Textbook-Free History

History has been one of my favorite subjects since childhood.  Some of my best memories involve family read-alouds, historic road trips, and abundant field trips.  One summer our vacation involved traveling for 2 weeks to various Civil War battlefields, stopping at every single historic marker along the way.  When we got to one museum it had already closed for the night, so my mom knocked on the door until the caretaker came.  Mom being Mom, she got us in for an after-hours tour.

So when I hear people disparage history as “boring,” I often think they must not be talking about the same subject that I am.  And indeed, they are not talking about history as I know it if all they think of is a dry textbook droning on about oddly-named movements, periods of history that always end precisely before the next one begins, and disconnected lists of dates and names.

Want to listen to this post instead?  Listen to Episode 114 of The Homeschool Solutions Show with Pam Barnhill here, or wherever you get your podcasts!

History Homeschool Textbook Free Living Books

What is history?

History is a wild adventure story of real people in real places.  It’s a comedy, a tragedy, a swashbuckling pirate story.  There’s intrigue, betrayal, and true love.  It’s like a spy novel, a thriller, a mystery, a romance, a saga, a myth, and a legend all rolled into one glorious tale. It has a beginning, and it will one day have an ending.  Like all good stories, there’s an Author.  It’s His Story, and thus it has meaning and purpose and hope even in its darkest hours.

How we study history

Because I view history as God at work through the lives of real people in real time to accomplish His own purposes, I prefer to study history biographically and chronologically.

Biographically: we focus on the people.

Chronologically: we start at the beginning, move consecutively to the present, then return to the beginning to enjoy ourselves all over again.

This is certainly not the only right way to study history, but it works well for our family.

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Our History Spine and Supplemental Reading

My preference is to always have one title we are reading aloud as an entire family that gives us the big picture of the time period we are studying.  I prefer for this core title to have a narrative style, and pretty much insist upon it being focused on individual people.  History is not a series of movements, it is a series of individuals whose lives impacted the world around them.

Examples of books we have used as a history core:

Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, by Elizabeth Payne

Famous Men of Greece, by John Haaren and A. B. Poland

Famous Men of Ancient Rome, by John Haaren and A. B. Poland

Augustus Caesar’s World, by Genevieve Foster

Famous Men of the Middle Ages, by Rob Shearer and John Haaren

Famous Men of the Renaissance and Reformation, by Rob Shearer

Famous Men of the 16th and 17th Centuries, by Rob Shearer

The Story of Liberty, by Charles Coffin

The World of Columbus and Sons, by Genevieve Foster

The World of Captain John Smith, by Genevieve Foster

George Washington’s World, by Genevieve Foster

Abraham Lincoln’s World, by Genevieve Foster

Story of the World, Vol. 3 and Vol. 4, by Susan Wise Bauer

Along with the history core title, I provide stacks of other historical fiction and non-fiction.  I will sometimes assign a few specific titles to various children depending on their age and abilities, but often they are provided for free-choice reading.

For instance, I might tell one child, “this week you need to read a history book for 45 minutes,” but then allow them to choose which title most appeals to them that day.  Some days that’s a biography, sometimes a science book related to the time period, sometimes an art history book, sometimes historical fiction.

(Here you can see our supplemental booklists for Medieval HistoryAfrican American History, and Early American History.)

More than books

I also plan ahead for our morningtime memory work to incorporate either original source documents from the time period (for example, the “Gettysburg Address”) or poetry related to or from the time period (for example, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and the first few stanzas of the Iliad).  I do also occasionally have us learn a song to create memory-hooks (like the Presidents of the United States) or a mnemonic to help us remember a certain series of events.

I prefer to primarily focus on memorizing things of truth and beauty over lists of dates and facts, however.  If we’re ever in a prison cell or a hospital bed, I think “Death, Be Not Proud” will bring us more comfort than knowing the dates of one battle or another.

While the history spine, supplemental reading, and memory work are the essentials to my textbook-free approach, I also incorporate some music, art, and science from the time period when applicable.  It just makes sense to study Handel when you’re studying the 18th century, and who wouldn’t want to study Da Vinci when you’re studying the Renaissance?  But I do not worry about these being in-depth studies.  We come to them organically and enjoy short lessons and brief exposures.  There will always be time for more exploration.

We also use our library to listen to interesting lectures from college professors.  My older children and I especially have enjoyed many of the Modern Scholar lecture series by Timothy Shutt and Michael Drout.

Growing in maturity

Once my children have reached 3rd grade or so, I begin training them to include copywork, mapwork, and reading journal entries into their weekly routine.  When they first begin, they are not required to include any original thoughts.  They might copy 1 or 2 sentences from our history reading each week and color a map a few times a semester.

As they mature, the number of copywork sentences gradually increases, and they might be required to copy out their own map and label some key features. By the time they reach what is typically considered middle school, I am expecting that they not only place copywork in their journal, but also list a couple key facts or dates we learned (see, I don’t think dates are worthless).  They also are expected to write a few sentences of original thought narrating back or responding to what they’ve read.

