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United States Geography

We just started a 4 week block on United States Geography. Last year, we had taken our first steps into formal geography lessons by exploring our local region, history, land base of flora and fauna. Tristan learned about the four cardinal points while using a compass rose, touched upon scale and architectural drawings when drawing a bird’s eye view of his room, and learned some interesting historical facts about the town he lives in. We read about legendary people who walked the same local areas,please check previous posting to read more here .

Then in our second block of 4th grade geography, we learned about Canada, our home and native land. We visited each province individually, see previous post here. So it’s just obvious we would continue where we left off. Donna mentioned that this year we should focus on our neighbours, depending where you live in the world, this could be a number of possibilities. We Canadian folks have only one neighbour, our American cousins to the south. In an ideal world I would have done this block with a road trip through the States. It’s in our near future plans, but for now we must content with a virtual tour, some culinary delights, cultural crafts and perhaps some local outings that can add some depth to this block.

I had to figure out how I would be offering this lesson, there are no other geography lessons scheduled for this year, so all I had was 4 weeks to visit the entire 50 states! I was overwhelmed, needless to say I started this monday only to take a breather and meditate before we continued. Online, all I could find was a cluster of linear lesson plans on geography, the usual list of capitals, population density, economic growth, historical events and dates. So much boring information, dry as a bone and filled with facts, facts, facts. I wanted to make this lesson exciting and captivating. How could I achieve this without having any external guidance.

I though of making it into an adventure, this could be fun. I decided to separate the 50 states into 5 geographical regions and we would start our journey with Waldorfs’ notion of the whole country before categorizing each state separately. After drawing the whole United States, we began by visiting the region most near to us in Canada, which is the Northeast. This region encompasses beautiful New England as well as the Mid-Atlantic and holds an entire 11 states. This area is the siege of where America was born. Everything from the landing of Christopher Columbus, to the signing of the Declaration of Independence has happened here. It is also home to the smallest state; Rhode Island and largest urban population; New York City.

Tristan drew a free hand map of the area highlighting the 11 states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. On the third day we talked about the Declaration of Independence, and how the American’s had separated from England making their country their own. France offering their respect with the gift of the Statue of Liberty, its artist Frederic Bartholdi inspired himself by the Roman goddess Libertas, she holds an illuminated torch in which “Liberty enlightens the world”. This statue must be the most iconic landmark of the earth, even children recognize her as America, freedom and independence. It’s only fitted we included her into his main lesson. I took a few days off after completing this last lesson, even if it meant putting us further back in the curriculum. I am glad I did because life yet again showed me that with patience and a clear mind, it will give you what you ask for. Let me explain, I had taken out a variety of books from the library for a few weeks, mostly on Christmas crafts but one sole on Children of America. I had not given a chance to look through it, and just yesterday took the time to read what it had to offer. What caught my eye was a poem and inscription at the bottom of lady Liberty’s pedestal, called “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, if it wasn’t for this amazing timing I would have never known about it. What synchronicity, i’m such a believer. Tomorrow’s lesson will be based on this poem… Just perfection 😀

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

                                                With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

                                                    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

                                             The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

                                             Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

                                I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Following the holidays we began where we left off, many main lesson pages lay blank. With all the holiday preparations, I could not come up with any geography crafts. Besides mapmaking, i’m lacking creative ideas to deepen his lessons.

Americans are well known for their folk art, fiber arts like cross-stitch, weaving and quilt making, many useful crafts like lanterns and basketry. I’m going to try and find time to incorporate at least one of these into this block. Although I’m not sure if it really falls under US geography.

