Hands-On Alabama History: The Conclusion.

From the beginning

1st-Day-of-school-2016s-3 I promise this was from the beginning of this school year. Ignore the wrong dates. I’m a qualified teacher really I am.

To the end.

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It was an absolute adventure.

And my most ambitious and longest school year yet is finally over.

Although we’d finished most subjects, we officially ended it all on May 24, toward the end of a two-day field trip to Huntsville when Ali and I mutually agreed that although we did not go to all the places in my giant Alabama History plan, we were both officially done. Two days later, after she finished her field trip reports on said trip, we were DONE done.

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We did a total of 36 field trips, some(crazy)how, over her fourth grade year. (Some were multiple trips on the same day, so it’s not quite as insane as it sounds.) The book she wrote about those visits…is substantial.

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It was a remarkable year – one that we all learned more than usual and we will all remember extraordinarily fondly, but also a busy year. And oh by the way, Ali grew just a bit.

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(Noah grew too and also Noah learned to read this year but poor kid – gets overshadowed by our giant history project. Someone clap for Noah! He can read! Hooray!!)

(Okay thank you. Now let’s continue.)

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I didn’t get all of our Alabama History adventures written about during the year, but Ali’s reports are so much better than mine, so I’ll just let her cover the ones I never got around to:

Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens: This was our least favorite trip – we went in December and it was really cold that day, so we didn’t enjoy the grounds. The admission price was high, and there wasn’t that much to see. The Christmas decorations were pretty, though, and the “A Christmas Carol” theme was fun. Ali and Noah made the best of it and slid down the very uneven floors in the Antebellum mansion. (The floors were uneven because plumbing was installed post-construction. Makes for a fun indoor slide.)

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Tuscaloosa – we went to the Bear Bryant Museum and the Children’s Hands-On Museum. The Hands-On Museum wasn’t exactly history related, but it was my favorite museum when I was a kid, and I wanted them to enjoy it again. As expected, Noah now asks me to take him back there at least every other day. This was our last field trip with Carla Jean, so it was a delightful, yet bittersweet, final opportunity to enjoy our perfect symbiosis of friendship and education.

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Southern Museum of Flight and the Birmingham Public Library Maps Exhibit: we took my Dad along to the Southern Museum of flight, which was fantastic, because he was able to teach the kids so much about the planes he’d worked on in the Air Force. Like their inappropriate nicknames and the fact that the switch that drops the missiles is called the “Pickle Switch.” Important information. The kids really enjoyed this museum – they had many planes to play in and several hands-on areas. The education director, Mr. Charlie, was a wealth of information and really fun to make and fly paper airplanes with.

Southern Museum of Flight and Maps Exhibit

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: This was one of our most important visits, but also ended up being one of our most risky visits. It is definitely geared more toward teens and adults, yet I was brilliant that day and invited friends to come with us. Needless to say, our group of 11 kids ten years old and under were greeted at the front door by a museum curator with strict instructions on how to behave and respect the museum. They did well, considering, but I wished I had left Noah with someone and just taken Ali. It was a grave experience, and there’s so much Civil Rights history that happened right here in Birmingham to absorb. The videos are quite graphic, as are the exhibits. It’s both a vital and painful piece of understanding Alabama’s history.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

U.S. Space and Rocket Center: Alabama played an important part in the Space Race. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is a fantastic campus (it’s way more than a museum) to learn about and appreciate that impact. They have actual vessels that have been on the moon – that alone is worth the drive. The staff there was extremely helpful and voluntary with their loads of information. They made the kid’s visit so much more fun.

US Space and Rocket Center

The Double Helix Park, EarlyWorks, and The Huntsville Depot – We did a triple take for our last field trip day (maybe that’s why we were so done by the end of it) – we first walked The Double Helix Trail in Huntsville, which is a really excellent .8 mile walking trail in the shape of a double helix. Along the way, you learn about characteristics that are on each genome and how they affect our genetic makeup. They also have an app that you can download and turn the walk into a Scavenger Hunt, which we did and the kids adored.

