Building an American history timeline, no textbooks required!

I always hated history. Pages and pages of textbooks filled with things done by old white guys? Not really my jam.

Point of irony: Sarah LOVES history. Her dad, Chris, and my fiance, Dan, are pretty nuts about it too (Dan was a history major in undergrad, even).

It wasn’t until we started our homeschooling journey with Sarah that I realized something.

History isn’t all about textbooks and old white dudes. History is about people.

So despite my previous “I hate history” mantra, I was actually really excited when we got the chance to review Sunflower Education’s Giant American History Timeline, which focuses on – you guessed it – people, and more specifically, people of all cultures.

Unschool Rules review of Sunflower Education's The Giant American History Timeline: A great, creative walk through history with no textbooks required!

How Sunflower Education’s Giant American History Timeline works

The Giant American History Timeline is a two-volume set, with Book 1 spanning the Pre-Colonization period (going all the way back to prehistory!) through the Reconstruction, and Book 2 picking up with the 1870s and continuing through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In exchange for the honest review of our experience which appears in this post, our family received free print and PDF copies of The Giant American History Timeline. We were compensated for our time completing the review, but the awesome history conversations were all ours!

This post also has some affiliate links to products we legitimately use and recommend.

You can get each volume either in print (Vol. 1 | Vol. 2), or as a PDF download (Vol. 1 | Vol. 2). There’s also a two-volume digital bundle as well!

Each book goes through a variety of time periods and provides six kinds of activity sheets that are both research-focused AND a great spark for creativity. The activity sheets are designed to then be laid out in a huge timeline; layout ideas and arrows are even included!

(Don’t have The Biggest Wall Ever in your homeschool? Fellow homeschooler Tina shows how her family made a timeline that fits in file folders, and another blogger, Emily, made a poster-sized version for a particular period of interest!)

One of the coolest things about either version, but especially the digital, is that these are actually designed to be able to be used both by homeschoolers or by school classrooms. So if you have multiple kids in your family, not only can you print out as many copies of a particular sheet as you need, but because the activities are creative, each of your learners can put their own spin on that period of history.

Unschool Rules review of Sunflower Education's The Giant American History Timeline: A great, creative walk through history that works for relaxed homeschoolers!

So what do I mean by “creative and research-focused” activities? These activity sheets are amazing. Instead of being like traditional worksheets – you know, “Match the date to the person” – they’re full of open-ended questions, opportunities for art projects (with the ability to use pictures printed from the Internet if you’re NOT art-minded) and map studies that allow for students to mark what they find interesting.

Oh, and I can’t forget my personal favorite, biography activity sheets, which focus on the people key to a time period. (You might remember how much we love learning from biographies.) And not just ANY people. These include women and people who aren’t white! Remember how I said I hated old-white-guy history? This was clutch for me. There’s even a whole section on social justice issues in Volume 1!

Another thing I loved: These sheets could easily be used by students from elementary through high school. Because the questions and activities are so open-ended, you could do a more simplistic version with a second- or third-grader, and a really in-depth version with a high-schooler.

Unschool Rules review of Sunflower Education's The Giant American History Timeline: A great, creative walk through history that works for relaxed homeschoolers!

Exploring the New Deal, timeline-style

So… how DID our high-schooler use The Giant American History Timeline? Well, we’re into print books around here, so she and I sat down and started flipping through that version of both volumes, and as we came to events or periods or people Sarah didn’t know much about, she started asking me questions.

We talked about Federalism, the Oregon Trail, the national railroad system, the Indian Removal Act and even Gettysburg National Military Park, which is only about a half-hour from our house. I thought we’d probably do that until we got to World War II (one of Sarah’s big interests), so I was pretty surprised when she stopped on The New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That’s where things got really interesting.

Over the next hour and a half, we had a conversation on everything from economic stimulus to the voting rights of people with felony convictions as well as those with various disabilities. We also talked about Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Social Security, good farming practices, the causes of World Wars I and II… and a bunch more.

It got even cooler when my mom was able to join in and tell us some stories about growing up at the end of the Great Depression, and about the New Deal-related work her father had, where he taught chair-caning to people at a local blind center.

It was awesome! And it all came from a simple activity sheet.

Unschool Rules review of Sunflower Education's The Giant American History Timeline: A great, creative walk through history with no textbooks required!

Completing an American history timeline without textbooks

One of the best things about Sunflower Education’s Giant American History Timeline is that it can be used with any curriculum. You could use it with a traditional history textbook, or one of the (in)famous history spines loved by homeschoolers around the world.

Or… you could be a super-relaxed homeschooling family like us, not exactly all about the textbooks.

No textbook? No problem. Remember how open-ended I said the questions are? They’re things that can be found in a huge number of places – tons of different websites, traditional textbooks, or our personal favorite, history reference books!

A couple of years ago for Christmas, Sarah asked for – and received – DK Smithsonian’s History, a guide to, you guessed it… history. ALL of history. This book is a beast.

Like with The Giant American History Timeline, you can use it to focus on a particular period, to jump around to times of interest, or to work your way straight through from prehistory to the present. Oh, and it’s heavy enough to use as a weapon in a home invasion – added bonus!