We completed this region with the Declaration of Independence. From a Waldorf standpoint, this may not be suited for the 7-14 stage which is primarily driven by imagination, fantasy and creativity and can be categorized more so with an intellectual awareness which is only awakened by 14. Although I do believe it’s one of the main driving force for shaping America.  It stated civil rights, justice and freedom for all, and  I think ironically reflects today’s inequalities the Government holds onto it’s people. Supposedly if you live long enough, history tends to repeat itself. Now, since politics would surely go over an 11 years old head and I had no intention to disclose this much information, but I really could not pass the opportunity for Tristan to see the great goodness this document held. Tristan loves soldiers especially Colonial ones, battles of any kind spike his interest, he’s also into strategy games like chess and stratego. So prior to his work, we had a discussion about the first 13 colonies who built up the New World, how they still belonged to England. Overtime, they grew dissatisfied with the unreasonable British laws, so they decided to begin a war in order to win their independence from them. This war was called the American Revolution and the soldiers who took part in it, were called the Patriots. The Declaration of Independence was written to clearly state their human rights and intentions. To remember this important day, America celebrates Independence day every July 4th with fireworks and festivities all across the United States.

Below is the resume that I wrote for Tristan to enter into his main lesson book:

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson and signed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 4th 1776, to  acquire independence from British monarchy. The soldiers that fought were composed of the first 13 colonies of America, they were called the Patriots, also known as freedom fighters. Patriotism means to devote oneself to his country. Here are two truths taken from the Declaration of Independence.

-All men are created equal

-All have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Week Two,  we visited the Southeastern portion of the US, which holds 12 states: West Virginia (WV), Virginia (VA), North Carolina (NC), South Carolina (SC), Georgia (GA), Florida (FL), Alabama (AL), Mississippi (MS), Lousianna (LA), Arkansas (AR), Tennessee (TN) and Kentucky (KY).   The first map drawn of the Northeast, we had numbered each state since there was very little room to do otherwise, that’s when I realized instead of numerating them we should have used the states abbreviation. I think this is a big component to learning US geography for future use, because they are commonly used and some are fairly long, abbreviations make it easier for the writer. Also it helps when reading addresses which are often written this way.  I’m embarrassed to say that at 35, I only knew but a few of the obvious ones, but some like IA (I thought was Indianna) that actually stands for Iowa, I just learned myself.

I decided to focus our attention on a great traditional festival of Louisianna, the Mardi Gras.  I knew this festival would captivate the attention of Tristan, it is quite known around the world. Mardi Gras (literal translation is Fat Tuesday) is celebrated in the Christian and Catholic religion as the last day before Lent. Enjoying a feast of meats, greasy foods and sugary desserts along with a celebration with a masquerade bal, music, dancing and the traditional parade with carnival-style floats.

“Mardi Gras is a festival of music, parades, picnics, floats and excitement. One big holiday celebrated before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent in New Orleans, Louisianna. Everyone is wearing purple, green and gold and adorned with long beads caught from the floats. There is a masquerade ball with a king and queen whose identity is kept secret until the celebrated night.

 We talked about the landscape and climate that becomes drastically different compared to New Englands’ temperatures. This region is part sub-tropical and tropical, playing a big part in the change of flora and fauna. The weather is quite constant all year round and almost never drops below zero.  Some plants and trees need this warm weather to thrive and if planted in northern climates, they would simply die. One important plant of the Southeast is the cotton shrub. This region is known as the cotton belt since they are the primary producers in the United States for cotton. Fluffy cotton forms as a protective capsule around the seeds of this plant. The fiber is spun into yarn and thread and used to make a soft, breathable material. It’s botanical name is Gossypium. It’s not to be confused with the cotton tree, they are  not related. Citrus trees are yet another plant seeking tropical climates. One very well know citrus fruit is the orange which grows in Florida but is not a native. These flowering plants are front the rue family, Rutaceae. They are large shrubs or small trees reaching 5 to 15m tall, with spiny shoots and evergreen leaves. The citrus tree is one of the most important industries of the sunshine state.

      Then we virtually travelled to the Midwestern states which include: North Dakota (ND), South Dakota (SD), Nebraska (NE), Kansas (KS), Minnesota (MN), Iowa (IA), Missouri (MO), Wisconsin (WI), Illinois (IL), Indianna (IN), Michigan (MI) and Ohio (OH). Also known as the Prairie states or Tornado alley and beautifully described in Laura Ingalls’ winning series “The Little House on the Prairie”. If  we were going to do colonial crafts, this will have to be the section. I have never visited any of these states so I know very little about them. After some net surfing, I came across a true American landmark the Mount Rushmore Sculpture, because I knew very little about it, I had some homework ahead of me. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a massive sculpture composed of four Presidential heads, created by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum. I wanted to understand the reasoning for choosing these specific presidents.

