Friday, January 29, 2010

The Roman Mysteries

My son's obsession with Greek mythology led us to the serendipitous discovery of The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence, a series of 17 stories set in Rome, 79 AD. (An additional 7 books support the series.) Flavia Gemina, 10 year-old daughter of a Roman sea captain, solves spine-tingling mysteries with her three friends; Jonathon, son of Mordecai, one of the first Messianic Jews; Nubia, a former slave; and Lupus, an orphan they have befriended. Incorporating both Greek and Roman mythology, The Roman Mysteries are meticulously researched and incorporate historic events, people, and architecture. Each book includes a glossary of Latin words, names, and places, and brief description of the historic event central to each story.

My son loves these books and has waited impatiently for each to arrive through inter-library loan. My 12 year-old daughter reads them just as eagerly. A BBC television series is based on these books,and the DVDs for the first two seasons are available Also visit The Roman Mysteries web site for more information about the books, their author, school-related activities, audio samples, the author's blog, and instructions for making a Roman costume.

Recommended for ages 7-14. If you are studying Ancient History, be sure to include these books in your child's accompanying reading.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Here's another great online resource for home schoolers: Shmoop! It provides lessons, background, summaries, and analysis for literature, poetry, history, civics, biography, music, and bestsellers. All of the information is written by the faculty, PhD students, and Masters students at Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and other universities in an easy to read, conversational tone. In their poetry section, they have a guide to reading poetry, a glossary of poetry terms, and study guides for 77 major poems! Full texts of the poems are also provided. I wish I had known of this resource when we were studying The Rime of the Ancient Mariner last week, and we will definitely use it next week when we study Wordsworth and later this spring when we read Pride and Prejudice.

Almost all of the content is free! Teacher lesson plans can be purchased for $5.99 per lesson, but home educators will find sufficient information and resources without making any purchase.

Check it out:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Black History Month

Although I believe that African-American history should be taught part and parcel with American history, February is Black History Month and today is Martin Luther King Day. In honor of the men and women who have contributed so much to our country, and who deserve to be included in our national consciousness of who we are--not relegated to one particular day or several weeks--I am sharing a number of wonderful resources well-worth exploring. Please note that my list is not exhaustive, nor does it provide a complete history, but it is certainly a good place to start.

Please see my wiki whitneyswikiways for a list of picture books, chapter books, poetry, videos and websites.

Below are a number of excellent web sites.

Civil Rights Legislation

Civil Rights Center
FindLaw for the Public

A collection of articles and resources on the topic of Civil Rights. Links lead to legal definitions, specific types of discrimination, and a timeline of significant events. Information is provided from a legal perspective, and links to relevant Constitutional Amendments, federal and state law, and litigation are included. The site is very easy to use and written for the lay person, providing both depth and breadth of information. For those wanting detailed information about a specific subchapter or section of a law, links are provided to FindLaw for Legal Professionals.

Primary Documents/Curricula

Teaching Documents/Lesson Plans
The National Archives

This website, part of the National Archives Education service, provides detailed lesson plans that are correlated to National History Standards and National Standards for Civics and Government. All lesson plans are based on primary documents and can be accessed by clicking on “Lessons by Era 1945 to 1970s” or one of the bulleted topics (“Civil War and Reconstruction” or “Postwar United States”). Lesson plans are available for specific topics, such as the arrest records of Rosa Parks or letters and telegrams to the President from Jackie Robinson. Background information and pictures of relevant documents are provided along with creative, thought provoking teaching activities and suggestions for using the documents. All necessary worksheets are provided as PDFs.

The Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail Resources for Teachers
The National Archives

Part of the Never Lose Sight of Freedom project, this website provides detailed lesson plans along with teaching materials, historical documents and photographs, transcripts of speeches and personal histories, and the text of associated laws and court decisions. An online video of the March is also available. Links to other websites, including the Spider Martin Photo Gallery of the 1965 Montgomery Voting Rights March and the National Voting Right Museum are provided. All lesson plans include all necessary materials in html and PDF versions, and were written by Alabama teachers whose qualifications are provided following each lesson.

The King Papers Project
The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University

Since 1985, the King Papers Project has been editing and publishing the works of Dr. King. The site includes transcripts and some audio of Dr. King’s sermons and speeches, excerpts from his autobiography, and numerous scholarly articles about Dr. King. A comprehensive encyclopedia of the Civil Rights Movement and an inventory of Dr. King’s sermons, speeches, letters, publications, notes and outlines are also provided. The website provides the Liberation Curriculum, an educational resource for high school teachers which includes lesson plans and classroom resources.