We LOVE books like this, and have a ton of them around our house. Wildlife of the World is our source for all things zoological, this history book meets a ton of our needs for jumping-off information about the past, Lonely Planet’s The World tells us all about geography and culture, and Dan’s father is actually featured in a photo in DK Smithsonian’s The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History.

You name the subject, and we probably have what we call a “browsing book” that helps us dig into it.

Because the Smithsonian History guide covers all of world history, it didn’t have tons of information on the New Deal – but it had exactly enough about the background of the Depression and the idea behind the New Deal programs to give us some ideas about more things to Google to find out more.

It made a perfect companion to The Great American History Timeline!

Oh, and if you’re interested in a more formal application of this idea, you should definitely check out a post on Our Journey Westward – How to Use Informational Books as History Curriculum. Cindy, who runs that site, does a great job explaining how this can work as the basis for a more traditional history curriculum too.

Unschool Rules review of Sunflower Education's The Giant American History Timeline: A great, creative walk through history that works for relaxed homeschoolers!

Win your own copy of The Giant American History Timeline

The awesome folks at Sunflower Education are giving away copies of The Giant American History Timeline Book 1. Ten lucky U.S. residents 18 or older will get to dig in to the Pre-Colonization to Reconstruction period – so make sure you enter!

Also, if you use promo code timeline20 at checkout, you can get 20% off The Giant American History Timeline Bundle (digital editions of both volumes)!

You should also follow Sunflower Education on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for additional deals and news about other cool products.

I hope that, if you’re a relaxed homeschooling family like we are, you’ll have as much fun as we have been while researching your way through American history using this timeline!

A fun family writing project: What if your stuff came to life?

Welcome to our Sentient Beings Project, a family writing project based on one question: “What if your stuff came to life?”

How our family writing project began

It all started with a song – specifically “I Am Not Your Broom” by They Might Be Giants. Sarah and I have loved that song for years, and it came on while we were driving around town on some errands. We started talking about what would happen if our own “stuff” would somehow come to life. This led us into the idea of sentience, and what it means to be alive.

This led into all sorts of questions about the implications of that, including sentient rights, and Sarah decided if we had a sentient broom, his name would be Issac. She started talking to me about what brooms might do in their free time, what jobs they might like (if “brooming” wasn’t for them), whether they’d wear clothes, what rights they’d have, their life span, and a bunch more.

Unschool Rules Family Writing Project: Sentient Beings, or What If Your Stuff Came to Life

When we got home, she grabbed a notebook and started a list, titled…

Sentient beings story ideas

Here’s what her list included:

  • Issac the sentient broom that can talk
  • What other inanimate objects would become sentient
  • Would they get human diseases or their own version
  • Would they have a job or favorite hobbies
  • What are some of the things these sentient beings like to do
  • What different personalities would they have
  • How would they express their feelings
  • Would things that are plugged in die if they weren’t plugged in
  • How would they make money
  • Would they eat or drink
  • Would they wear clothing
  • Would they identify with a religion, culture or race
  • Would they speak other languages
  • Would they come from all around the world
  • Would they have families
  • Origins: How did they become sentient
  • Do they have eyes or not
  • How long do they live for
  • What names would they choose and how would they choose it or come to have their name
  • Would they be loved and treated nicely by people
  • Do they have noses

Disclosure: This post has some affiliate links. I only link to things we legitimately use and recommend, so if you see such a link, it's because we really do believe in the book or item!
I should make it clear: SHE came up with all of these. I was listening and talking with her about some of the ideas, but all this brainstorming was totally Sarah.

But then, she got stuck. She had all these ideas, and she just didn’t know where to start. She decided that she wanted to draw Issac, so she watched a “How to Draw a Broom” tutorial and brought him to life. But she didn’t know what to write, so I suggested that instead of trying to tackle ALL the questions about Issac, maybe she could write an anecdote (and this gave me a chance to explain what an anecdote is) to go with his picture.

Then she decided that was how she wanted to tell their stories – a picture, then something about whatever sentient being was pictured, then another picture, and something about that being, and so on. She did the first two – drawing, coloring and writing – and then she invited me to draw my own sentient being. After that, my mom was next to participate, then Dan, and then Chris. All in all, we worked on these for the better part of a month!

(Oh, and did you know what makes a drawing sentient? It’s googly eyes.)

I hope you’ll enjoy seeing our drawings and reading our stories. And I hope you’ll consider some of our questions above as prompts for your own family writing project about sentient beings!


Story and art by Sarah Otto

Unschool Rules Family Writing Project: Issac the Sentient Broom

Issac was so happy that he got a name. It made him feel special and loved, and like part of the family – that these people who he calls his family care about him and want Issac to feel like he is one of them.


Story and art by Sarah Otto

Unschool Rules Family Writing Project: Zach the Sentient Broom

Zach was so happy when he chose that perfect guitar that he could rock out on as loud as he wanted. Zach loved metal and rock music but his favorite was AC-DC, KISS, Rob Zombie and so many others. Zach took guitar lessons and taught himself to play a couple songs. Zach’s favorite color is red but he likes black a lot as well.