The first on the left is George Washington; he was the first elected president of the United States, next to him is Thomas Jefferson; author of the Declaration of Independence, thirdly it’s Theodore Roosevelt; who exposed the criminals in politics and purified the government and last it’s Abraham Lincoln; who brought freedom and democracy to Black Americans, who were formally abused for slave labor.  Contraversially, this monument brought animosity between the Native American community, because not only did it represent the narrow view of their former oppressor,  it was disrespectfully carved out of the sacred mountains  built on Lakota land that had been seized by the government. In order to show a two-sided history,  Crazy Horse memorial was then sculpted to remember a great historical leader from their people. The work started in 1948 and is only partially built, lack of funding as delayed the process, it is said once completed it will become the biggest non-religious sculpture of the world.

We ended this week by looking at the American bison, also known as the buffalo. The plains Amerindians granted their life around this massive herbivore, this dependancy was sought in as a strategic way by the occupying force of the new world comers to eliminate competition off the land. Officers in the hundreds drove off large herds over cliffs, since the bison was a main staple of food for the Ameridians, clothing and shelter, using their pelts in the building of tipis. Over a period of 200 years, they almost became extinct, which is horrifying to learn, when once they roamed these same grasslands in massive herds of ten to a hundred thousand. A bison has a shaggy, long, dark brown winter coat and a shorter, paler,summer coat. It is an ungulate and the males are slightly larger then the females. Bisons are herbivores grazing on the grasses of the prairies. They have a life expectancy of 15 yrs. in the wild and up to 25 yrs. in captivity.

Tristan started making a pot-holder quilt as a traditional all American craft. I suggested he uses materials that represent the American flag, we found some cotton with red and white stripes, I was hoping to find  blue material with white stars imprint but had no such luck. So instead i’ve suggested he uses a royal solid blue cloth and hand stitch a pentagonal star on to it once he’d finish assembling it. He can end with a white border that can also be used on the back.

We had started this block just before the Christmas holidays, we had a new block on Decimals for mathematics and were left with two weeks of back log in geography.  Tristan has a natural ability with math, because of this I decided to begin this new block without having finished the last one. He spent his first 40 mins with learning the new content on Decimals and then continued where he left off in geography. We had the Southwest to visit, we started on day one mapping the region which holds only four states: Arizona (AZ), New Mexico (NM), Texas (TX) and Oklahoma (OK).

On day 2 we talked about the flora and fauna of the Southwest. This regions’ temperature can rise up very high, the climate is hot and dry. It is a desert climate. The plant and animal wildlife need to be able to sustain themselves in such arid temperature. The cactus, member of the plant family cactaceae is known to be a desert plant. Their distinctive appearance is a result of adaptation to conserve water in a dry and hot environment. Because the Southwest is mostly desert, many reptiles enjoy this landscape. You can find a variety of lizards, turtles, frogs and snakes.

One of the most breathtaking landscapes part of the Southwest United States, visited by millions every week and known by most; is the Grand Canyon National Park. I was lucky enough as a young teen to see and experience the Grand Canyon up close and personal while visiting my father. Back then he was working for a rafting touring company that brought tourist down the Colorado river just below the Hoover dam. I got the chance to ride the raft down the gentle current just me and him. We stopped at a beach to stretch our legs and have a snack, just below the steep red cliff walls. It’s an experience I will never forget and hope to offer something similar to my boys someday. The Grand Canyon is spectacular, you feel so small in it’s embrace. There is no need to talk, just bathe in it’s magnificence, all senses will be nourished. I still remember it so clearly today.

I just recently learned the names of three formations you can spot in the canyon.

A mesa also known as table mountain, is an elevated area of land with a flattop and sides that are usually steep cliffs.

An arroyo is a Spanish word translated as brook, it’s usually a dry creek or stream bed that temporarily or seasonally fills and flows after sufficient rain.

