Archive for History

Interview with Sofia Tomov, a middle school author

Interview with student author

It’s not every day a student comes up to you and hands you a copy of a book they just wrote and published. That happened to me last year and as I got mentioned in the credits it made it even more special.

Sofia Tomov researched, wrote and illustrated Sneaky Creatures: Amazing True Tales of Animal Spies  – when she was only 11! As I was teaching a history class about spies last semester, I read the book and used what I learned from it as the basis of a lesson plan for one of my classes.

I have never written a book and so I was curious about how Sofia went about the process and thought others might be too. So here is my interview with her:

Sofia Tomov
Why did you decide to write a book?

Sofia: I first found out about animal spies through reading about Project Bat Bomb, a proposed alternative to the Manhattan Project that involved bats dropping bombs on Japan. I am interested in animals and was excited to learn more about this subject as I wondered if animal spies could have saved lives as a viable alternative to nuclear weapons. I wanted to share this fascination with others and got the idea to write a book about it.

How did you pick the topic?

Sofia: I have always been interested in nature and animal behavior. After taking a fantastic class on spies throughout history at my homeschool co-op (thanks, Mrs. Van der Merwe!), I combined my interests and wondered if it was possible to train animals to become ‘spies.’ I researched this, and found fascinating articles about bats, cats, dolphins, and pigeons that have been trained to assist the American military.

How long did it take you to write it?

Sofia: It took me around four months to research and write the book.

How did you create the illustrations?

Sofia: I created the illustrations using a photo editing software called Photoshop. I used an existing image as a background, and then added images taken during the actual animal spy projects. Then, I altered certain properties of the images such as contrast and color, and used certain filters that altered the texture of the image.

Sneaky Creatures illustration

What software did you use to create the book?

Sofia: I used Google documents to write the book, and then uploaded that document into Amazon’s createSpace.

What was the hardest thing about the whole process?

Sofia: The hardest thing about writing Sneaky Creatures was narrowing down all my research to focus on several main aspects of each animal spy project. While I felt tempted to include all the fascinating details I had read about, I knew I needed to find only the most interesting and important information and include that in each chapter.

What did you learn from the experience?

Sofia: I learned not only about the specific animal spy projects, but I also learned how to effectively and engagingly communicate my research. I also realized that the notion of using animals for military purposes has more ethical flaws than I originally thought, because the animals are often placed in physical danger, and are disrespected as living beings.

What is your advice to someone your age who is thinking of writing a book?
Sofia: I would advise a young writer to choose a book topic they are truly interested in and are excited to explore in depth, and also to not give up on writing the book. It is sometimes challenging to continue writing when you feel overwhelmed by information, or when you feel like your writing is not exactly how you envision it. In this situation, I would recommend considering what you would most like to know about, or asking someone such as a parent, teacher, or friend for feedback on your writing.

Sofia is a very impressive young lady who does a lot more than just write books! She is a currently a Discovery 3M Young Scientist Challenge national finalist. If you want to keep up with Sofia – follow her on twitter @KatnissofCode.

Sneaky Creatures: Amazing True Tales of Animal Spies is easy to read and full of interesting stories that will engage anyone from elementary school up. This will make a great gift – and when children see it is written by someone their own age, I hope some will be inspired to go and write a book themselves!

CSI Florence: A Renaissance Lesson Plan

Renaissance Lesson Plan


This semester I am teaching 16 classes on Criminals in History. Over the summer I was on vacation in Italy and went wine and olive-oil tasting at a villa just outside Florence. Part of the experience included a tour through the house which dated back to the 12th century. The house had belonged to the Pazzi family. On the tour we were taken into the Conspiracy Room. It was here, during the Renaissance, that a murder plot against the Medici family was hatched. As I heard the story I knew this would be great for my middle school class. The story would hold their interest and would be a fantastic way for them to learn about Renaissance Italy.

As I started mulling over how to make the lesson interactive and fun, I searched a bit online – and that’s when I found the fantastic lesson Mr Roughton created. I used it just as he suggested and it was a great success.

In a nutshell, students investigate 8 different pieces of evidence related to the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici and then come to their own conclusions about who was involved in the crime.