EarlyWorks is a Children’s Museum in Huntsville that, instead of being a science-based hands-on museum like McWane in Birmingham, it’s a history-based hands-on museum, specifically focused on Alabama History. It was an excellent place to spend an afternoon – the kids loved playing Mercantile, running through the River Boat, and setting off dynamite. Oh and their pile of stuffed dogs is AMAZING.

The Huntsville Depot had a fantastic collection of train cars that could be played on, and even had working buttons and switches that made thrilling noises. They also had a museum of old cars and a train museum. We didn’t make it in time to go into the train museum, but the kids enjoyed the rest of it immensely.

Huntsville Field Trips

Interviews – we didn’t do nearly as many history interviews as I’d hoped to. The fact that all the interviews would be in the latter part of the project (nobody’s still alive from the prehistoric days, after all) contributed to my failure in that area. By the time we got to the end of the year, I was just trying to desperately finish the field trip part of our project. We did have one interview event, however, that was seriously tremendous. Our famous meteorologist James Spann came and spoke to us and a group of about 40 other people who have been participating in our Alabama History project, or that just wanted to come and hear him speak. It was very off-the-cuff, and he talked about all sorts of fantastic Alabama stuff (such as the route one would take if they wanted to turn the four hour trip to the beach into a four day trip, going through every little town and eating at every tiny bar-b-q dive along the way.) He took questions from the kids, as well, which was really fun and quite hilarious. We talked about tornadoes and racism and small-town Alabama and everything in between. He was the perfect person to single-handedly handle the interview portion of our project.

James Spann Interview

And that’s it. I’ll see you again in four years, Alabama History.

If anyone wants the last version of my spreadsheet, they can find it here. I do plan on doing a seminar later in the summer for anyone interested in the details of how we made this year work. I plan on having a curriculum guide written up and copies of my spreadsheet ready to go, so let me know if you’d like to be a part of that.

I mean, I plan to do all that, but it is summer. And it’s been a mighty long school year. So feel free to nag if you don’t hear from me. Until then, I’ll be making like Noah and taking a nice, long, nap.

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Hands-On History: Sloss Furnaces

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Sloss Furnaces, part of the reason for Birmingham’s existence, has always fascinated me – especially photographically. I’ve taken pictures of it for years, but have never truly explored it. I have left it so unexplored that I didn’t even realize they had a gorgeous visitor’s center, gift shop, and museum.

But naturally it was on our list of field trips for our history project, so when we made it to that point in history, I emailed to inquire about a tour. They have a premium tour which includes the opportunity to create an iron mold and watch iron being poured, so I quickly chose that option. Molten hot metal poured with children watching? For sure – we’re absolutely doing that.

We arrived on a gorgeous day – a perfect backdrop for the exciting photos I knew I’d get to take.

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Sloss Furnaces was a thriving pig iron producer opened in 1882, perfectly situated in the only place in the United States where all the ingredients needed to make iron lay within a thirty-mile radius.

The tour began, and despite our tour guide’s fantastic mannerisms, I might’ve gotten distracted by all the fabulous angles inside of Sloss to fully pay attention.

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I definitely caught some snippets about the terrible working conditions (deafness and death being side effects of employment), but the angles…

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We descended down some crazy narrow metal steps to the underground.

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I remember clearly that he explained what they used to cart back and forth in this tunnel, but … photographs.

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Obviously I need to redo this tour and not be allowed to take my camera along because everything he said was so very interesting and I don’t remember a single word of it.

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I am not fit to be a homeschool mom. I am the worst. And I have the photographs to prove it.

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(This is also Carla Jean’s fault for moving to Colorado because I can’t cheat off of her notes. Which makes me wonder how very much I cheated off her notes last semester…I am really not fit to be a teacher.)

After the riveting tour during which I learned so very much, we went inside the museum and watched a short film about turning Sloss into a National Historic Landmark. Most of Ali’s report (at the bottom) was gleaned from the video. So maybe she was distracted during the tour as well.

Then it was time for the mold making. They gave each of us pressed sand molds and tools for creating our designs.

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This was SO MUCH FUN. And made me wish I had more artistic abilities.

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After we all finished our molds, they were loaded onto a trolley and carted off to these workers, who were casually maintaining the fire as red-hot iron slag dripped out of their container, as it’s supposed to.