A butte is an isolated hill with steep, vertical sides and a relatively flat top. It is smaller then mesas. The word butte comes from French meaning small hill or mound.

There is a main lesson on Botany this year, and with Waldorf being intertwined, Donna had suggested in her curriculum to skim the regional plant topic in geography. The Southwest landscape is such a contrast to Tristan’s homeland in the North Eastern woods of Canada. The cactus family is completely foreign to his personal awareness, besides seeing little potted cactuses in nurseries, he’s never stood beside a 12′ foot cactus before. I am so anxious to be able to offer that experience for him one day. We talked about the arid dry climate of the desert. The adaptations the animals and plants need to do to conserve water. What animals enjoy this type of climate.

We ended that week with a rediscovering of the desert people. We had studied the natives of the Southwest back in third grade Native American block. We had learned about the varieties of homes the natives had built according to the landscape they resided in. In the Southwest, the ever so beating sun, the people had figured how to adapt to these conditions. Surrounded by earth and sand, they constructed wonderful earthen homes called adobe which kept the hot rays out during the day, and radiated heat accumulated from the days’ sun over night. Completely ingenious, the first true solar passive design, living in  harmony with the land, not only where these houses purposeful, they were and are aesthetically pleasing as well. Tristan modeled an adobe house out of plasticine, it would have been better to employ clay, making it more authentic. Unfortunately, we are in the process of moving and most of our crafting materials have been boxed. He still managed a fine adobe house out of this medium.

The last region to visit was the Pacific West, some decide to split the two into West and Pacific, but I feel they complement each other and have many historical events intertwined, making it important to learn together. This is my favorite region of the United States, I may be bias since my father and sister live there, probably a strong contributor but I also think it’s the geography. Even Canada’s west has always called me. In fact as soon as I turned 20, with my future husband accompanying me, we drove across the entire country intending to make it all the way to Vancouver. We  stopped in Calgary to see friends for a while and ended living there 4 years. Life is full of unexpected turn of events.

Following the same rhythm as the other weeks, we started by drawing a map of the Pacific West which includes 11 states: Montana (MT), Wyoming (WY), Colorado (CO), Idaho (ID), Utah (UT), Nevada (NV), Washington (WA), Oregon (OR), California (CA) and inset Alaska (AK) and Hawaii (HI).

We continued with learning about the first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific coast led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. This expedition had for purpose to find a water route that linked the Columbia and Missouri rivers, to find a port to allow trade with Asia, to draw maps and classify useful plants and natural resources and to make trade agreements with the Natives they encountered.

Next, we learned about the California Gold Rush. This single event happened to be the cataclysmic point of paving what California is today. Upon hearing about an overflowing amount of gold in 1849, droves of people from all over the United States and other parts of the world headed towards California to make fortune. Hopes of riches in sight, many arrived to find mostly overcrowded riverbanks instead. These immigrants came bearing a trade, and with a little ingenuity put their trade into business and ended up doing very well for themselves in the end.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’m in love with the Pacific West’s landscape, it has it all, from rocky mountain peaks, to desert canyons, coastal ranges, to giant trees, volcanoes to rolling valleys. The natural beauty is abundant, perhaps the reason for going there is for promising riches but surely the reason for staying, is the wealth of nature. We couldn’t study this region without giving tribute to Sequoia National Park, part of our bucket list trips. We must see it some day! Giant cedars some as old as 5000 years. Now that’s hard to fathom for an adult, what’s it like for an 11 year old child? To think that beside one of these earthly giants your but a speck, placing yourself in the consciousness field of an ant. Now that is something to experience once in a lifetime!

We ended this block with the United States anthem, a fluid way to create closure on geography. We tried learning the song on the flute but after many, many, determined attempts gave up, since it held a few difficult notes to achieve. Rather then play it on the flute, Tristan learned how to sing it.

One Response to United States Geography

  1. Lisa Alexander

    Holy cow! This is amazing! I googled “Waldorf U.S. geography” and found this. EXACTLY what I need for my 11 y.o. boy. Thanks so much sharing/posting. 🙂

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