What to do before the lesson

1. I read through everything and researched more about the story of the murder and what happened afterwards.

2. If you don’t have good wifi (my problem) or your school blocks Youtube, be sure to download the 3 videos you will need.

3. Make copies of the documents the students have to look at. I just made them in black and white (color for some would have been nice – but that was beyond my budget). I made 4 copies of each evidence set as I have 30 students in my class so I wanted everyone to be able to have access to something at all times. I put each piece of evidence in a plastic sheet protector as I want to be able to re-use them.

4. I got a big roll of paper (from Office Depot) and lay face down on it and my daughter took a sharpie and outlined the “body”. (This was hard to do as our kittens wanted in on the fun! So the paper also ended up with multiple small claw holes!)

5. The Forensics teacher supplied me with police tape. You can buy it on Amazon.

6. I copied an Evidence booklet for each student.

Evidence booklet



How the lesson turned out

Fortunately I had the lunch break straight before this class, so I had time to set everything up. I happen to teach in the sanctuary of a church – and the murder took place in a church – so that was great! I put down the sheet with the body outlined and cordoned it off with police tape. Then I spread out the rest of the evidence around the room.

I made a Storie while the students were working. You can see how I turned off the lights at the start which is what Mr Roughton suggests – and I started the first video. The students were very quiet and engaged immediately!

I had 55 minutes for the lesson but as this was the first time I had seen these students this year I had to spend a few minutes at the start doing roll call and going over some things so that took some time away from the lesson. I gave the students about 20 minutes to work on their own investigating exhibits B through G and most of them didn’t get through everything. Quite a few got stuck on Exhibit D as they saw it was in Italian. I had to point out to them that many words were the same as the English words so they could actually figure it out.

The lesson was a success and it was so easy to do thanks to the work Mr Roughton put in to creating it. You can find everything you need here. Oh, and if you use it, drop him a note via his Contact form. I know he would appreciate that!

And come back and leave a comment here to let me know how it went!

** Disclaimer: some of the links are affiliate links. You don’t pay more, but I get a small percentage of any sales.


Pocket Law Firm: a fun Civics app that teaches the amendments

Pocket Law Firm app

Do you know your constitutional rights? Do you know what each amendment relates to? And do your students and children know?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, then I can recommend the iPad app from iCivics (you can also play it online here as ‘Do I have a Right?’) which makes learning these things a lot of fun.

You start by choosing who you want to be and then you select a partner.

Clients start to arrive at your law firm. It is your duty to meet them and hear their problems. If you think their constitutional rights are being ignored – introduce them to a lawyer who can help them. Initially, only your partner is available but as the game continues and your firm earns prestige points for winning cases, you can hire more. Each lawyer comes with one amendment they are experts in – and then as the game progresses they sometimes acquire more.

Pocket Law Firm Screen

It is your job to make a correct match to a lawyer who can help – or to refuse a case where the client does not have a real right.

Pocket Law Firm Screen

The game is played over 7 days and things get busier each day. Prestige points can be used not only to hire lawyers but also to upgrade the waiting area so that customers are prepared to wait longer, and to purchase adverts in the local newspaper.

The office gets really busy and it is hard to remember which amendment is which (you can get in-game help but that wastes time so you WANT to remember). And you have to think strategically how to spend your money at the end of each day.

Pocket Law Firm screen shot

I like this game – a lot! I have played it 3 times and each time I have done a bit better. I keep playing because it is fun – but I have also learned that the 2nd amendment = right to bear arms ,3rd = soldiers can’t be quartered in your house, 4th= no unreasonable searches, 5th= double jeopardy and government can’t take property without compensating you, 8th = no Cruel or Unusual Punishment, 13th = no slavery and 14th – equality under the law. All of these I could not have told you 3 days ago before I downloaded the app. By the way – I wrote those down from memory and didn’t cheat at all. I was actually surprised by how well I had remembered.

And did I mention the app is FREE? It is.

So if you have an iPad – go grab it now from the iTunes store. If not, you can still enjoy the game online. There are a number of other games from iCivics on their website. And there are lessons plans for teachers. These lesson plans are really detailed and even provide creative worksheets (not the usual boring ones I was expecting).

Any one used this app or the online games? If so, how have your children / students responded to it?