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Never have caution signs had such a justified existence.

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The best part of my entire month was when they took the vat of liquid iron and began pouring it into the molds. Watching and photographing the splashing fire made me beyond ecstatic.

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…And totally creeped Noah out. But did I comfort my kid? No. I was too busy watching volcano being poured.

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While we waited for our iron castings to cool a degree or two, we studied the forge’s various collectibles.

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Clearly people had been having fun.

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My kind of fun.

Sloss Furnaces170308f-Sloss-FurnacessThose eyes…so turquoise. That skull…so melted.

The cart arrived with our creations, and the kids enjoyed trying to find their pieces. (Except one of our kids, who refused to claim his piece, insisting that his would NOT have looked like that.)

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Ali, who had worked hard to write mirror-image letters in her mold, was quite proud of how her piece came out. And amazed at how heavy it was.

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It was a most fantastic field trip, even though I totally failed at knowledge retention. I’ll be sure my report card reflects such.

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Here’s Ali’s report:

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Hands-On Alabama History: DeSoto Caverns

DeSoto Caverns was not on my all-encompassing spreadsheet of Alabama History. In fact, after studying Alabama History and reading one very detailed story about how Hernando De Soto came to Alabama with the sole purpose of stealing from and brutally slaughtering as many Native Americans as possible, I felt a bit queasy from the happy signs for “DeSoto Caverns Family Fun Park!!”

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But then, I happened upon a Facebook ad for a half price “Homeschool Day”, and I was feeling especially adventurous. Three days later, I found myself enjoying a laser light show underground with two other families that I dragged down with me. So congrats, DeSoto, your Facebook Ad was successful.

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But I quickly learned that DeSoto Caverns, despite its poor choice in names, should have been on my spreadsheet from the beginning. Our hour-long tour of the cave provided some extremely fantastic pieces of history.

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We learned about Mr. Wright, who happened upon the cave in 1723, carved his name and date in this rock, then lay down to take a nap.

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Poor guy. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t know that the cave was a sacred Indian burial ground and that they had someone to bury that very day. The Indians happened upon his happy little nap on their way down, and went ahead and killed him and left his bones beside his name. Mr. Wright had carved his own tombstone.

But on the plus side, it’s the oldest graffiti to be found in any US cave, so way to carve your way into history. Moist would be proud.

We also got to learn about how Civil War gunpowder was made in the cave, using its secrecy and noise-cancelling abilities to hide the production.

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But my favorite piece of history was about The Cavern Tavern.

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A 1920’s prohibition bootlegger had been using the cave to make moonshine. But he got tired of having to drag his large clay vessels up a mudslide to get out of the cave, so instead, he decided to open a secret speakeasy in the cave itself. And, well…I’ll let Ali tell the rest of the story.

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That jewel is by far my favorite report from our entire study of Alabama history. If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s the all-important lesson of “Don’t go to an illegal bar in a cave with no way out except to climb up a mudslide. Especially if it’s named ‘The Bloody Bucket’.”

The caves, despite the stalagtites damaged for the long six-week tenure of The Bloody Bucket, were just magnificent.

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As we toured the cave, they pointed out all of the pieces of cave that looked like something else. This was the unanimous favorite – Yoda.

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After the cave, we enjoyed the “Family Fun” part of the park. They had at least a dozen attractions to pick from – Mini Golf, a gold panning, gem searching, a maze, and a few fair-like rides.

I was kind of obsessed with finding gems in the giant sandbox,

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And we all enjoyed the maze. Mainly because Holland, one of the kids with us, taught us the trick to all mazes: never take your left hand off the wall and it’ll lead you out.

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Totally works, guys.

Some of the rides were more kid-powered than usual, which made it highly entertaining for the grown-ups to watch as the kids worked their hardest to peddle the “go-karts” up and down small hills.

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(Red faces are always a good sign of time well spent.)

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Overall I was extremely pleased with the park – the cave was bigger and more educational than I expected, and the kids had a fantastic time – both in the cave and out.

But I still think they could do for a name change.

Here was Ali’s report:

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