Could it be a Storybook Year?

Late last summer, as I was gathering my thoughts on curriculum and trying to plan the year, I hit a wall. Actually, I was probably already flat up against the wall, but the time of year compelled me to do what I'd always done, so I pressed on. But I didn't want to plan. And I wasn't enthused about all the things that had previously sparked so much creative energy. It wasn't exactly burnout. It was more like beaten out. I hadn't wanted to share learning ideas for over a year, but by last summer, I didn't even want to write them for myself. It just wasn't fun anymore.

I thought about just sending off for several boxes of pre-planned curriculum. And then I consulted the budget. I looked around my house at all the resources we own. I didn't order anything. Nothing. That became the plan. Use what we have and just get the job done. 

We have an abundance of picture  books. I love picture books. When I was in college, I'd forego the coffee shop in the Student Union Building and head instead to the tiny corner of the adjacent bookstore that was home to the children's books. I saved my latte pennies for a hardbound copy of The Complete Tales of Peter Rabbit. Way better. I loved the small room in the Ed School library that was lined with shelves of children's literature. When we were assigned a semester-long project to compile an index card file of children's books, I filled three boxes. Every card was color-coded and annotated and illustrated. I still have those cards. I loved that project.


For over twenty years, I have been inspired by the art and the literature of picture books. I've thrown my whole heart into creating with books, whether it was bulletin boards in a classroom or fullblown unit studies for many ages. Literature-based learning was where I invested most of my creative energy. Some people love their cameras, some their paints, others their yarn or fabric. For me, it was always those beautiful books and the endless possiblities of things we could do with them.


I recalled a conversation with an old friend. Several years ago, we wondered if everything in an elementary curriculum could probably be taught with a good picture book. This year became my year to test the theory. Sort of.

We read widely from the lists in Real Learning (and more), both as read-alouds and read alones. Sustaining attention for long stories is a cornerstone of how we learn in our home.

The Montessori maps come out for geography review a couple times a week. 

Nature notebook

For my fifth-grader, I have a good math text, Rosetta Stone, some art history, nature notebooks, and, at his request, Swimming Creatures of the Fifth Day. All the rest? Picture books.

For my third grader, math, Rosetta Stone, nature notebooks, drawing instruction, and picture books. 

For my little ones, lots of mama time. And picture books.

I take the week's copywork from the picture books. I take the poem to memorize that week from a picture book. Every night, each of the three youngest girls chooses two picture books for me to read before going to sleep.

What unfolded is not a curriculum. It's a "freedom within limits" plan that works for us. I share it here to tell you what we've been up to, not so much as to suggest you adopt it. It's entirely real learning in the heart of our home. I thought about all the categories of books, all the subjects typical programs of studies will cover. Also, I was sure to leave some grids for me to add in books I love and just don't want them to miss.  I gridded all the different categories in a weekly planning sheet. The sheet has changed several times this year as I add and delete as necessary. I've thoughtfully included the things that are important us, the components of a Charlotte Mason curriculum that I hold dear. 


We read the books together or the children read them to themselves. Sometimes, they have books in common on their charts. Sometimes, they have their own particular books. I sit down the weekend before and plan out the week. I key the saints' picture books to the liturgical year. Usually, I'll ask if there is a book they want to read and let them choose within each discipline. Occasionally, I'll gather up the stack myself. It's important for me to gather all the books before the week begins so I don't spend hours looking under couch cushions or behind beds for the books I am certain I just saw.

Sometimes, there is a theme across disciplines. Nicky might read  A Swim Through the Sea, Man Fish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau, and mom's choice of Night of the Moonjellies. Katie might ask about Manassas Battlefield Park as we drive by it daily, back and forth to ballet. The following week, I'll write in books like Follow the Drinking GourdHenry's Freedom BoxCivil War ArtistSweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt and If You Lived at the Time of the Civil War.

More often, though, this is not about unit studies, but about a wide banquet of varied topics. If a child is super-interested in something, it's simple enough to scuttle the written plan and dig deeply with more on-topic books. Two important things about scuttling the plan:  

  • There must be a plan to scuttle; this isn't freewheeling and hoping that books thrown everywhere will catch someone's attention.
  • If you ditch the plan, it's only to do something better. It's never to do nothing. And we need a written plan for the "something better."

Every day, the children respond in writing to at least one book. They can choose a writing project from a long list of projects or they can propose another. Not every book requires a formal response. Some books, we read, we talk about just a little, and then we close it and put it on the shelf. But every day requires some kind of writing. Every day. They might dictate a simple narration. They might peck out their own narrations. They might take off and create an elaborate screenplay. Whatever they choose, they must write something.


