Friday, October 8, 2010

Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin

Dear friends,

Just an hour ago, I finished reading the book Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin by Marguerite Henry to my kids as part of our unit study on colonial America. We love this book!  Even my teenage son who read it in 4th grade snuck back into the living room to listen with his younger brothers and sisters.  (Oh, his other assignments could wait.  Fine with me!)

The book is the a children's biography of the Father of American Painting, a young lad whose Quaker religious beliefs discouraged such a gaudy and useless diversion as creating pictures.  But Benjamin was driven along by a strong inner desire to paint that won over his family and church.   He even made paintbrushes from the fur of his loyal cat Grimalkin!  His native friend Sassoonan showed him how to use clay and other natural ingredients to make paint, at least until kind Uncle Phineas sent him a paintbox and real brushes.   His family and church came to realize that the beauty of art glorifies God. (This gives me goosebumps.  I love art and I love God!)  

Eventually Benjamin West became court painter for King George III in England as well as President of the Royal Academy of Arts.  He trained such pupils as Gilbert Stuart, who is famous for his portrait of George Washington.  I love the book because it is not dry and stuffy.  It is a story of a real boy with real feelings and real adventures.  It is recommended for ages 8-12.  I love Marguerite Henry's other books for children, too, such as her horse classic Misty of Chincoteague.

We finished the book in three sittings, and in the closing pages, I read that his birthday was October 8, 1738.  I was excited since that is today (and it's also my mother's birthday, so I thought she was born on his 200th) but on-line biographies say his birthday is October 10.  That may be because they changed the calendar system in 1752 and adjusted lots of dates.

While I was on-line looking that factoid up,  I located several of his paintings and showed them to my kids.  He was especially famous for using period clothing in his historical works.

At the National Gallery of Art web site, you can find an index of some of his works and a biography.  One of the paintings shown on the NGA site is "The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise."  I also found his painting "Penn's Treaty with the Indians" at another site.  Benjamin West's maternal grandfather was a personal friend of William Penn, the Quaker gentleman who founded the colony of Pennsylvania (Penn's forest) as a Holy Experiment with a goal of religious tolerance and fair treatment of native peoples. 

Related to this, we just finished reading Hostage on the Nighthawk, a fictionalized account of William Penn that touches not only on his role as colony founder and governor, but also on his battle against the piracy which plagued his area.  (My 11 year old son was drawing pictures of pirate ships as I read.)  The book made the point that at first the Quaker pacifist Penn did not want to raise a militia to fight pirates, but he realized he couldn't turn a blind eye to wickedness and crime in the name of peace.  Hostage on the Nighthawk is part of Dave & Neta Jackson's Trailblazers series aimed at the upper elementary and middle school age range.  I checked to see if the book is available at Christian Book Distributors and notice that is it now bundled in a single volume with books about Martin Luther, John Paton,  Hamilton Jones, and Marcus & Narcissa Whitman.  You can find it here.

By reading Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin you can learn about art, American history, and Quaker beliefs all while enjoying well-written, heart-stirring literature.  That's a mini unit study right there!  At one point this morning, I stopped reading for a moment and told my kids, "This is why I'm home schooling you guys."  And it is.  Sharing great books and sharing life!

(If you click on the title link above, you can order it at CBD and even read an excerpt on-line.  They also carry a picture book for slightly younger readers, The Boy Who Loved to Draw: Benjamin West by Barbara Brenner.  I haven't read it yet, but we've enjoyed some of her other books from the library.  Our Seminole County Library has this book, too, so I'll check it out tomorrow.)

Joy and beauty to you and yours,

Virginia Knowles

Friday, October 1, 2010

Florida Field Trips #1: Historic St. Augustine

Dear friends,

I'm starting a new monthly series on this blog of field trips in the state of Florida.  Most of them will be near Orlando and low or no cost.   For example, next month I'll photoblog about Big Tree Park, and I foresee other posts about Leu Gardens, the Orlando Science Center, and maybe even the Orange County Regional History Center.  Even if you don't live in this area, this might give you an idea of what to look for in your own town.

For this first post, we're venturing about two hours northeast to St. Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited city in the United States.  Come along!

There are so many other things to see in this beautiful city with a rich history, though, such as the Oldest Schoolhouse, the Lightner Museum, the St. Augustine lighthouse, Ponce de Leon's "Fountain of Youth" exhibit, or if you are in a bizarre mood, the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.  Thad and I honeymooned in St. Augustine 25 years ago, splurging on one night in a romantic bed & breakfast before moving over to a more affordable motel for the remainder of the week.  We've enjoyed going back as a couple and strolling through the quaint gift shops, eating at the Columbia restaurant, and browsing in the art galleries.  So whether you're going as a family or "just the two of us" there is something for everyone in St. Augustine.

For this trip, since my husband wasn't feeling well and we still have young children, we had only two destinations for  the day: Castillo de San Marcos (a massive fort built by the Spanish in the 1700's) and the Colonial Spanish Quarter.  This fits in well with our current unit study on early colonial history.  We had just studied St. Augustine the week before!