In-depth US History Course for High Schoolers

American History Course


Four years ago I was faced with the question of what to use for a US History Course for my 11th grade son, who wanted to write the AP exam at the end of the year. I never ‘teach to the test’, so although I wanted to be sure he would be prepared for  the exam, I was more interested in providing him with an interesting and challenging course he would enjoy.

I couldn’t find anything that quite met those specifications, so decided to pull together my own course. My older daughter had already written the AP US History exam and so I had some idea what would be tested, and I did keep that in mind when deciding on the homework exercises and essays.

For the spine I chose the Teaching Company’s college level course. We have used many of their courses as electives and have been very happy with all of them. I added Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People which my husband and I enjoyed about 25 years ago.

To help with the Document Based Question on the exam, I added in the Critical Thinking Through US History books which get students to work with primary documents.

And to add to the fun element, I included lots of DVDs – documentaries plus feature films. I have found that movies can really help students understand what a time period was like. We usually watched those on the weekends.

After my older son worked through the course, enjoyed it, and scored well on the exam, my younger son used it as well and so have 2 other students. I decided I would share what I came up with in the hopes that it will help others looking for a rigorous history course, whether or not your students plan to take the AP exam.

You can download it here for free. What you will get is just my schedule – obviously you will still need to buy / borrow from the library the actual resources you need. Please feel free to share it with friends.

Many of the resources I have used will be helpful to any high school students preparing for the AP exam, so I hope some of them will be able to make use of it too.

Any other subjects you are struggling to find courses for? Let me know in the comments


Desperate Crossing: A Great Thanksgiving Movie

Mayflower Movie

Today my 12 year old, Amy, makes her debut as a guest blogger on FundaFunda. She recently watched a DVD on the Mayflower with family friends, and I asked her to review it here:

Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower is about the Puritans who left England because their religion was illegal. It starts with them trying to sneak out of England, and ends with them at the first Thanksgiving.

The movie was filmed with characters acting the story out, and historians telling us more about the story. After each scene, historians told us some background information about what was going on. Scenes were short, usually a minute or two, sometimes more, while the historians sometimes talked for at least 5 minutes. Commentary was done either by the actors or the historians.

It was very historically accurate, especially with the historians telling us more about what was going on in that time period.

This is a good movie for middle school and high school, anyone younger than that will have a hard time sitting through it. I suggest 7th grade and up.

There wasn’t much information that they told us that I didn’t already know, due to having studied this time period a lot, but I did learn a couple new things. I didn’t know that they went to Holland before they went to the New World, and their first attempt to escape failed.

This movie would be a great Thanksgiving movie to watch in a classroom around Thanksgiving Day, but it is a long movie, 143 minutes. (By the way, Amazon’s run time is incorrect, it is not 180 minutes) But, you could break it up into sessions – 5 half hour sessions would mean you could watch it a school week, one session per day.

I think this was a very informative movie, and I learned quite a few new things about the pilgrims. It would be a fun movie to watch around the time of Thanksgiving with family and/or friends, like I did. It was definitely an excellent Thanksgiving movie that goes beyond the basics of the traditional Thanksgiving story.

** A study guide for this movie is also available from The History Channel.

Post written by Amy van der Merwe


Contests about the American Revolution

If you are teaching about the American Revolution, there are 3 contests sponsored by National Society, Sons of the American Revolution you may want your students to participate in.

1. Americanism Elementary School Poster Contest

3rd, 4th and 5th graders can participate. Winners are chosen at the school, local chapter, state and finally National level. (Homeschoolers and Boy and Girl Scouts can also participate.) The details of this year’s topic together with the entry form can be found here.

2. The Joseph S. Rumbaugh Historical Oration Contest

This contest is for 9th – 12th graders who need to prepare a 5-6 minute speech on a subject dealing with an event, personality, or document pertaining to the Revolutionary War. In addition, the student needs to show how this relates to America today. Chapter, State and National winners will be selected, and many chapters offer prizes to their winners. More details can be found on their website.

3. George S. & Stella M. Knight Essay Contest

This essay contest is for 10th, 11th and 12th graders. It also starts at the local Chapter and then progresses to State and National Society levels. Students submit essays that deal with an event, person, philosophy or ideal associated with the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence, or the framing of the United States Constitution. Sample essays and the rules can be found here.