With the time that's left in the day, they can choose from other ways to respond to books and get as creative as they like with any book they've read that day or previously. We're busy. We're productive. We're surrounded by good language and great art. And the creative energy has returned to our educational adventures.

It's all good.


Tell me about your book: 

  • Write and tell a friend about the story. 
  • Make a detailed map of the setting of the book.
  • Is it a circle story? Can you draw it?
  • Did something really catch your attention? Want to research it further?
  • If historical, add it to your Book of Centuries. (we do this with every historical book)
  • Write a letter from the main character to you.
  • Choose a character you’d like to have as a friend.  Write him or her a letter. 
  • Plan & cook something to go with the book
  • Tell why it would (or wouldn’t) make a great movie. 
  • Describe an incident from it as though you were an on-the-scene TV reporter.
  • Create a collage.
  • Make up a rhyming poem about it
  • Illustrate w/drawings or photos
  • Explain its funniest (or saddest or most exciting) incident.
  • Make a new book jacket for the book
  • Do a puppet show.
  • Read the book aloud as radio theatre and record it.
  • Write 3 paragraphs in a diary as if you were your favorite character. 
  • Design and draw costumes for some of the characters.
  • Design quilt squares to go with the book
  • Tell what your home would look like if you were one of the main characters. 
  • Write a biography of one of the characters.
  • Write a human interest story about one of the characters in the book.
  • Write a letter to the editor about an issue in the book.
  • Create magazine ad for the book.
  • Create a television ad for the book
  • Draw it into newspaper cartooning squares.
  • Play charades w/themes from the book
  • Pretend a character had made an important decision differently. Write a new ending.
  • Make a list of facts you learned in the book
  • Write an Amazon review.
  • Plan a field trip inspired by the book
  • Compare versions of the same story.
  • Compare the book to the movie version
  • Make peg dolls to go with the book.
  • Compare it to another book the author/illustrator has written. This might be a comparison of art or of the story.
  • Use its title to write your own story. 
  • Write a letter to the author
  • Pretend you are the author. Write a publisher, pictching your book.

 Picture books make me happy. This blog is for sharing what makes me happy. I can't promise you a book a day. There's no way I'm going to post big plans for every book. I do hope to share a little of our picture book love on a regular basis here. A quick review, a picture or two, some ideas on where the book took us--little snapshots of books we all love. I know that not all my readers are homeschoolers. I'm certain, though, that these books can enrich the lives of all the children we love.

A is for Apples and Artists

Fridays in our house are dedicated to art and Shakespeare. It's my ahhhh at the end of the week. Our Shakespeare studies are outlined here. Look for that whole page to be re-designed. I had trouble following it last week;-)


In our framework for lessons here in the heart of my home, Along the Alphabet Path, art is definitely an every age endeavor. There is more than enough here for everyone. Using Museum ABC as a spine, we have an introduction to 26 great works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the letter "A" we studied Cezanne's apples.

The Met website does a fabulous job with this particular piece, with a wonderful online lesson. There is an online biography of Cezanne with plenty of information about the artist and his place in the art world. 

There are online games and activities and there are suggestions for "on paper" games and activities.

That would be plenty.

But wait, I have more;-).


Remember Degas and the Little Dancer? We love her. Laurence Anholt has written a whole series of books like that one. These are painstakingly researched books which bring to life the stories of real children who knew the artists. Cezanne's story is one of his son, Paul, and the friendship father and son develop when they are reunited on a painting expedition in the mountains of southern France. 


And, there's an app for that! Well, almost. Anholt's Van Gogh and the Sunflowers book has been developed into an iPad app. It's a truly lovely app, at that:-) I look forward to seeing more of his books broadened this way.

We also really enjoy Mike Venezia's series, Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists. His volume on Cezanne offers plenty of biographical detail so that children can create a notebook page and lovely reproductions that expose them to much more of this artist's work. 

Artist activity book

The Met site suggests a simple hands-on still life activity. Laurence Anholt's Artists Activity Book poses a charcoal challenge in the spirit of Cezanne. Anybody else find that charcoal is most challenging for mothers? Ah, the mess. Let them make a mess. Say it with me. Maybe we'll believe it. There are activities in the Artists Activity Book for each of the books in the artist series. This book is a keeper!

Then, pulling books off my shelf, I found a more detailed still life activity and a lovely biography in Monet and the Impressionists for Kids. In Discovering Great Artists, MaryAnn Kohl offers still more still-life instruction. Clearly, there's a theme here.

Finally, for the child who is just super stuck and can't get anything on paper, there's a coloring sheet in Masterpieces: A Fact-Filled Coloring Book that provides the basic forms and lets kids focus on color. .

