A Novel in Letters: Ideas to Integrate Letter Writing in Your Curriculum

We listen to a lot of audio books in the car. It is a wonderful opportunity to share in our love of literature and engage in dialogue about literary techniques, vocabulary, and genres of literature.  I try to select books that the kids wouldn’t normally select for themselves, particularly classics and authors whom they are not yet familiar.

letterwritingWhen I picked up Same Sun Here, I didn’t know what to expect.  I had not heard anything about it but the silhouette on the cover caught my eye and I brought it home. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be.

Synopsis

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani is a wonderful novel told in letters, centering around an Indian immigrant girl in New York City and a Kentucky coal miner’s son.  They find strength and perspective by sharing their true selves across the miles, developing a friendship that builds a bridge between their cultures and the miles between them.

 

Meena and River discover that they have a lot in common: fathers forced to work away from home to make ends meet, grandmothers who mean the world to them, and faithful dogs. Yet, their lives are very different as well. As Meena’s family studies for citizenship exams and River’s town faces devastating mountaintop removal, this unlikely pair become pen pals, sharing their innermost thoughts as their friendship deepens. With honesty and humor, the duo defeat cultural misconceptions with genuine friendship.

I haven’t seen the print version of this book but I love that the audio was narrated in two voices, each voice distinctly articulated by these gifted authors. The kids and I laughed out loud and wept quietly as the protagonists shared their stories. As an adult, I loved the format of letters back and forth. This would be a great book to use to talk about the difference in cultures and how people who come to the US do not see it with the same eyes as a native. Additionally, the story is a wonderful reminder that once you get to know them, people who can seem very different have a lot in common.

Letter Writing in Social Studies

The book is wonderful but it does have a political spin. House has a cause. Anyone who is familiar with his work knows that he is strongly campaigning to stop the mining of coal by mountain top removal in Appalachian Kentucky.  As Oregonians now living in California, I was not previously familiar with this and thus the kids and I looked into a little more. As a result of this book, we talked about environmental causes – both locally and globally – that were important to us. We talked about ideas for how we, as individuals, can make a difference.

Letter writing, boycotting products (and companies), and protesting were discussed. My kids have had some experience with boycotting.  Since attending their first Roots & Shoots conference a few years ago, they have actively read the ingredients list of products and choose to avoid anything that has Palm Oil.  Additionally, they have learned to recognize brand names and try not to purchase anything by Nestlé. Relatedly, are also beginning to make a more concerned effort to purchase food grown locally.

Same Sun Here encouraged the kids to consider writing letters to companies to request they change their practices, suggesting alternatives to Palm Oil, for example.

STEMLetter Writing in Science

Relatedly, letter writing is also applicable in sciences.  In addition to writing persuasive letters about environmental issues, students should be encouraged to write letters to scientists in fields of interest.  If a child is interested in engineering, for example, seek out an engineer willing to mentor your child.  Better yet – attend conferences, for example, and encourage your child to seek out those relationships themselves.

My daughter recently attended a Women in STEM Conference and personally thanked each presenter.  In doing so, she made a point to ask specific questions and to express what she enjoyed most about her presentation.  She thereafter asked for contact information and is presently working to reach out to each woman scientist she met at the conference.

Letter Writing in Literature

My daughter loves to write stories modeled after her favorite books – Redwall and Warriors.  She engages in these creative writing without prompting from me and will occasionally share excerpts with me.  As a result of listening to Same Sun Here, she recently included a couple of  letters exchanged between two characters in her book.

In the past, I have also encouraged the kids to write letters to their favorite authors.  Jan Brett, Seymour Simon, and Jim Arnosky are wonderful examples of authors who love hearing from their readers.

52 Weeks of Mail

 

52weeksmailWe have always enjoyed writing letters to friends and family.  In the past, we have taken part in the 52 Weeks of Mail challenge but as life tends to do, we have been lead astray and haven’t been very consistent.  This book gave us new inspiration to do so.

I have a 52 Weeks of Mail Pinterest board where I pin creative letters and packaging.  Who doesn’t love to receive mail?  Especially when the cover is so beautiful?

Each of the kids have pen pals and I encourage them to write as often as possible.  I try to model this myself, but I have to admit it is so easy to let modern technology distract us.

BookBigIdeaSpring

Interested in more ideas for literature? Visit the iHomeschool Network’s A Book and a Big Idea Blog Hop.