Last year, my then-6th grader turned in 500 words in his reading journal each week.  They did not all have to be on the same topic.  There might have been 100 words about one character, 300 words about a battle, and 100 words about a different character.  It was completely up to the student.

This year, my oldest has begun more challenging work.  Much as I did, he is pursuing a Humanities/Great Books/Moral Philosophy approach in his continuing studies.  I hope to write more about that in the future; for now, just assume it’s like history on steroids.

He is expected to write 1 page in his reading journal each day from the fiction and non-fiction that is assigned for his humanities assignments.  On occasion, he has asked to draw diagrams and charts instead, and I’ve considered that 1 day’s assignment.  He really got into diagramming fascinating scenes from Dante’s Inferno at one point this year.

What I don’t do

I do not do worksheets.  Or activity pages.  Or word searches. Or matching games.  Or all the other absolutely amazing things other moms do.

Maybe we’ll do a coloring page.  Maybe.

We do very little crafts.  If one randomly comes to mind or strikes our fancy as we read about an idea, we tend to just do it then and there.  It’s not fancy or pretty, and would certainly never show up on pinterest.  I consider that an imperfect thing that is actually done is better than a perfect thing we never attempt.

I want to do art history.  I want to go to art museums.  But I am very much afraid that our toddler would destroy a Degas. And we’ve had a baby or toddler for almost 13 years now.  And while almost every year I add some form of “art narration” to my plan, it just hasn’t happened.  And that’s ok.

Hands-on is Amazing.  But reality: it is difficult at this stage of my life, with my personality, and with my kids’ strengths and weaknesses.  And that’s ok.

That’s why I’m thankful for the resources available from folks like Chalkpastel.com.  They have many inspiring and do-able art projects to go along with your history studies.  You can see an example for FREE on their YouTube channel:

Inspiring wonder and delight

We field-trip whenever possible, we watch documentaries (since a field trip to Greece isn’t quite in my budget), and the kids often incorporate history into their play time.  We talk a lot and discuss ideas together.  We (er, I) break into song and dance on a fairly regular basis.

Most importantly, I think our children would all say they enjoy history, and some of them might even say they love it as much as I do.  They’re getting a vision for its drama and excitement, and they’re realizing that they’re actually a part of the history that God is writing today.

Be sure to check out my deep-dive posts into Textbook-free Middle Ages, Textbook-Free African American History, and Textbook-Free Early American History!

What was your experience studying history?  What is it like now? I’d love to get to know you more, or help suggest good books for your family’s studies!  Join the conversation at the Humility and Doxology Facebook page or follow me on Instagram!



19 thoughts on “Textbook-Free History

    1. Thanks, Mr. Shearer, your books have had a lot to do with it! I’m so thankful for my mom’s enthusiasm and all that we learned from your family. We’re on a second generation with some of your books. 🙂


  1. So glad you shared your history spine book list. This is a great resource! Also, favorite quote: “I consider that an imperfect thing that is actually done is better than a perfect thing we never attempt.” Yeees!


  2. I love your approach to history! Do you have any suggestions regarding organizing your history readings with assigned map work, memory work, etc.? I’m mainly interested in map work! I’m bad about letting those assignments fall through the cracks. 😦 Thanks for sharing! I also love your post on Big Picture Homeschool Planning. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such a good question! I don’t worry about coordinating memory work/map work with the specific details of the history readings for any given week. Before the year starts, I plan out what I hope to memorize for the entire year. For instance, this upcoming year we will be studying early american history. I have typed up our morningtime memory work to include Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty” speech, an outline of the Constitution and its preamble, excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, the beginning of Evangeline by Longfellow, the Gettysburg address, and a list of the states/capitals. That is in addition to our Bible memory. We will loop through that memory work all year long, with the goal of knowing it well by the end of the year. It won’t always coordinate precisely with the specific readings of the week, but that’s ok with me. It seems too small-picture to try to plan that, and you know that I like big-picture planning. 😉 For map work, some years we have focused on a particular region of the world to practice drawing basic map outlines (when we studied the Middle Ages, for instance, we “blob mapped” Europe during morningtime). Other times it comes up organically in the kids’ reading. If one of the children wants to copy a map instead of writing a reading journal entry, I encourage that. Sometimes I specifically assign it if I notice that there is a good map coming up in the reading for the week. But I do not plan that part far in advance. Other families are much more focused on map work and take the approach of studying the same map each day. There are numerous free blank map outlines available that are perfect for adding in landforms, battlefields, towns, rivers, etc. I know we have done that in the past, but not as regularly as we probably should. For some specific examples of how I coordinated memory work with history, see this post: https://humilityanddoxology.wordpress.com/2018/02/12/textbook-free-medieval-history/. I included in that post a resource for an awesome geography map puzzle that has helped us as well as resources for blob mapping. For an example of someone else’s approach to map work, see Pam Barnhill’s post here: https://pambarnhill.com/geography-drill/


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