations, maps, chronologies, and timelines add life, interest, and understanding to the pages, and the book is rounded out with two indexes, one of people and the second of events, places, books, maps and topics.
Genevieve Foster's biographies of Augustus Caesar, Christopher Columbus, Captain John Smith, and Abraham Lincoln are also available from Beautiful Feet Press.
This is a wonderful tool for bringing history to life in the imagination of your students, and for putting the people and events of George Washington's day into proper context. Highly recommended.