Monday, February 10, 2014

Pennsylvania History Class 2

They got it! How many times have I taught, and I come away wondering if they learned anything. The boys I am teaching right now are so much fun. Their minds work like crazy, and I don’t have to spell everything out.

For instance, I brought my slides of a charcoal burn. Here’s a little background, for those of you who have never participated in a charcoal burn. Have you ever seen the remainder of the iron furnaces? They look like huge brick pyramids without the pointed top. Within driving distance from my house are the two at Greenwood Furnace State Park near Belleville and the one at Centre Furnace along East College Avenue in State College. There are many others located all over Pennsylvania.

Back in the 1700s and 1800s, the inside of these furnaces were filled with charcoal, set on fire, and then filled with iron ore.  As the ore melted, it ran into trays to make cast iron.

Making charcoal took lots of wood stacked by “wood choppers.”  The “colliers” then made the charcoal. At sites within the woods, they formed a large teepee of wood about 35 feet in diameter,

                                                             covered it with leaves,

                                                                    and then dirt.

The colliers then added hot coals from a campfire to the stack.

The leaves and dirt kept the stack smoldering, not burning openly.

For up to two weeks, the colliers worked day and night to patch any holes that appeared in the stack, adding dirt to cover the holes.


At the end of the burn, they covered the stack with more dirt to put the fire out. When cooled, the colliers raked open the stack. Inside they found charcoal 

which they loaded in wagons and took back to a storage site near the iron furnace.

They got it! The boys watched the slides, and without my explaining every little detail caught on to why the wood had been covered with leaves and dirt. 

I wish every teaching session went that well! 

P.S. Here’s my collier’s certificate in case you wondered about my qualifications for this lesson. Paul Fagley at Greenwood Furnace State Park offers a class almost every summer for teachers to learn about this process. In 2010, we built the small charcoal stack shown above and made charcoal in two days instead of two weeks. The wagon is in the museum at Greenwood Furnace.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Pennsylvania History Class

Recently, I had the privilege to teach homeschooled children my favorite subject—Pennsylvania history!

We started with a learning web to see what they already know.
I explained how to draw a line from each circle and add a piece of information. They began to spout ideas! I love this class. The web that day included animals so that circle grew many more circles—bear, deer, grouse, and I told them what a fisher was. Transportation came easy—cars, trains, and planes. One knew about the coal industry. Major cities included Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg. Right on, kiddos!

Then came major events. “The Battle of Gettysburg,” cried out one.

“Yes, that’s a good one.”

They couldn’t think of any more major events. Then my brain started scrambling. I thought first of the Three Mile Island incident, but I’ve tried to explain that one before to a group of children. Difficult! Then the Johnstown Flood popped into my brain. “Did you ever hear of the Johnstown Flood?”


“Lots of people died in Pennsylvania when a dam broke. More than one town was flooded.”

“But I thought God said there wasn’t going to be any more floods!”

My teen helper stepped in. “He said no more world-wide floods. Johnstown wasn’t world-wide.”

“Can you think of anymore major events?” I asked.

“How about Noah’s Flood?”

I stopped for a minute to consider this. I don’t usually teach the Great Flood as part of my Pennsylvania curriculum, but it did happen here.

“Yes, it would have been in Pennsylvania, but you have to realize that Noah’s Flood wasn’t what you often see pictured, the cute little boat with toy animals. It was a terrible thing.”

They got thoughtful looks on their faces, and we moved on to filling in other areas of the web.

That afternoon, while I pondered the teaching session, I thought about the Great Flood again. Yes, it happened here, and because it was worldwide, the area that eventually became Pennsylvania would have been covered. That made me think about all those people perishing back then which led me to think about how many are spiritually perishing today.

Many people perished. Is today any different?