Virtual Tours

We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement--A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary
U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, U.S. Department of Transportation, The Federal Highway Administration, and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.

In addition to a brief history of the Civil Rights Movement, this site provides a map and a list of places associated with the movement. Links lead to a page for each place on the map or list. Each page includes pictures of the place and people associated with events at that location, and an explanation of the location’s significance in the Civil Rights Movement. Internal links lead to biographies, explanations of events, and other historic places. Links to the National Park Service and the National Register of Historic Places are also included. A bibliography of histories, biographies, autobiographies, reference sources and other web resources is provided.

Voices of the Civil Rights

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Library of Congress

This site chronicles the Voices of Civil Rights Bus Tour which retraced the route of the 1961 Freedom Riders, and includes videos from stops and events along the route. Voices of the Civil Rights collected thousands of personal stories and oral histories of individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement. These stories will be housed at the Library of Congress, but are available from archives in the website. A timeline of events, music, video, introduction to new activists, and evaluations of the civil rights movement in the present and future are included. Links are provided for other oral history projects, websites and other online resources, and books.

Online Exhibits/Museums

National Civil Rights Museum
National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN

In addition to providing information about the museum (hours, location, etc.), this website has an online exhibition which includes pictures and written material about major events and brief biographies about people in the movement. The museum’s annual Freedom Awards, honoring people who have made significant contributions to the advancement of civil rights nationally and internationally, are archived and include brief biographies of the recipients.

African-American Oddyssey

The Library of Congress

This website is an online exhibit based on a 1998 exhibition at the Library of Congress which showcased the Library’s African American Collection in all three of the Library’s buildings. The exhibit divides the history of African Americans into nine sections which include Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Depression. The ninth section focuses on the Civil Rights Movement which presents documents, artwork, and photographs of people and events along with descriptive narrative. The site includes a complete list of objects included in the exhibition with links to items found in the online exhibit and to the LC division where the item is housed.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Seattle Times

In addition to providing links to articles and commentary about Martin Luther King, Jr., published in the Seattle Times, this website includes a photo gallery and biography of the Civil Rights leader. A timeline details significant events in Dr. King’s life, as well as in the Civil Rights movement. Links are provided to audio and transcripts of Dr. King’s speeches and written work, including “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. A study guide, quiz, and list of resources are also included.

If you have gotten all the way through this list, don't forget to look at my wiki where you'll find all kinds of picture books appropriate for all ages (nobody is ever too old for a read aloud).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians

The Lightning Thief , the movie, is due out in February, and my kids can't wait!

The movie is based on the five-book series Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. My 9-year old son read all five of them last fall in about 2 weeks. I couldn't tear him away from those books! Ever since, his all consuming interest has been Greek and Roman mythology. I think he has read every book the library has on Greek and Roman mythology, and has branched out into Norse mythology. Any home schooler basing their curriculum on The Well-Trained Mind knows that mythology is required reading.

The gods still rule--from high atop the Empire State Building in New York City-- and they still fall in love with humans with whom they have children. Children who are demi-gods: half god, half human. Percy is one such child, although he doesn't know it until he is attacked by a school teacher turned Harpy and fights off a raging Minotaur!

I'm reading the books to my children, and they are enjoying them just as much as the Harry Potter Series. The boy I take care of after school, who doesn't particularly like reading and wasn't interested in having storytime, asks if we can read another chapter as soon as I pick him up every afternoon. These stories are page turners, and every child who has ever been the underdog or picked on by other kids will laugh out loud when Percy turns the tables.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Manga and The Merchant of Venice

Last year, we studied The Merchant of Venice with history rather than with English literature. In history, we had been studying European trade, the city-state of Venice, and the reconquest of Muslim Spain by the Catholic Spanish (which led up to the Inquisition). We augmented our studies with The Atlas of Great Jewish Communities: A Voyage Through History by Sondra Leiman, Unit II, Sephardic Jewry. The Merchant of Venice seemed like the perfect way to sum up and review some of what we had learned.

I always try to use books written during or about the time period we are studying, and just by chance, I discovered the young adult novel Shylock's Daughter by Mirjam Pressler. Based on Shakespeare's play, Shylock's Daughter presents the story from the perspective of four different characters: Shylock, his daughter Jessica, an adopted daughter raised as Jessica's sister but now Jessica's maid, and the housekeeper (the last two characters are Pressler's creation). Through Jessica, the city of Venice comes alive and the Ghetto becomes both a sanctuary and a prison. Through each of the major characters, we get a different perspective of Judaism. Shylock represents the importance of the Law; his housekeeper maintains the rich traditions and superstitions. Jessica rebels against her faith but cannot abandon it entirely. Amalie, the adopted daughter, struggles to make Judaism her own in a dangerous world that is constantly changing. Amalie, perhaps, is the daughter of the title. At the story's end, she begins a journey to Palestine, carrying the hope and promise of Judaism in her heart.

