November 1, 2017

Corn-- Thank you Native Americans

by Brandon Marie Miller

Activity: Make a Corn Husk Doll

Long before Europeans ever arrived on American shores Native American farmers had bred many varieties of corn. Farming was typically a woman's job-- a necessary part of her nation's survival. Corn served as an important food for native nations across the land.

Native American women planting corn, Theodore de Bry, engraver, 1591. [Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-31869]

The Indian nations of the Powhatan Confederacy were the first confronted by the arrival of English colonists in Virginia. Using tools made of clamshell and deer bone, the Powhatan usually planted corn in the same hole with beans and squash. The three crops, called "The Three Sisters," worked together. Corn stalks supported the climbing bean vines and the beans added nitrogen to the soil. The large spreading leaves of the squash protected corn from other plants. Powhatan women planted the rows in April, May, and June to ensure a long growing season.

"The Three Sisters" Native American life explored at Jamestown, Virginia

Corn was eaten fresh but the kernels were also parched (dried) then pounded and ground into a coarse whole grain flour-- involving a lot of muscle and hard work! The corn meal could be stored in baskets and pots for food during the winter months. Powhatan women wove corn husks into sleeping mats and shoes, children made corn husk dolls, and dried stalks and corn cobs were burned as fuel. Nothing went to waste.

The early Virginia colonists relied on corn from Native Americans. In times of drought and poor crops, when Indian nations had little to share, the English often took what they wanted with threats and a show of guns. When the English kidnapped Pocahontas in spring of 1613, corn was one of the ransom items they demanded from her father, the paramount leader of  the Powhatan Confederacy.

Pocahontas later married an Englishman named John Rolfe. She traveled with him to England in 1616 and sat for this portrait. To learn more about her remarkable life, take a look at my book Women of Colonial America, 13 Stories of Courage and Survival in the New World. [Library of Congress LC-USZ62-8104.]

Today, people all over the world benefit from the Native American nations that domesticated and bred corn.

Follow this link to learn how to make a corn husk doll.

September 1, 2017

Creative Playtime → Sail Your Skateboard!

I’ve been playing with collage. Our kitchen island is a mashup of canvas, papers, found objects, Modpodge©, and Fedex© printouts which don’t run when wet. I started with a rummage sale treasure, a metal world map which I glued to a long piece of canvas sprayed lightly in gold and silver.
I added papers of all kinds plus images: snaps from our Italian trip plus photos from my books on England's Queen Elizabeth I and Isaac Newton. I’m no artist, but this cutting and pasting is rather therapeutic, and my mind went on its own trip. A theme appeared: the moon (thank you #SolarEclipse2017) and sailing ships.

I got to thinking about the Spanish Armada, which the Kingdom of Spain launched in May 1588 in hopes of taking out Queen Elizabeth’s navy, invading England, and thereby asserting its standing as the world’s Supreme Power.
That didn’t happen, given a series of unfortunate (to Spain) events including superior seamanship on England’s part, plus the weather, which drove the Armada north when it wanted to go south. Eventually the Armada sailed into a storm off Ireland’s west coast that destroyed ships and left sailors stranded in Ireland. They mingled their genes among the local population, and their dark-haired, blue-eyed descendants are now the “Black Irish.”

Thinking about the Armada led to this blog post. See what you can do with an umbrella when the wind picks up. 

From Elizabeth I: the People’s Queen, "Sail Your Skateboard” (and learn a bit about the Spanish Armada.)

ps...I still have coats of gel and spray paint to add to my collage. That will be the hard part!

It’s Not Too Late to Explore the Wonder of the Great American Eclipse

by guest-blogger Emily Morgan

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The excitement and wonder of the Great American Eclipse can last long past August 21st. It's an event that many students will remember all their lives and provides marvelous learning opportunities that we can take advantage of in the days and weeks to come. I visited a local school to watch the eclipse with students and have been following up with some modeling activities and a read aloud. It’s been over a week since the eclipse, but the excitement of it all is still with us!

Here’s what we’ve been doing in the days after the eclipse:

Observations: First, we discussed our observations – the orange and black circles overlapping in our solar eclipse glasses, the sky getting darker, the air around us getting cooler, and so on. We talked about how the Sun looked was a crescent shape during the eclipse, which then led us into a discussion about the Moon’s different shapes, or phases.

Click to go to view video on YouTube.
Modeling the Moon Phases: Next, we introduced the question, “What Moon phase must it be for a solar eclipse to occur?” In order to answer, we first explored the Moon phases with a modeling activity using white Styrofoam balls represent the Moon, a lamp to represent the Sun, and students’ heads representing Earth. Through this activity, they learned that the Moon’s phases are caused by the Moon’s orbit around Earth, that the Moon phases occur in a pattern, and that the phases have names – New Moon, Quarter Moon, Gibbous Moon, and Full Moon. A full description of this modeling activity and a YouTube video showing the activity can be found at this link. I like to show the beginning of the video to students first, pause it at about 1:47 and stop to do the activity. Then, we watch the rest of the video. 