For more about our Storybook Year, please visit here.

Meet The Art History Mom

This afternoon, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Kristen Nelson, The Art History Mom. Kristen's website is a treasure trove for all moms, homeschooling or not. Please take a few minutes and get acquainted. There's nothing to buy. Everything she offers is absolutely free of charge.



Artistic roots.

Growing up in New Orleans, Kristen was exposed to all sorts of wonderful music, architecture, art, and people. Her passion for art was born in her teen years, when she attended Metairie Park Country Day, a school with an excellent art curriculum. In college she studied fine art and art history at Colorado State University. During this time she spent her first summer in Italy studying Renaissance frescoes. If she wasn’t hooked on art before, that surely did it!

In her late 20s, she took a break from her high-pressure advertising career in Atlanta to follow her dream of living in Italy. Through an amazing job at Trinity College’s Elderhostel program, she led tours of the Italian art scene throughout the country from her base in Rome.

Museum match-making.

Two years later she returned to the States and resumed her career in graphic design. She met her husband, Christian, on a blind date. Not knowing anything about her, he suggested they meet at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. The first time they met face to face, they were standing under the gaze of a Rodin sculpture.

Christian is a golf enthusiast who works in finance, but he loves art as well. His favorite period is Soviet Constructivism. Hers is Italian Medieval. What’s yours? If there is a certain genre, work of art, or artist you’d like to see featured in her blog, please head over and let her know. She’ll do her best to oblige you.

Friends in artsy places. 

To make sure Kristen gets all of her art history facts straight, she consults with her beautiful and brilliant friend, Monica Shenouda, who currently lives in Florence. Kristen and Monica worked together in Rome. Since then, Monica’s earned her doctorate in art history from the University of Virginia. When Monica’s not teaching for Pepperdine University’s Study Abroad program, you can find her giving tours of places like the Uffizzi Gallery for Context Travel. Kristen likes to think that her art blog is a way for all of us to break from the daily routine and join Monica in Italy, where artistic tradition is so deeply rooted.



“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau

Art is so important. More than merely looking at pretty pictures or objects, it’s about learning how to see. This means recognizing beauty not only in art, but throughout the world around us. Although some people enter this world with the eyes of an artist, the ability to see is a learned skill anyone can acquire, especially impressionable children.

Think about the many images our kids are exposed to on a daily basis. Just to name a few: loud, often violent video games; over-stimulating TV commercials; and visually cluttered billboards hovering above as they ride in the back of our SUVs. But how many of these images actually give meaning to their lives? Or elevate their hearts and minds?

A lifelong gift.

Kristen's mother-in-law, Carol, tells an interesting story. When Carol was 7 years old living in Pensacola, Florida, just after World War II, her mother spent $25 (a small fortune at the time) on an art book filled with photos of masterpieces. It was placed prominently in the living room.

Her young daughter, Carol, quickly discovered the great treasure and was soon spending hours devouring its contents. The pages were filled with a beauty and mystery that fed her soul for years—after all, she didn’t have an iPad! Carol would gaze at the people in the paintings, make up stories about them, and imagine what it would be like to be part of their worlds.


Kristen's mother-in-law, Carol, holding her childhood treasure.

Later in life, when visiting museums, Carol would point and exclaim, “That’s Raphael!” or “Look at that gorgeous landscape by Turner!” Because Carol shared her artistic enthusiasm with her son, when he became Kristen's husband, they were able to enjoy art together. Now they're intent on passing this appreciation on to their children.

Great art is a click away.

It’s Kristen's hope that her blog will help you foster a deep affection for art in your child, too. Sadly, young people in America are under-exposed to images that enlarge their worldview in an inspiring way. And unless you live in a major metropolitan city, it’s difficult to visit museums to show your kids great paintings, sculpture, and architecture.

That’s why Kristen is bringing the masterpieces to you! She’ll cover all genres, posting different works of art along with kid-friendly talking points. Discussing art can be intimidating, so Kristen will make it easy for you. And although copyright restrictions exist for works created within the last 90 years, modern art will be included whenever possible.

As a parent, your part is to look at the images with your child and discuss what you see. (Kristen loves to hear your comments, and your children’s!) The featured pieces will be followed by a related art project, enabling your little ones to create something beautiful, while reinforcing what they’ve learned.

Along the way, your kids will expand their vocabulary and gain useful knowledge about geography and culture. I hope that together you discover not only the joy of art, but the joy of exploring it side by side.

So, are you with her?

If so, please subscribe here. It's free:-)



So, how do you get the most out of this website? Here are a few tips.