Along the Trail of Tears

In preparation for our trip to Georgia, I knew we would have an opportunity to visit numerous Civil War sites as well as memorials to the Cherokee Trail of Tears.  We had read about each of these events in our history book, Story of the World, and were excited to see them for ourselves and to hear the stories (first person accounts as recorded in written form and brought to life in the museum placards) from those who had taken part in these events in our nation’s history.  One of the stories that touched us the most profoundly was that of Major Ridge and the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee Nation, largest of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast, is a people of Iroquoian lineage.  By 1650, they commanded more than 40,000 square miles in the southern Appalachians with a population estimated at 22,500.  Similar to other Native Americans of the Southeast, their nation was a confederacy of towns, each subordinated to supreme chiefs. When encountered by the Europeans, they were agrarian people who lived in log houses and observed sacred religious practices.

The only hostilities by the Cherokees against white settlers occurred around the time of the American Revolution.  The Cherokees, as well as the Creek and Choctaw, supported the British and made several attacks on the revolutionaries’ forts and settlements. The result of their British alliances was a drastic reduction of tribal land holdings. After 1800, the Cherokee quickly assimilated European culture in their dress, farming, and building methods.  They adopted a government patterned after the United States.  Their culture continued to flourish with the invention of the Cherokee alphabet by Sequoyah in 1821, producing rapid literacy and thereby leading to the creation of the Cherokee Constitution, the spread of Christianity, and the publication of the only Native American newspaper.

Sparked by the discovery of gold in 1828, Georgia passed a law proclaiming Cherokee laws null and void after June 1, 1830.  The Cherokees filed numerous lawsuits in protest, and in 1832 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Cherokees in the landmark case Worcester v. Georgia.  However, President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling, leaving the Cherokees at the mercy of settlers and prospectors armed with the new Georgia law.  Their lands and homes were entered into a lottery system and redistributed to European settlers. Ironically, the Cherokees had fought alongside Andrew Jackson against the Creeks (who continued to align with the British) in the War of 1812.

Major Ridge’s home as it appears today.  Over the years there have been several expansions and remodels.  Plans are underway to return the home to the way it was when Ridge resided here. 

Seeing the situation as hopeless, a small band of Cherokees led by Major Ridge (who had adopted the name Ridge after his role in the War of 1812) signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, dooming the “Principal People” to removal.  According to this treaty, the Cherokees would forsake their land east of the Mississippi and move to Indian Territory for $5 million.

I am one of the Native Sons of these wild woods.
I have hunted the deer and turkey here, more than fifty years.
I have fought your battles, defended your truth and honesty, and fair trading …
I know the Indians have an older title than the Georgians.
We obtained the land from the living God above.
They got their title from the British.
Yet they are strong and we are weak.
We are few, they are many …
We can never forget these homes, I know.
But an unbending, iron necessity tells us we must leave them.
I would willingly die to preserve them.
But any forcible effort to keep them will cost us our lands, our lives, and the lives of our children …
Give up these lands and go over beyond the great Father of Waters. 
 
~ Major Ridge 1836

In 1838 the brutal execution of the Treaty of New Echota began.  More than 4,000 U.S. Army troops under the direction of General Winfield Scott rounded up 15,000 Cherokees into internment camps then herded them along the 2,000 mile march.  The 116-day “Trail of Tears” began in October 1838.  More than 8,000 Cherokees died as result of the march.

Etowah Indian Mounds

We enjoyed many historical sites in Georgia, taking advantage of this opportunity to experience the history we had read about first hand.  Many of the sites we visited were a part of the Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites, enabling the kids to complete an activity book to facilitate their understanding of the cultural and natural history of the area.  Upon completion, they were able to turn in their work to earn one of four Georgia Junior Ranger badges (according to age).  Proudly, despite his age, Buddy chose to work for level three just like his sister.

One of the highlights of the state parks was the Etowah Indian Mounds near Cartersville.  This major Mississippian Period Cultural Center was home to several thousand Native Americans from 1000 to 1500 AD. The largest mound stands over 63 feet high and covers three acres. The impressive archaeological museum interprets life in what is now known as the Etowah Valley Historic District.  Beyond the mounds lies the Etowah River and Pumpkinvine Creek where a V-shaped rock wall impedes the water of the rivers.  At least 500 years old, the wall is one of the lasting reminders of the Mississippian Culture who resided in this portion of Northwest Georgia.