Read-Aloud: After the activity, we read the book Next Time You See the Moon and refer to the Styrofoam ball modeling activity throughout the read-aloud. The book explains that the Moon’s phases are caused by the Moon’s orbit around the Sun – that half of the Moon is always lit by the sun, and we see different parts of the side reflecting light as the Moon travels around our planet.

Modeling the eclipse.
Modeling the Eclipse: After the read-aloud, students were challenged to use the same Sun-Moon-Earth model to represent a solar eclipse. Students were given time to figure out that the Moon must be positioned between the Sun and the Earth during a solar eclipse and that in order for the Moon to be in that position, it must be a New Moon. We also observed the circular shadow of the Moon on Earth (our faces) during a solar eclipse and discussed the fact that the solar eclipse was not visible to everyone on Earth, just those of us in the shadow. Finally, we watched satellite footage of the Moon’s shadow moving across the United States on August 21st and related that footage to our model.

More Questions: As always with science, the more you learn, the more questions you have, so we generated and explored more questions like:
• Why don’t we have a solar eclipse at every New Moon?
• How often does a solar eclipse happen?
• How does the size of the Moon compare to the size of the Sun?
• How far away are the Sun and the Moon from Earth? 
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I hope you will consider trying this modeling activity with your students, and I hope that the wonder of the Great American Eclipse stays with you all for a very long time.

If you'd like a complete 5-E lesson (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) about the phases of the Moon, see Chapter 17: The Changing Moon in Picture-Perfect Science Lessons from NSTA Press.

August 2, 2017

7 Tips For Visiting Civil War Battlefields

by Brandon Marie Miller

I'm working hard on a new middle grade book about Robert E. Lee! As part of my research, this past spring I visited Lee sites across Virginia including four Civil War battlefields. I've visited many such places over the years and find them beautiful and haunting. Today, it's difficult to remember the suffering and carnage that happened on these battlefields. They are lovely places to stroll or hike. But let's not forget the real stories of what happened.
Pondering things at the McLean House where Lee surrendered.
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

Manassas National Battlefield Park where two major battles took place.

Here are a few tips for taking in the history of these national treasures.

  • Before you go, check out the park's website for plenty of information, including things you can do with your kids. Search the calendar for special events like living history demonstrations and meeting historic interpreters.
  • Start at the visitor center. Stroll through the museums, watch the orientation films about the events that took place all around you, engage with fiber-optic maps.
  • Talk to the park rangers at the desk. Pick up a map, get downloadable apps. Find out what programs and ranger-led walks are happening that day. These ranger programs and walks are excellent ways to learn the stories of the battles and the people involved, both soldiers and the civilians. There are also science and nature related things to do at the parks.
  • Take a self-guided car tour. In some places you can purchase a CD for this. The battlefields are big and spread out-- thousands of men camped, fought, and died at these places. Stop at designated spots along the driving route. Take a walk, read the markers that show what happened right where you are standing. You'll get a sense for how troops moved through the day, how armies clashed on multiple fronts, and how battles ebbed and flowed as reinforcements arrived or armies fell back.
  • Before your visit, you can also book a personal tour guide for several hours or for most of the day. Check the parks website. Guides can be found through outside groups or booked through the museum shops at the park. You can really immerse yourself in the tour which can often be tailored to fit your interests, so it is well worth the money.
An example of the trenches at Petersburg National Battlefield Park.
Thousands of Confederate paroles were printed after Lee's surrender.
Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
  •  Visit the museum shop and book store at the Visitor Center. Books cover an amazing range of Civil War subjects-- there is something for everyone's interests.
  • Find the donation box and slip in a few dollars. Help support these important sites of our nation's history! What Civil War battlefields have you visited?

July 1, 2017

Un BEE-lievable! Learn about the Buzz.....

The bee hive that hung off my floorboard.....

The bee holding box is on the far right.
The vacuum doesn't harm them!

Last month I noticed what looked like bees floating in and out of a hole in my house. I called a friend who happens to be a bee expert. Sure enough, these were bees, and I hired him to take a look and see what was abuzz.
These snaps and videos show what he found in the floor of my daughter's old bedroom--a hive about six weeks old. It took all day for two men to tear up the rug, listen for bees with a stethoscope,  smoke the bees to make them sleepy, trim away the floor, and then remove the hive.

The bee vacuum you see gently swept the bees into a holding box to keep them safe. Wow...I was blown away!

The background noise is the bee vacuum. Even during lunch break, the vacuum ran in order to keep them air-cooled in their holding box.

The hive was shaped exactly to fit a space under the floor. Birds had pulled away insulation and nested in there last year or so -- thanks to a hole made by a woodpecker sometime before that!  Mother Nature at work in my house....
Once the hive was collected and all the bees removed, the beekeeper drove to another neighborhood where the hive found its new home. Isn't that cool?

The damp stuff is nectar in the hive! 

Blogger Jeff Bogle has a fun "Honeybee Smelling Activity" to do with youngsters at PBS Kids...  

What's more, check out this colonial pastime developed by my co-blogger Brandon Marie Miller for George Washington for Kids!