Wednesday, April 30, 2014

People and Places in Fourth Grade: Central and South America

First Son is finishing up Year 1 of Level 2 Mater Amabilis (fourth grade). For his People and Places studies, we focused on Central and South America. I think you could include North America, but he knows that pretty well already. I'll tell you what we did this year, and then I'll tell you how I intend to change it (hopefully for the better) for First Daughter in a few years.

Independent Reading

Each week, once a week, First Son read from a book I selected set in Central or South America, some of which were found on the list of suggested reading on the Mater Amabilis site. I did not require narrations from this reading. My hope was to give First Son an introduction to some of the people and features of the area but I wasn't necessarily interested in his ability to spout off a lot of information. I tried to favor fiction over non-fiction but not exclusively so.

Hidden World of the Aztec by Peter Lourie is an introduction to the Aztecs through archeological work being done in the present. Having visited some of these sites myself, I couldn't resist asking First Son to read something about them.

Where the Flame Trees Bloom by Alma Flor Ada is one recommended by Mater Amabilis. I enjoyed these stories myself, but I think First Son was a little bored by them.

The Cay by Theodore Taylor is one of my favorite books. I thought it would appeal particularly to a boy and First Son did admit he liked it by the end.

Tierra Del Fuego: A Journey to the End of the Earth by Peter Lourie is my favorite of Mr. Lourie's book. It's a travel memoir more than a non-fiction book about the island.

Chucaro: Wild Pony of the Pampa by Francis Kalnay is a story of a young boy on a ranch in the Pampas of Argentina. First Son didn't think it was very exciting but he didn't complain about it, either.

To Go Singing through the World: The Childhood of Pablo Neruda by Deborah Kogan Ray is a picture book biography of Pablo Neruda. I like including biographies and this one is short. I opted not to read it aloud because I didn't think my little ones would be very interested.

Amazon by Peter Lourie is a look at the Amazon River today. It's nonfiction and a pretty easy read.

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson is a book I loved. I thought it was exciting and fun. First Son did not like it, but I think this was due more to the female protagonist (sometimes you have to read about girls) and because I tried to fit it in too quickly at the end of the year. He had to read larger sections of it at a time and that frustrated him, not because the reading was difficult, but because he'd rather be doing something else.

Jorge from Argentina is one I read aloud to the children after Second Son received it from his godparents for Christmas. The timing was convenient for our studies, but it's a great little story on Pope Francis. All my kids enjoyed it and First Daughter could have read it herself.

Book basket (books I requested from our library for perusing but did not require)

The Aztec Empire (True Books) by Sunita Apte

Aztec, Inca & Maya (DK Eyewitness Books)

Amazon Wildlife (Insight Guide)

Patagonia: Wild Land At The End Of The Earth with photography by Tim Hauf, just so we could look at the photographs.

The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America's Largest Mammal (Scientists in the Field Series) by Sy Montgomery is a book I found during the school year and didn't want to add it to our already full schedule, but it's a really interesting book on the tapir and being a scientist in South America.


Each week, I asked First Son to trace from a map of Central or South America. First, he made a map of Central America and added in geographical features like mountains and lakes. Then he traced each of the Central American countries and islands individually or in small groups, just a little each week. Later, he made a large map by tracing all of South America and colored it by geographical region. He followed that with one country a week from South America. On the country maps, he had to mark the capital, a few large cities, and at least a few major features like the highest point or a volcano. First Son was much too frustrated drawing freehand maps last year, so we stuck with tracing. I went through a few different atlases in search of the best one for his mapwork. I wanted one that would be clear for him but also include a good amount of information.

I had a picture atlas I bought when First Son was in kindergarten or first grade, but it was not very detailed. I wanted something better for First Son to copy. After asking around on some message boards (thank you to all the Mater Amabilis folks who responded!) I bought Rand McNally's Answer Atlas. I think this is a pretty good atlas for middle grade children. It's a bit older, so for some continents (like Africa), that could be a problem, but overall I was pleased.

I was lucky, though, to find an old copy of the Geography Coloring Book (3rd Edition). (Mine is the second edition.) This one was much easier for First Son to trace. I also found his copy of Maps, Charts, and Graphs D has a really clear set of political maps in an atlas in the back of the book. It's no frills, but that would have actually worked quite well. Again, it hasn't been revised in a while, but you could just talk about the newer countries.

My favorite atlas is one I received as a gift for Christmas. It's truly wonderful and I highly recommend it if you have room in your budget: National Geographic Concise Atlas of the World, Third Edition. The maps are beautiful and large, though the binding does make it hard to see a small part of the maps. I wouldn't recommend this for tracing, as the resulting maps might be too big to fit in a regular folder, but it's wonderful for perusing and locating places of interest.


I wanted to show First Son some videos, especially of the Amazon and the rain forest because I thought they might convey the grandeur of the landscape in a way different from the books. I found a series available for streaming on Amazon (ironic?) called Wild South America: The Complete Series. I planned to watch one episode every third week or so during our last two terms.

Picture Books

About once a week, I read aloud a picture book set in Central or South America, just for fun. I did not comment on the relationship between the books selected and the countries First Son was mapping, though I know he sometimes noticed the connection. The selections were our Reading-Around-the-World books for the year, so I was mainly interested in quality picture books set in Central America or South America. Hopefully I'll get some posts up about the books I found and can link it here.

What I'll Change

I hadn't read the Mater Amabilis page carefully enough and assigned the People and Places reading in addition to First Son's independent reading. This made for a lot of reading. He could handle it alright (though not every fourth grader would have), but I think it prevented him from enjoying the reading as much as he might have. I also assigned a lot of books because some of them seemed really short and relatively easy for him to read. I'll choose fewer books next time and cycle them within the other independent reading books. I reserve the right to change the books I intend to assign based on new books I find and First Daughter's interests, but if I were planning for next year (I'm not), I would probably choose Where the Flame Trees Bloom, The Tapir Scientist, and Journey to the River Sea. I'd probably also assign To Go Singing through the World again, which is short. Then we'd have a short biographical book, a memoir, a nonfiction book, and fiction.

For the mapwork, I would think about having First Daughter draw maps freehand. I always loved drawing maps myself and think drawing them forces a student to really concentrate on all the features. If she is not inclined (I'm not ready to force the issue), we're going to get a new edition of the Geography Coloring Book and have her follow the instructions to color the appropriate regions.

The kids enjoyed the first few videos, but they quickly tired of them. I am not opposed to videos for school (obviously) but they rarely seem necessary. We only watched two or three of them. If they're still available for streaming, I might offer them to First Daughter.

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