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Homeschooling the Middle & High School Years

Chaotic Bliss Homeschooling

Social Studies
Free Sites for Current Events
Category: Social Studies
Tags: science current events current events articles current events for kids current events in the world

The last time I did current events as a student, I was in grade school, and I remember the ambivalence I felt whenever an assignment came up. I didn’t particularly like reading the newspaper - seemed like whenever I picked up the Daily News, there was a scary, front-page story about someone having been “slain.” The material on the inside pages did little to assuage my lack of enthusiasm. It was always difficult to find something - anything - to cut out, tape to a piece of looseleaf paper, summarize, and take in to school the next day to present to the class.

The presentation was the part of current events that I did like. It was fun to watch the delivery of -- and the teacher’s reaction to -- a variety of topics kids picked: from Louis’ boring political stories, to the more kid-pleasing entertainment news chosen by Ivy. Me? I preferred nature features, and vaguely remember reporting something on whooping cranes, and something else on the two-toed sloth.

As “enlightening” and “entertaining” as current events was in those days, I’m glad my own children have had a completely different experience. For one thing, their responses to the news are much more natural in that we discuss and react to things as they come up from day to day. We don’t call it current events. It’s just another part of what we’re learning that’s ongoing. As a result, my kids are much more aware of what’s going on in the world than I ever was, (which can be both positive and negative). I didn’t really think about the news until I was forced to because of a current events assignment.

Today’s kids also have access to many more sources of news than we did. These sources have articles written with young audiences in mind, and have other engaging features, such as videos, quizzes, polls, and contests to keep things interesting. For us moms, these sites offer ready-made lessons with ideas for discussions and activities that make it really easy to incorporate current events into your school day -- whether you’re looking at international cultures, the latest developments in science and technology, historic events that tie to today’s world, or diverse points of view and global perspectives.

At the end of this article is a list of free current event sites that you may already be familiar with, but I wanted to mention first two sites that stand out:

  • Listenwise: This site offers a collection of audio current events stories, about 3 - 5 minutes in length, selected from public radio, and covering topics in social studies, science, and language arts. Accompanying lesson plans include listening comprehension questions, worksheets, and quizzes. This site can be helpful not only for auditory learners, but for building listening comprehension skills in all types of learners. It’s also a great way to introduce audio as a primary source. Kids can listen to authentic voices from another era, and hear about events from the people who actually experienced them.
  • Do Now: This site works along with two things kids already make abundant use of: smartphones and social media. Posted at the Do Now site are current events stories on civics, science, arts, and pop culture. For each story, there’s a media resource, like a video, a question to respond to, and additional resources for delving more deeply into a topic. Students respond to stories by replying in the Comments section at the site, or on Twitter or other platforms. The idea is to foster discussion and debate. There’s a research component too, as kids are encouraged to support their opinions with authoritative articles or other sources they can link to. Read more about the site here.

 

More free current events sites:

 

Newspapers in Education: Get free access to electronic editions of your local newspaper, plus lesson plans and other resources.

 

Izzit: Sign up for a free account to access current events lesson plans, streaming video, and free educational DVDs.

New York Times Learning Network: Features a Poetry Pairs section that matches up classic and contemporary poems with New York Times articles and photos.

Behind the News: Kids can watch how-to videos on news reporting and submit their own stories. More ideas on using the site can be found here.

Youngzine: Publishes articles written by kids, including original short stories, poems, books, movie reviews, and travelogues.

CNN Student News: Ten-minute video news stories for middle- and high school students.

Scholastic News: New stories from their magazines.

Student News Daily: Has a section on types of media bias.

Smithsonian Tween Tribune: News stories for grades 1 - 12.

Learning History Through Role-Playing
Category: Social Studies
Tags: history games simulation games american revolution boston massacre underground railroad cheyenne indians immigration

(Eastman Johnson (American, 1824-1906). A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves (recto), ca. 1862. Oil on paperboard, 21 15/16 x 26 1/8 in. (55.8 x 66.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Gwendolyn O. L. Conkling, 40.59a-b)

Learning about a historical period or event through a computer game simulation has been proven wildly popular, judging from the success of programs like Oregon Trail. There’s something compelling about stepping into a character’s shoes, and knowing that the choices you make will ultimately determine that character’s fate. And if you happen to learn some history along the way, well that’s a bonus.

Attempting to take the role-playing experience to the next level, with better interactivity and even more history thrown in, is a “documentary adventure game” called Mission US. This free series of games allows players to step into a historical setting, assume the role of a period character, and experience events as they happen. The objective is to get kids to think critically about historical events by presenting them with different perspectives, and showing how everyday people were affected.

Four separate adventures are currently available, each one emphasizing a particular historical concept. They are targeted at upper elementary through high school ages.

For Crown or Colony: This mission focuses on life in pre-revolutionary Boston, culminating in the Boston Massacre. Events are experienced through the eyes of  Nat Wheeler, an apprentice in a printing shop. The main historical concept is “multiple perspectives” -- the differing viewpoints of Patriots, Loyalists, and others during this period.

