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Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006 08:45 am

Making a connection

Help your children learn by seeing Illinois

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A trip to see special exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago will stimulate an interest in the fine arts.
Photo by Beth Gauper/MCT

As the school year gets in gear and your evening queries to your kids about what they’re learning are met with unintelligible and less-than-enlightening answers, it’s up to you to create ways to get information. To connect to your kids, to help them connect to their schoolwork, and to build some family time, plan visits to Illinois sites chosen to supplement their learning.

Students do better when their parents are actively involved, and personal experiences help them relate to their studies.

One year I noticed that my son’s fifth-grade literature book included stories by Mark Twain. Off we went to Hannibal, Mo., to see Twain’s home, the famous white picket fence, and the caves that Twain’s characters Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer explored. The trip created lots of talk time, plus an enthusiasm for Twain when the class read the story — and the trip served him well later, in high school, when Huckleberry Finn was assigned.

Do a little planning and map out your visits. Ask the teachers for a list of the year’s units or flip through the textbooks. Explore festival guides, Illinois-tourism booklets, and Web sites, such as the Department of Natural Resources’ (dnr.state.il.us). Many of the locations listed in this article have Web sites; one for U.S. travel is the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places Web site (www.cr.nps.gov/nr/twhp).

We are lucky to have so many free or inexpensive locations to see in and around Springfield. The Lincoln Home, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Old State Capitol, and New Salem give us history. Take your older child; many high-schoolers admit that they’ve only visited these sites on elementary-school field trips and remember very little. For botany studies, the Lincoln Memorial Garden offers various nature walks.

For those interested in the study of fossils, rocks, landforms, mammoths and mastodons, our own Illinois State Museum is a treasure trove, and its newly renovated hands-on exhibit Changes is equal to any found at the Smithsonian Institution.

Learn about landforms by taking a quick drive to Elkhart, a few miles north, to see Elkhart Hill and tour the small town’s museum.

Budding archaeologists can find a dig at www.digonsite.com/guide/Illinois.

To promote the fine arts, visit the Springfield Art Association, the Illinois State Museum, and local galleries, or attend Illinois Symphony Orchestra concerts or performances at Sangamon Auditorium.

Here are some out-of-town sites that would make great accompaniments to units of study:

For a Native American unit, two historical sites stand out as exceptional: Cahokia Mounds, near St. Louis (there are monthly activities including art shows, Indian market days, and nature hikes); and Starved Rock, near Utica (hiking trails, canoeing, horseback riding, and nature trails).
A visit to one of our many state parks combines many areas of study: exercise through hiking, canoeing, and horseback riding; history through tours of the region; science through birdwatching and tree, plant and insect identification. Rend Lake, Pere Marquette, Giant City, Starved Rock, and Cave-in-Rock offer many activities for families and have cabins or a lodge for overnight stays. Cave-in-Rock State Park intrigues students with its history of the pirates and outlaws who hid out in the cave soon after the Revolutionary War.
Driving need not be met with groans from the back seat. Stop to read historic markers. Even rest stops are good sources of learning; most have been named and a plaque explains the area’s history. Give kids a notebook in which to record the stops and information and keep a journal.
Students in all grades love the study of the Middle Ages. Plan to visit the Jubilee Olde English Faire, north of Peoria (June 2007), or the Illinois Renaissance Faire, near Danville (September 2007), for medieval re-enactments.
For the study of animals, go to Wildlife Prairie Park in Peoria to spot bison, bear, elk, cougar, and bobcat.
To learn about art, go to the Art Institute of Chicago for special exhibitions and its rich collection; Allerton Park, near Monticello, for outdoor sculpture; or the Dana-Thomas House, here in Springfield, for stained glass.
It might be a stretch, but if your student is reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, tour Ames Library, at Wesleyan University in Normal, to see the stained-glass windows from Pembroke College in England, where Tolkien (and Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland) hung out. Perhaps these windows inspired their creativity.
To help spark an appreciation of literature, visit the homes of authors and poets, including Vachel Lindsay (Springfield), Edgar Lee Masters (Petersburg), or Carl Sandburg (Galesburg) and read their poetry. Take Master’s Spoon River Anthology on the annual Spoon River Drive or to the cemeteries in Petersburg and Lewiston.
It’s never too early for students to start thinking about college plans. Stop at colleges and universities. Kids will remember these when they begin their college searches, and you might get a break on the number you have to visit.

Turning your children on to history, art, literature, science, and music can provide you and your kids with lifelong memories and conversations, help them be better students, and instill in them a love of learning.

Cinda Klickna, a former English teacher, serves as the secretary-treasurer of the Illinois Education Association and loves Illinois history. Contact her at Cinda.Klickna@ieanea.org

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