Known colloquially as the mound builders due to the large earthen mounds, flattened on top for homes of the elite, the culture flourished at this site until the arrival of Hernando de Soto, who visited the area in 1540-41.  Those that survived the illnesses brought by the Spanish abandoned the site and eventually blended in with the nearby Creek Indians along with their agricultural skills and past times (lacrosse, for example).

Fortunately, we arrived shortly before a bus load of school kids.  The interpretive volunteer invited us to take part in the talk he would be giving them and we were able to get a sneak peak at some of the weapons and materials (not on display) used by the Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans.  We enjoyed this museum very much as it was a very distinct contrast to the way the Native Americans lived on the Pacific Coast.  While only 9% of the site has been excavated, examination of Mound C (pictured in the collage above) and the surrounding artifacts revealed much about the people who had lived here.  One of the things that surprised us, however, was the extent of their trade routes … artifacts include Obsidian from Central Oregon and Idaho as well as asphalt from the La Brea Tar Pits in California.

The Civil War & Underground Railroad

We had allotted 3 hours to explore Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. When we arrived, we informed the volunteer that we would like the Junior Ranger booklet. She explained to us that the activities were divided in the book for each site and that we could choose which site we wanted to do, however the badges were the same. We opted to stick with Chickamauga as we were already there and as I flipped through, it quickly became apparent that the activities were much more intensive than we had experienced in the past … both in quantity and quality.

I commented on this to the volunteer, stating that I wasn’t sure we would be able to finish before they closed for one of the activities required we complete the driving tour as well. I knew we wouldn’t be able to do the inside activities, go on the driving tour, and return within the 3 hour window but we opted to sit down and give it a try. While we were working, she thankfully gave us a big hint, “Most of the answers to the questions on the driving tour portion can be found in the park brochure. The museum closes at 5:30 but the park is open until sunset. You can earn your badges before we close and do the tour afterwards.” Phew!!

One of the exhibits at Chickamauga in the Fuller gun collection, donated to the park in 1954, featuring 346 military soldier arms.  It was a stunning collection and finding the catalog numbers of six was one of our first tasks. Buddy, like all young boys, was fascinated.  Sweetie loved that the symbol for the battles that took place here was the acorn for the fields were surrounded by Oak woodlands.

While here, we also learned of an opportunity to earn a new patch, the Junior Civil War Historian. It required that one become a Junior Ranger at three distinctly different Civil War parks OR two parks and complete one online activity. We didn’t expect to be able to do this but on the evening of our last day, DH informed us he’d likely get out early. The following day, I printed the online activity book, Discovering the Underground Railroad, and we worked through the activities. We were thereby able to depart early enough so that we could stop at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield as well.

Each of the three activity packets were comprehensive of the role our national parks play in the preservation of our nation’s natural wonders and historical sites. The activity books assured that the kids would look carefully at the exhibits and read the placards and signage for important details. I was very impressed.

While undertaking the required tasks, I quickly became aware of how much the kids have grown academically. Sweetie would move along at her own pace and would come to me with questions when she was stuck. Buddy worked alongside his dad or I most of the time, but would read many of the questions and exhibit signs independently. They worked collaboratively though, dividing up the work for many tasks and sharing their answers. It was a delight to watch them so engaged in their goal of earning the historian patch. They were rightfully proud of their accomplishment.

California Coastal Native Americans

Over the past few months, as we have traveled to various parts of California and Oregon, we have had many opportunities to learn about the Native Americans of this region.  It has been a gratifying experience – made even more rewarding because the learning opportunities have occurred naturally and in context to our daily lives.  I’ve always believed that seeing artifacts, standing in the same surroundings, and being able to truly experience what life was like in the past has a greater impact than reading about it in a textbook. 

I have had a profound memory of a field trip that I must have experienced as a little girl.  Every time I travel on the coast – either north or south from the county in which I grew up – these memories come flooding back to me.  Sadly, I don’t recall exactly where I had visited but I clearly remember sitting in a Native American longhouse and hearing tribal elders share stories of their ancestors and demonstrate their tools and lifestyle.  I have always wanted to return – particularly now so that I can share that experience with my own children. 