  1. Show your excitement. As parents, we all know that our children imitate our attitudes and actions. (Don’t you hate that sometimes?) That’s why it’s important for you to model enthusiasm. It sounds obvious, but if you are excited about viewing and discussing art, your kids will be, too.
  2. Read before you share. I highly recommend reading the blog post before you share it with your kids. Take into consideration the ages of your children and plan accordingly. For little ones, you may only want to show them the images and talk about the colors and shapes you see. My 5-year-old likes to look at the artwork and go straight to the Fun Facts section. Tweens and teens might need a little more substance so they can explore the links within the post.
  3. Timing is everything. If your kids are like most, as soon as you sit down with your laptop or tablet they are on top of you. This is the perfect time to pull up Art History Mom and explore a recent post together.
  4. Allow interest to build. When first introducing her site to your kids, keep it short and sweet. The more art history I show my children, the more enthusiastic they become—but it takes time. You might want to start with a specific blog post your child will find interesting. Show them the images and point out a few engaging facts. Each time you visit the blog, spend a little more time. The point is to keep it positive so your kids will want to revisit the site and explore more art.
  5. Tools of the trade. At the beginning of each post you’ll see a link to a page of flash cards. Print these out and cut them along the dotted lines. Then have your child write the answers to the questions on the back of each card as you review the post together. You can use them throughout the week for pop quizzes!
  6. Pause for questions. You can read the post to your child or let him or her lead. If you’re guiding your child through the post, don’t forget to pause after the questions, giving some time to think and answer.
  7. Display the art. Print out the featured artwork and post it in a prominent place in your home for a week or so. It will reinforce the lesson and you can engage your child by asking them questions about the artwork.
  8. Bigger is better. Although this site is smartphone-friendly, you’ll have a better experience viewing the posts on a desktop, laptop, or tablet.
  9. Homeschooling. If you’re a homeschool mom, I would be overjoyed if you choose to use this site as part of your curriculum. Incorporate it into your weekly routine and designate a special morning or afternoon to learning about art history.

Click here to see Kristen's full site!

Really Noticing the Art in Our Homes

On a Friday in Ponte Vedra, far from the chill and ice of home, my family gathered in the oceanfront home of my Aunt Diane. We were far from the dining room table, from our books, from our schedules. But we were in full learning mode. We had a mission.


(That's a museum chair Nick. Careful.)

My aunt is the founder of the Thomas and Diane D Jacobsen Foundation; both her home and her office are hung with museum quality art. We had spent the previous day in the office, where Aunt Diane and her assistant Kelley gave us a tour of the more contemporary art hung there and illuminated the fine points of the "Art of Seating" chair collection which is traveling museums across the country. We had the opportunity to better understand how furniture, while certainly functional, is art itself. Kelley's children were there, too and we all were able to spend all the time we wanted to get up close and personal with some amazing art.







When Kelley asked us to meet her at my aunt's home the next day to help her with a project, we were all glad to go. Our assignment was to help write a scavenger hunt for various ages who might come tour the art in the home. School groups and adult fundraisers have been known to walk through each room, taking in the vast collection of mostly American art. Kelley thought we could help come up with some clues to send art lovers off on a search. 



I took Sarah and Mike took Karoline and the rest were on their own. We went from room to room, looking carefully at paintings, sculpture, and furniture, and recording clues that might lead a keen observer to find "our" art. We noticed that Sarah was drawn to dancers and is a big fan of sculpture. One of her clues was "The dancer who couldn't find her leotard." You can see the dancer on the table below.

(This painting was a huge favorite. Goldilocks and the Three Bears is the bedtime story of choice.)

We spent a couple of hours sitting in the living room, soaking up the view of the ocean outside and listening to Kelley and Diane as they applauded our clues and then told us so much more about everything we saw inside.

Most of us don't live in homes hung with fine art. But almost all of us live in homes with pictures on the wall and statues on the tables. How carefully do we look at the details of the art that graces our homes? One afternoon, gather all ages and send each child off with a pencil and paper. Challenge them write a clue about a favorite piece of art. And then another and another. Framed prints, photographs, folk art and embroidery, statues, even pottery can be considered. You do it, too. The idea is to look closely and notice.


(Needlepoint on a stool? Hmmm. Coming soon to a Virginia home we all know.)

Then, come together. Read one clue at a time aloud and see who can guess which piece it describes. Does anyone have something additional to add about that art? Is there a question raised that would prompt follow-up research? 


(That's the "Girl in the Red Shawl," my personal favorite, and Man with the Red Solo Cup, my other personal favorite.)

Often the familiar items that surround us almost every day go nearly unnoticed by the people who live with them. It is amazing how much we can appreciate the familiar when we take the time to really notice.




Pin It