Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan: Road Adventures in home education

We packed up and hit the road this spring, on a 10 day vacation west to the Dakotas with the kids and grandma. It was an amazing trip!! We took our small car, so it was a tight fit, but with some smart packing and planning, we were able to fit the 5 of us, our clothes, food, crockpot, and the books & curriculum we needed to make the journey. I have to say, it was one of the best trips of our lives, filled with educational exploration around every bend.

We started at the Mackinaw Bridge, visiting Fort Michilimackinac. It was completely awesome. We loved all the re-enactments (including the cannon firing!) and that all the colonial dressed people were simply carrying about their period-appropriate tasks in the fort all day. We learned about their gardening as they gardened, tasted their stone cooked bread and learned from a French trader and a female blacksmith. It was a really exciting step back through time. On the way up to the bridge, we listened to a cd I had made about the history of the making of the bridge, as well as some of the upper and lower peninsula facts.

After the fort, we headed up to the Upper Peninsula, where we picked up some PASTY! Yum! Our family is Finnish, so pasty is kind of a big deal for us. (The Finn in me)
We were so blessed to be able to stay the night at the home of one of my childhood friends, who I hadn't seen since High School. She lives in the northern part of the U.P., and it was so much fun to reconnect with her for the night. We talked of the callings God has given us, both in education and for walking with Him! We had to start out bright and early the next morning. Julie was a wonderful and gracious hostess. The world is blessed to have her in it.

We made good use of our stops. We saw some Wisconsin waterfalls when we stopped to eat a cereal breakfast off the roadside. It gave us a chance to stretch our legs and use the restroom. During the road travel, we had biographies and songs to listen to. The kids each had a small container filled with activities like Mad Libs, (which give fantastic fun practice of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and more). We also had one large basket at the kids' feet that had the bigger books and coloring pads in it. The only electronic we had along was one kindle we borrowed from a friend, which we used sparingly and had downloaded various books to and a few educational games. It conserved a lot of space since we didn't have the room in the cobalt to pack all the books and scrabble games I would have liked. But we had used a free-time program that allowed for hour timed usage so the kids wouldn't inadvertently waste their brains on too much screen time during the long travel hours. (We don't have a dvd player in our car for solid, good reason). Too much screen time equals irritable, crabby overstimulated kids, and we thankfully avoided that. My mom made a point to tell us quite a few times she had never seen kids who travel so well. We were blessed to have agreeable, cheerful attitudes despite some of our long 6-10 hour days ahead.

When we arrived in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, it was a few hours prior to check-in. We went to go find the dam that was supposedly in that town, but instead we happened across the Forest History Center. What a gem!!! This place was amazing. Tucked off the main roads, following only a simple "historic site" sign, we discovered a treasure trove of living history. In a small hands-on museum room we learned the past, present and future of forestry. We walked beautiful wooded trails along the Mississippi River, leading up to a 1900s era logging camp with period-ready characters. As we approached the camp, we were greeted with a theatrical demonstration of the logging camp in action, complete with Clydesdale Horses loading up logs onto a rig. It was so much fun! The camp's cook was very spirited and taught us lots of good logging era terms, like sweatpads (pancakes) and wind timbers (beans). Lots of learning fun!

We started the next morning with prayer and studies from our America the Beautiful textbook from Notgrass. We absolutely love this program. Since I didn't have space to bring all the materials, we packed the books and printed out copies of just the worksheets we would need, including "God created the Great Lakes," "God created the Mississippi River" and "God created the Black Hills". That morning we were heading to the amazing headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park in Minnesota. The text covered it beautifully, and while my husband packed up the car from our short overnight at the motel, the kids had our pre-packed breakfast (and I quickly made sandwiches and salad for that day's lunch) and I went over the lessons with the kids as they colored the maps of the river running down the United States.

The headwaters were beautiful. I remember going when I was a child with my grandparents, and my mother was in the same place as a child too. There is even a picture of my mother with her brother and parents crossing the headwaters in a 60's encyclopedia! What a special family tradition.
In the weeks leading up to our trip, we read "Tom Sawyer," and a short biography of Mark Twain. If we hadn't read it, I would have brought it along on read aloud book on cd, simply because it is a wonderful piece of literature and made the experience really come alive for the kids. We also read and brought along with us "Minn of the Mississippi" by Holling C. Holling, which is another classic; following the life journey of an injured snapping turtle as she travels downstream.

We ate our packed lunches at the headwaters. From there we drove an hour south, to pay our respects at the cemetery in which our family rests. My mother's parents and brother, along with nearly all of my grandfather's relatives, is laid in a quiet little small town cemetery. A unique aspect of this day was, it was literally pouring rain all day. Pouring. In the moment we pulled up to the headwaters, it cleared beautifully for 2 hours. It poured rain on our drive south, and again, it cleared as we arrived at the grave sites. It was a quiet afternoon. Peaceful. Emotional. Healing.
We went to see my great Aunt Beatrice after, my grandma's last living sister, where she greeted us with Finnish hugs and dinner. They own a huge industrial dairy farm, so after visiting and eating for a couple of hours, we took the kids across the road to see the cows. The baby calves sucked on their fingers and gave them laughter, and the machines milking the cows were loud and strange---altogether, a wonderful learning experience!!

We were headed to the Dakotas next, and that night we started our next read aloud in the Little House series.
Half way between the family farm in Minnesota and Custer, South Dakota was DeSmet. This is where we stopped to stretch our legs for lunch on Monday, while visiting and exploring the LAURA INGALLS WILDER historical homes!! We saw the Surveyors' House, from "By the Shores of Silver Lake," the school building from "Little Town on the Prairie," the Brewster School house from "These Golden Years" and the last home that Pa built, in 1887, which still stands today. Visit discoverlaura.org for more information. We also listened to a short biography on Laura's life in the car that I had downloaded prior to our trip.

Next stop: THE BADLANDS. We went through the Badlands twice; at the beginning of the week and end of the week. I am so glad we did. We needed twice to take it all in. Spectacular doesn't describe it. I had been there in my youth, but it was a first for my husband and kids, who had never been this far west before. Words can't really describe the Badlands, so I will let the pictures try to do it justice.
"Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?" -Isaiah 40:12

During the travel time to Custer, we listened to biographies about all four of the Presidents on Mount Rushmore. They were all homeschooled, which was fun. We had a bio about Custer and Crazy Horse, too.
The week we stayed in Custer was amazing. We visited Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Independence Hall (where we found ancestory on my husband's side of the family in the signers of the Declaration & the Constitution), the free Geology Museum, rode an 1880s train through the Black Hills, explored gorgeous Custer State Park with wild buffalo, prairie dog towns and curious burro, and toured 220 feet underground through Wind Cave. We spent 4 days exploring and because everything was all within 15-20 minutes of the hotel we stayed at, we were able to pace the days in a quality, unrushed way. I brought our crockpot, so we always had dinner ready and waiting for us when we returned back for the evening. It was a blessing!

On our way home, we visited one of my husband's friends in Sioux Falls, where we saw their breathtaking waterfalls. We stopped along some of the Lewis & Clark historical sites along our way home through Iowa, and also visited the American Pickers store of Antique Archaeology which was right on a larger portion of the Mississippi River, giving the kids a fuller scale context of this mighty river we were learning about. It was a blessed adventure. Because we ended our trip on Memorial Day back in Michigan, we enjoyed pre-season rates and admissions on lodging and tickets with next-to-zero crowds. Another wonderful perk of the homeschool lifestyle. :)
We were so grateful God got us home safely from this experience-rich adventure.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." -Mark Twain

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