Admission at Castillo de San Marcos is $6 for adults and free for kids age 15 and under. Our visit lasted just under two hours, which is how long the parking meters will let you go on one feeding of four quarters, and which is just about right for our family.

We arrived just as this guide was finishing up describing how the Spanish defended their fort from the Englsh. It's one of my favorite stories about the Castillo, and I wish my kids had heard the whole thing. But you can read about it here: Covering Your Coqina: How to Withstand Enemy Book.

We watched a short film about cannons and muskets,
including a segment on how they drilled to train for using it.
These next several pictures were taken on the top level of the fort,
which overlooks Matanzas Bay and the distant lighthouse.

Is this cannon making a face at me?
Naomi is not in the cannon -- she's behind it!

I search out beauty and art wherever they can be found, even if on the barrel of a cannon!

A tower at one corner -- they could shoot out of the gun holes.
Our kids all had on their red American flag T-shirts which makes them easy to spot. 
I like to have them wear these whenever we take a family field trip.
I couldn't find Melody's though, so she just wore a red T-shirt.  She's not in the picture below.

Thad had quite a time keeping track of 5 year old Melody.
She didn't quite "get" this fort stuff, but she did like to run and climb!

St. Augustine and Castillo de San Marcos have been under Spanish, British and American control during their long and colorful history...

Our helpful guide took us on a tour of the lower level.

Native American culture is also featured...

 Steps to the upper level from the inner courtyard...

Picnic lunch under a palm tree, and then time to run around.

Our next stop -- the Colonial Spanish Quarter -- is just a couple of blocks away from Castillo de San Marcos, so we left our van there and fed more quarters into the meter.

There is an entrance fee of about $7 for adults, $4.25 for kids or $20 per family. Hours are 9 AM - 4:45 PM. We were here for two hours.  You can find more information (rates may be obsolete) here:

The carpentry shop...

A typical home, simple and charming.
I love the shelf hanging over the table -- more handy storage!

At the leather shop, this crafter was drinking lemonade from a leather tankard he had made.
It is waterproofed with a coating of beeswax, so he can't use it for hot drinks.
We were very impressed with this man's presentation because he was really trying to draw the kids in to the conversation.
The man at the blacksmith shop also explained his job well.

No matter where we are, we can't resist taking nature photos!


Crowing rooster on the fence

Spider on a web

Well, that's about it for the field trip we took last month, but I wanted to give you a taste of the Lightner Museum, too.   I visited there with my daughter Rachel and her friend Cassidy in January.  I think I paid $5 admission (which is half price) with my Florida Parent Educators Association membership card.  This museum may be of less interest to elementary age children, but I loved all of the Victorian era curiosities.  These pictures are just a sample of the sumptuous feast for the eyes!

Giant clam shells?

Automated musical instruments -- a whole room of them!
The guide demonstrated most of them for us.

Vintage dolls, clothes, cut crystal, furniture, vases and other pretty and/or funky things

OH, I can't write about St. Augustine without mentioning Don Oja Dunaway.  He's been singing folk music (much of it original) at the second story Milltop Cafe for decades.  Thad and I met him on our honeymoon, and Rachel and I saw him again in January.  When we were passing by a few weeks ago, we could hear him warming up.  Sweet memories!

Take a trip to St. Augustine!

P.S. If you are my Facebook friend, you can see more photos of St. Augustine on-line!

Virginia Knowles

Taming the Fidgets While You Read to Your Kids

Busy Hands: Taming the Fidgets While You Read to Your Kids
by Virginia Knowles

One of the main reasons we decided not to continue in our home school co-op after four years was because I really craved the opportunity to read aloud to my own kids for a significant amount of time every day.  We have hundreds (maybe thousands) of kids books in the house, and I wanted to fill their hearts and minds with great literature, fascinating history and wonder-building science.   My only problem with this is that my five younger kids, ages 5-13, tend to be fidgets!  The excess movement invariably caused distractions and even conflicts as someone would fling a pillow across the room or hang over the edge of the couch upside down.  

My friend Debbie, whose daughter attends a Montessori school where hands-on education is a key component of their program, suggested that I give them something to do with their hands while I read.  So the next morning I announced that they were welcome to go find something small to do with their hands as long as they didn't move around too much.  Naomi instantly thought of pipe cleaners.  She braided hers while Micah turned his into a small pipe cleaner family of people.   The next day, she brought out some modeling clay (not play dough, which is more messy) and started crafting a miniature bedroom set.  Micah has started making clay spiders and origami dinosaurs.   One of my adult daughters, Rachel, taught Naomi to knit, so I'm going to buy her a pair of needles and skein of yarn.  Imagine how many projects she could make just during our read aloud time each morning!

Has it solved the fidget and interruption problem?  Not entirely -- but it sure has helped!  Then I let them run around outside for a little while like active kids love to do.

Give it a try! 

P.S. Here's something I won't let them do in the living room since it's too messy -- those are pretzels nibbled into letter shapes!

More on reading aloud? 

What do you do with your kids to help them settle down so you can teach them?  Leave a comment with your ideas!

Virginia Knowles
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