Flight to Freedom: Focusing on resistance to slavery in the years preceding the Civil War, the game’s action is experienced through Lucy, a 14-year-old slave residing in Kentucky. As the narrative progresses, Lucy escapes to freedom in Ohio, and begins to work with a group of abolitionists. The core historical concept is cause and effect, specifically, how the actions of many people in many places over time (including slaves, abolitionists, politicians, etc.) brought an end to slavery in the U.S.

A Cheyenne Odyssey: This mission explores the impact of westward expansion on the plains indians, specifically the northern Cheyenne tribe. The action is seen through the eyes of Little Fox, as the player experiences the effects of white settlers encroaching on the tribe’s homelands. Main historical concepts include an examination of the conflict between Plains Indians and European Americans, and how cultures sustain themselves during times of dramatic change.

City of Immigrants: This game focuses on immigration to the U.S in the early part of the 20th century. The main character, Lena, sets out on a transatlantic voyage to NYC from Russia. She arrives and is processed on Ellis Island, then makes her way to her brother’s apartment on the Lower Eastside to start her life. The core historical concept is turning points in history. The narrative explores how immigrants adapted to life in the U.S., the working conditions they encountered, and  how women’s roles were changing in society during this period. The narrative culminates in a women’s strike known as the Uprising of the 20,000.

The games are divided into chapters that take from 5 to 20 minutes or so to play. Register for a free account to save your progress, and you can complete a game in one day or over a series of days. Click on the image below for an example of how the games are laid out:

Each game has an educators guide that provides background information on the historical period, plus activities based on primary documents, discussion questions, vocabulary activities, and writing prompts.

Throughout each game, there are also tasks for players to complete or decisions they must make that affect the outcome of the game. For example, during the pre-Civil War game, Flight to Freedom, if you have a task to perform, such as washing clothes, you can do the task well, or resist by not doing such a good job; you can decide to send your brother north to Canada, or try to keep him with you and risk seeing him sold off elsewhere.

Since a player's choices result in different game outcomes, you can use these games in a group setting, like a co-op, and players can compare and contrast their experiences which could lead to some good discussions.

My 13-year-old son has enjoyed playing the first two Missions. He especially likes controlling the actions of the characters, (kicking a Redcoat in the first Mission; running away several times during the second Mission); and meeting various characters who present differing viewpoints. It's been a great way to get him thinking and talking about what it must have been like to live during these historical periods.

The Christmas Tree Ship
Category: Social Studies
Tags: christmas tree ship

Blend the spirit of giving during the Yuletide season, an ill-fated schooner, premonitions of disaster, and an apparition or two and you’ve got the makings of quite a compelling tale – except this one happens to be true.

Check out the history of the legendary Rouse Simmons, a ship that disappeared beneath the waves of Lake Michigan during a treacherous storm in November of 1912.

The ship had been laden with Christmas trees bound for Chicago’s waterfront markets. There, along the Chicago River's Clark Street docks, customers were invited aboard various “Christmas Tree Ships” to select trees, as well as wreaths, garlands, and other holiday decorations made by the boat owners.

Among those who regularly participated in the holiday trade were Herman Schuenemann, Captain of the Rouse Simmons, and his wife Barbara and three daughters, who helped make and sell the Christmas items. Capt. Schuenemann had been hauling Christmas trees to families in Chicago for many years, until that fateful November trip, which would be his last.

The Rouse Simmons was not the only Christmas tree ship, but it is the most well-known. The ship, its captain and crew have been memorialized in songs, plays, documentaries and books. This may be due to some of the more poignant and mysterious elements of the story: 

“Captain Santa”:  The Captain made quite an impression on the people of Chicago, presenting  trees to many of the city’s needy residents. His generosity earned him the nickname “Captain Santa.”

Portents of Doom: Prior to the ship’s departure, the rats living aboard decided to head for dry land. This frightenend off members of the original crew.

Message in a Bottle: In the midst of the maelstrom, the Captain writes a note, sticks it in a bottle, and casts it into the storm-tossed sea. Six months later, the bottle is found, containing the Capt’s last known words. 

The Family Soldiers On: Following the tragedy, Barbara and her daughters continued to bring in evergreens using ships, then trains, and finally selling them from the family’s lot.

Spooky Stuff: Some say you can still see the Rouse Simmons on Lake Michigan. Others have gone to Chicago’s Acacia Park Cemetery, and visited the gravesite of Barbara Schunemann, where they say there’s a scent of evergreens.

Commemorations: Each year, the Coast Guard commemorates the final voyage of the Rouse Simmons  by sailing a ship from Lake Michigan to Rogers Street to deliver Christmas trees to the city’s disadvantaged. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking, and included additional special ceremonies.

Here are some free resources for learning more about this interesting piece of American maritime history:

The Christmas Tree Ship: At the children’s library site, download an electronic version of this book.

Lives and LegendsThis site has information on the Rouse Simmons, other ships, and the sailors.

Wisconsin Historical SocietyAt this site, you can learn about shipwrecks, lighthouses and underwater archaeology. There’s also an interactive schooner  that lets you explore the different parts of the ship, and a diving game in which you collect points by swimming over objects in the murky depths. Just be sure to surface before you run out of air!

Other Book Versions: 

     

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