When we were in Trinidad a few months ago, we traveled to Patrick’s Point State Park – where we visited the recreated Yurok village, Sumêg, consisting of traditional stye family houses, a sweat lodge, a redwood canoe – and Redwood National and State Parks – where we further explored the dynamic ecosystem of the Redwood forest.  As we wandered about and as the kids completed the activities to earn their Junior Ranger badges, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was where I had come as a child. 

The Northwest Coastal Indians lived in what is now Alaska along the Pacific Ocean down the coast to Northern California. This was a rugged strip of land with many small islands, deep inlets, and narrow beaches. The mountains rise to the shore in many places. Thick forests of spruce, cedar, and fir dominate the area supplying and endless supply of wood. Many rivers and streams cross the land. By the 1750’s more than 100,000 Indians lived in this area because it was richer in natural resources than any other area of North America.

While this territory was crisscrossed with thousands of trails, the most efficient form of transportation was the dugout canoe (pictured above) used to travel up and down rivers and cross the wider and deeper rivers such as the Klamath. These tribes used the great coast Redwood trees to build their boats and houses. Redwoods were cleverly felled by burning at the base and then split with elkhorn wedges. Redwood and sometimes cedar planks were used to construct rectangular gabled homes. 

Most villages consisted of large rectangular houses constructed of planks splits from fallen redwoods.  These houses were built over pits dug beneath the building, with the space between the pit and the walls forming a natural bench.  The posts were often decorated with carved figures. The earth floors were divided by woven mats into family units. Several families lived in one of these large structures. Cook fires in the center of the building were shared and an opening in the roof allowed smoke to escape. 

As we explored Sumêg, the exhibits at the visitors center, and the Native American museum at the Trees of Mystery, the kids made many connections to our studies.  We saw artifacts representing many of the tribes from across North America, including the Hidatsa (we had recently studied the expedition of Lewis & Clark and the contributions of Sacagawea), Modoc, and Wintu.  We discussed the similarities and differences between the coastal tribes as those we were familiar with in Central and Southern Oregon and the Northern Sacramento Valley.  

Vast difference exist between the coastal peoples, nearby mountain range territories, and the vast central valleys.  Nevertheless, all of these tribes enjoyed an abundance of acorn and salmon that could be readily obtained.  We marveled at the variety of the regions basketry – both coiled and twine type baskets were produced throughout the area. 

 

Turkey Turkey Turkey .. Culture Swap Box

We are so very excited!!  Way back in September we were matched with four other families as part of a Worldwide Culture Swap … we had signed up in June and it took a few months to have enough families outside of the US to be able to put together a group.  In our group, the families represented England, Turkey, the US Virgin Islands, and Ontario, Canada.  We, of course, represented the United States, specifically California.

We shipped our boxes in late October – as agreed upon by the participants – and then we waited.  As the days and weeks turned to months, we were actually beginning to lose hope.  The communication with many of the participants had been spotty.  I was fearful that we wouldn’t receive a box in exchange.  We had spent quite a bit on the contents and even more so on postage so we were fearful.

I had taken part in an ornament exchange through another group with which I’m connected. The participants had agreed to send handmade gifts.   As such, I sent a dreamcatcher that I purchased when we were on the coast; though I didn’t make it myself, it was handmade and unique.  While I know it is the thought that counts, I can not say I was not disappointed in the ornament I received in exchange, a m&m novelty ornament with a mini-bag of m&m’s.   As a result, I was beginning to think that these online swaps and secret exchanges weren’t worth the effort.

Imagine our surprise then when we received a notice in the mail that a package was awaiting us at the post office that required a signature.  We had nearly forgotten about the Culture Swap by now so when the clerk handed us the package, the first thing we noticed was the postage.  “Mom! Look at the stamps,” they both exclaimed.  “Wow!  It’s from Turkey!”

We were eager to get home and open our gift.  What a delightful surprise … a plethora of little goodies that gave us a taste for Turkey.

  • postcards
  • travel brochures and a mini magazine
  • travel DVD w/ commercials
  • snack bar
  • dried figs
  • pistachios
  • instant coffee (I think)
  • first day covers with turkish stamps – very cool!!!
  • a drawing pad with I presume turkish cartoon characters on the cover
  • a bracelet, a magnet, and a balloon with blue and white concentric circles – intrigued .. what does it mean?
  • a flag of Turkey
  • 2 woven bookmarks – beautiful!!

What a special swap box.  Indeed, it makes up for the two that have seemingly been forgotten.  Many, many thanks to Fatma and her boys!!