After reading Shakespeare's Daughter, we moved onto Manga Shakespeares' Merchant of Venice. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is a highly interpretive and abridged retelling, with definite anti-Semitic overtones. Shylock, for instance, is depicted as evil, and has an almost demonic appearance. Critics have debated whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. My daughter and I certainly debated it, and had some wonderful conversations about bigotry, prejudice and hatred.

Finally, we watched a DVD of the BBC 1980 production Shakespeare's Comedies: The Merchant of Venice starring Gemma Jones as Portia (she was excellent). My daughter was able to follow the play and really enjoyed it. In this production, scenery is quite spare, and the story depends on the actors' abilities and on Shakespeare's words. The beauty of his words lives on!

A quick word about the 2004 movie starring Al Pacino: My husband and I watched this and really enjoyed it. Al Pacino is fantastic as Shylock and gives a truly masterful performance. The casting and scenery is excellent and the movie really makes Shakespeare very accessible. Despite the fact that the DVD comes with a teacher's guide, this movie is R-rated for a reason! The relationship between Bassanio and Antonio takes on a decidedly homosexual nature (which may or may not have been intended in the original, but certainly helps to explain Antonio's depression and motivation). One scene occurs in a brothel, and shots of bare-breasted women are interspersed throughout. We were very disappointed that we could not share this fine drama with our 11 year old daughter; as always, you must decide for yourself.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Teaching Shakespeare

Recently while lunching with home school friends, one of the children said something abut reading graphic novels. I mentioned that last year, we used mangas to introduce Shakespeare's plays. My friend responded "What a good idea!"

Well, I was a little surprised, because I didn't think we did anything special. Surely, others have considered the use of mangas and graphic novels to introduce classic literature; within the library world, mangas have been a hot topic for some time now, and many libraries are quickly adding them to their collections. See the American Library Association's Great Graphic Novels for Teens. Titles include biographies, science, history, and fiction.

Mangas are basically a Japanese comic book. They have a very distinctive artistic style, and they are often made into anime (cartoons). Graphic novels are a Western version, and even old standards like the Hardy Boys mysteries are being adapted. Manga forms of Shakespeare are generally abridged versions of the original, and the art work is highly interpretive. For instance, in the Manga Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is given an evil, elfin appearance (to which I take exception--its very antisemitic). (Manga Shakespeare is a registered trademark for a manga publisher. I avoid their web site: It shuts my computer down every time! The publisher I prefer is Amulet Books.)

With their limited text and lively illustrations, mangas appeal to kids in general, reluctant readers, and those with reading problems or learning disabilities. And let's face it, Shakespeare is not easy reading, especially for a middle school student. So mangas are a wonderful way to introduce Shakespeare.

We started with Much Ado about Nothing, one of my favorites. The DVD starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson brings the play to life. Beautifully filmed in the warm Italian sun, Branagh and Thompson make the play incredibly accessible and fun to watch. My daughter loved it and watched it twice! The Manga Shakespeare was not available at that time (it was published in August, 2009).

Othello was much more challenging. We started by reading Othello, A Novel by Julius Lester (better known for his picture books). His retelling from an African-American perspective focuses more attention on the racial aspects of the story. Considered Young Adult literature, the book is very readable. We then took a look at the Amulet Manga, and read the play. I wanted to use the 1995 movie starring Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Fishburne, but its rated R. My husband and I watched it and enjoyed it, but we agreed that it was not appropriate for middle schoolers. Upper-level high school students might enjoy it, but parental discretion is advised.

The last play we studied was A Midsummer Night's Dream. My daughter found the Amulet Manga a little difficult to follow, so I would advise telling your students the story first, so that they are familiar with the plot. We then watched the movie version starring Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This is a very goofy, silly adaptation, set in the Victorian era, which uses bicycles as a major prop. A Midsummer Night's Dream is Shakespeare at his bawdiest (afterall, he appealed to the masses--as I explained to my daughter, his plays were like our blockbuster movies), and this adaptation lives up to it. Very silly, but fun. Rated PG-13, use your discretion.

On my next post, I will talk about The Merchant of Venice, which I taught with history, rather than with our literature studies.