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ExplorePAHistory -- the website, that is!
Susan Richman, 2/16/2010

Susan Richman is co-editor of Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, along with her husband Howard Richman. The Richmans have four grown children, who were all homeschooled K-12 (you can see a family photo in the 'Who We Are' section at the top of this site). Susan also serves as a Home Education Program Evaluator in PA, meeting with well over 100 students each spring. She also leads one of our AP United States History online courses-- and so is especially interested in helping families access the amazing range of history resources available online. Using the info here, you can help your kids be ready for the type of learning they'll experience in Susan's course. 

Here in Pennsylvania, we all have to introduce our kids to the history of our state-- and most of the materials available to do so can be pretty dull. Fourth graders, say, tend to be stuck learning about state symbols (I've never figured out what the Great Dane really has to do with PA, and knowing that the PA state insect is the lady bug doesn't help me learn about why we have this new invasion of ladybugs in the state...). Well, there is hope.

And right now, while most of us are still pretty buried in snow, might be a terrific time to look over a new Internet resource to use for learning about our state's history-- in part because this site will get you planning ahead for some spring field trips to some of Pennsylvania's amazing history museums and sites. And you'll start slowing down for all those blue historical markers you see along so many highways-- you know, those ones you never have time to read before you've zoomed on past.

The site is www.ExplorePaHistory.com -- and the entire comprehensive website, with ideas for K-12, is all free. The site has been developed by a consortium of agencies-- from www.VisitPA.com, to PennDOT, to WITF educational TV, to the PA Historical and Museum Commission, and more.

The site really lends itself to flexible use by homeschooling families-- in fact, I'd guess that we can use this site much more easily and effectively than most schools can. It can be used as occasional enrichment for other US history studies, for a shared family study of a specific topic, or for a full year of in-depth PA studies. I'd suggest first blocking out a half-hour just to browse about on the site and explore what is available.

First head to Stories from History-- this is the core of the website, where you'll find the major thematic units developed for study at ALL grade levels. See if any of these topics sound like they'd spark up your study of our state:

  • PA during wartimes: the French & Indian War, the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II
  • Science & Invention & Industry in PA: the railroad, the coal industry, the steel industry, striking oil, PA inventions, and more.
  • Religion and social change in PA: William Penn's vision for his colony; the various 'set-apart' religious communities in the state, such as the Moravians, the Ephrata Cloister, the Harmony Society, and more;  the Underground Railroad in PA
  • Exploration and new settlement: Indians in PA, Lewis and Clark's Pennsylvania connection; agriculture and rural life; crossing the Alleghenies; Pennsylvanians and the environment.
  • Arts and Leisure: fine arts in PA, jazz, sports, baseball, show business.
  • Political change or specific events: politics in the late 19th century, the Great Depression, etc.  

There are right now 31 complete thematic unit studies up on the site-- each one including extensive primary documents, audio and video clips, excellent historical background, and linked follow-up activities on the Teacher Lesson Plans section of the site. Click on any one and start exploring what you can find there-- there is a wealth of material and possibilities within each unit. Say, under the 'Science and Invention' unit, you could learn about Ben Franklin's many inventions, the work of a pioneering dinosaur explorer (who by mistake put a skull on the tail of a dinosaur found during the building of the Transcontinent Railroad...), the very inventive Sellers family of the Greater Philadelphia region from the 1680's onward, the development of the Conestoga Wagon, the invention of the Pennsylvania rifle, bridge building innovations, the Ferris Wheel, Westinghouse Electric, and many other innovations developed in PA.

Why, there's even a full discussion of the invention of the 'Flexible Flyer' sled (what a fun topic to learn about right now with all the snow! see: http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1099 for full details!).

One nifty thing is that every topic introduced is linked to a photo of the blue historical marker found on a specific roadway in PA that commemorates this event, person, discovery, or invention. (Yes, there is a marker about the Flexible Flyer-- it's located in Perry County, at 722 North Market ST in Duncannon, once the site of the biggest children's sled manufacturer in the nation!). You'll out exactly where to find every one of the 2000 markers in the state, too, and can read the full story behind each one. I could see this being a fun lunchtime activity-- hearing mom read aloud about a different marker related to their studies each day-- and maybe dad could be brought in to plan some visits to see them.  

Then head over to the 'TEACH PA HISTORY' section of the website. You can browse through all the lessons currently available, and see ideas for all grade levels. I looked over one on Mary Jemison, the young girl who was captured by Indians from her frontier home in PA in the mid-1700's. The lesson materials include excerpts from her capitivity narrative, and kids are helped to see all the different things to listen for in it. (The wonderful children's historical novel by Lois Lenski, Indian Captive, is based on Mary Jemison's life-- this book and several more are all included in a 'further resources' section, along with a website about Mary Jemison). Student handouts, links to webpages on the related historical markers, links to actual places in the state where you can learn more, and more are all included-- your planning is all done, and it's all free for you to use.

Then check out the VISIT PA REGIONS section of the website. This shows a map of PA, divided into regions-- find an area of the state you might want to visit, and start exploring. I clicked on the Allegheny Forest Region http://explorepahistory.com/regions_allegheny.php, in the northern part of the state -- my family often goes backpacking in this area. Here you'll find links to some amazing history and environmental sites-- the Kinzua Bridge and Viaduct, the PA Lumber Museum, the PA Grand Canyon, and the Allegheny National Forest. On the left side of the page you find links to special teacher lesson plans related to these sites, and links to those historical markers, too. All this from a part of our state where you might think nothing happened!

We also hope that our Pennsylvania families will share in our 'comments' section about favorite places they've visited in the state to learn more about our history. And I hope you get lots of new ideas for PA studies from www.explorepahistory.com.


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