Please be sure to contact your local chapter of Sons of the Revolution to find out their exact deadlines and what prizes they offer. The easiest way to do this to start off by emailing your State contact and asking them to supply you with your local Chapter’s information. I did this and have found all the people I have emailed with exceptionally nice and helpful.

Please come back and post if your children / students participate in any of these contests about the American Revolution and let us hear about your experiences.

Introduction photo courtesy of carolyn.will 

Best Resources for Teaching the American Revolution

Although the years covering the American Revolution were an extremely exciting time to live through, if this period is not taught well, it can be an extremely unexciting time to study.

My 7th grader and I finished this a few weeks ago – and she really enjoyed it. Here are a few resources we used, or I have used in the past that help bring it to life:

Liberty Kids

Liberty Kids began life as a half hour TV program. 4 children and Benjamin Franklin have various adventures from 1773 – 1789. These are great American Revolution videos for kids. All the episodes are now available on Youtube on the LibertyKidsTV channel. You can also get the whole series on DVD. Here is the Boston Tea Party episode.

In addition to the videos, there is also a supporting website – Here you will find games, information that will be useful for class projects, and the ability to make a newspaper set in this time period. Awesome stuff!!

And …yes, there is still more.

There is also a fun CD Rom game. My daughter really enjoyed playing it a few years ago when we last studied the American Revolution. You play the game in the role of reporter and get to interview people like George Washington, Molly Pitcher and Benedict Arnold. The characters require you to give them certain objects, which you first have to find.

Your interviews are recorded in your notebook, and eventually you will be ready to publish the newspaper. The game changes each time you play which makes it good value for money. Kids do need to be able to read to play it.

Johnny Tremain

We read the book together a few years ago, and then this year she watched the movie with a friend. She did prefer the book, but both are a great way to reinforce what it was like living at that time.

The book was a Newbery Award winner, and it is an exciting page-turner of the adventures of a young silversmith during 1773.

The Sherwood Ring

We have just finished reading The Sherwood Ring – one of my all-time favorites. The story begins in the present with Peggy moving to live with her uncle who she has never met. Family ghosts visit Peggy and give her a window into the past and help her unravel the mysteries she is faced with in her new life.

The past she learns about, was a past that happened during the American War of Independence. While the reader is focusing on the exciting story, they are also learning many historical facts without even noticing.

American Revolution Jigsaw Puzzle

If you and your kids like jigsaw puzzles, I an heartily recommend this American Revolution one. Like all White Mountain Jigsaw Puzzles it is well made and easy to work with.

Making the jigsaw puzzle with your children gives you the opportunity to review what they have learned. As you put pieces together, quiz them on the details. Look up facts you perhaps didn’t know before.



George Washington’s World

Don’t be put off by the uninspiring cover. George Washington’s World is a history book that tells history like it should be told – like a story! If you homeschool, or have sufficient time as a parent to read the whole book to your kids, do it.

My children far prefer this to Story of the World (which also tells the ‘story’ of history) as it provides a lot more detail and really draws you into the story. If you teach a class, you could still use some of the chapters to read aloud. It really is very well written.

Mission US Games

Mission US Thinkfast! is a really fun app – and a challenging one – to quiz kids on the 18th century in the USA. (The app also contains a Mission set in the 19th century). You have to answer questions to move yourself around Boston chasing after a puppy. You have to do this in 5 minutes.

The game can also be played on their website – On the website there is an additional game – an adventure game “For Crown or Colony” aimed at 5th-8th graders that teaches the causes of the American Revolution. You play as Nat, an apprentice in a printer’s shop and have various to tasks to perform as the story unfolds.

A few more American Revolution Resources

For older students I can also recommend the John Adams mini series. It is long, very long, but my husband and I watched it over a number of sessions with our boys and we all loved it.

For completeness I want to mention the musical 1776. It is really fun and very enjoyable BUT it does contain quite a lot of bad language, although it is rated PG. This means you couldn’t show it in a classroom session, and you may not want to show it at home either.

So, what have you used to teach The American Revolution? Any more ideas?

**Main blog picture courtesy of jimmiehomeschoolmom. Visit her great website at


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