Story and art by Joan S. Concilio (that’s me)

Unschool Rules Family Writing Project: Hannah the Sentient Toaster

Hannah loved helping her friends, whether they were other sentient beings or people. She was most proud of the day she was able to use her toast slots – which she kept very clean – to hold Christmas cards for her family. When she popped them up, everyone was so surprised and happy, and she felt so loved.


Story and art by Joan H. Concilio (that’s my mom)

Unschool Rules Family Writing Project: Victor the Sentient Vacuum

I’m Victor Vacuum and I help keep the house clean. I even gave one of the witches a ride in the movie Hocus Pocus. I was a star! The witches thought they were the stars, but really I was.

(Relevant video clip here.)


Story and art by Dan Herman

Unschool Rules Family Writing Project: Chazz the Sentient Chainsaw

(Editor’s, aka Joan’s, note: It took Dan like two weeks after he drew his chainsaw to write his story, but when he did, he REALLY WROTE.)

Charles was not a happy chainsaw. All the other saws in the Sears picked on him, saying he was too small, his engine too weak, his teeth too dull. He figured they must have a point. After all, generation after generation of the other saws came and went, selling out and replaced by new models, while he just sat on the shelf, collecting dust. One day, a young boy in a dirty apron slowly made his way around the entire tools area, appraising everything he saw, picking up everything sharp before putting it back. The boy was just about to leave when he spotted Charles sitting on the lowest shelf. He walked over, picked Charles up, hefting him from hand to hand, then walked off to the register without a word.

Charles was nervous. He was excited of course, but also worried – who was this kid, and what did he want to do? He was especially confused when he was taken inside a small bakery and presented to a round man who looked like a larger version of the boy – only his facial expression was one of dismay. “Oh, Stefan,” sighed the large man, turning back to his oven. “Such a tiny thing will never get rid of that,” he said, gesturing to his right. Charles suddenly noticed an enormous wooden ceiling support beam… or at least, that’s what he thought it used to be. What it was now looked like a tree had fallen, crushing a large unidentifiable piece of machinery.

“I’m… I’m sorry, father,” said Stefan, his head bowed. “It was all we could afford.” His father turned at this, offering a sad smile. “I know, my boy. I was not blaming you. But I’m afraid this means it’s over. We can’t make enough with the slicer out of commission, so we’ll have to sell. Come, help your old father with the mixer one last time.” Choking back tears, Stefan set Charles on the table next to the cooling rack, and followed his father into the prep room.

Charles felt miserable. The other saws had been right – he was too small, too useless. He couldn’t even muster an imaginary scenario in his head where, if he just put his mind to it, just think-I-can’d enough, he could slice through that beam. It was freakin’ enormous. “And I can barely slice through butter,” he grumbled to himself, swiping his nose against the large tub of same that sat next to him on the table. He gazed despondently at the perfect rows of bread loaves arrayed on the cooling table. Now that, he could imagine. He pictured himself poised over the top of a particularly fluffy loaf, biting into the flaky crust, cleaving through the whole thing with ease. “Even easier than mowing through zombies,” he growled. (Every chainsaw fantasizes about being used during a zombie apocalypse, because it meant almost unlimited sawing through relatively soft objects.) “I could do this for days…” he said, trailing off as an idea occurred to him.

Stefan and his father sprinted back into the oven area, Stefan unsure if there was a large cat loose and the baker concerned another of the machines had jammed, eliminating even the meager amount he might resell it for. They both stopped dead just inside the doorway, mouths agape at what lay before them. Charles was halfway through a loaf when they came in, and he instantly shut himself off and rolled off the bread, suddenly mortified at what he’d done without even asking permission. “Who… who did this?” asked Stefan. His father, though, just walked over to the table, his expression unreadable. “I did,” said Charles in a small, gravelly voice. “It was my fault.” Still saying nothing, the baker picked up one of the loaves Charles had ripped into. “What? How?! Why would you do this?” cried the boy, falling silent when his father raised his hand to shush him. “How many did you do?” asked the baker in a quiet voice.

“Only a dozen or so, sir, I’m really sorry. I’ll never do it again, just please…” pleaded Charles, fearful of getting returned until he was bewildered by a sudden gust of laughter from the baer. “Never again? Why, you’ll do more right now!” he exclaimed, throwing the bread in the air. “Twelve loaves in a minute, and buttered? My boy, you’re going to slice as many loaves as your heart desires! Stefan!” He motioned to the boy, who was now grinning ear-to-ear, to come forward. “Get Charles whatever he needs and then get back to mixing! We’ve baking to do!” Humming to himself, he strode back to the prep room, leaving Stefan and Charles alone. “I don’t know, Charles,” the boy said, his face turning serious. “I don’t know if this will work.” Charles’ heart sank. To come so close to finding his place, only to have it snatched away…

The boy broke into a grin, grabbed a Sharpie from the table, knelt down beside Charles and began to write on him. “With your engine going constantly, I think you’re more of a ‘Chazz,’ what do you think?” In response, Chazz just revved up his motor and got to work.


Story and art by Chris Otto

Unschool Rules Family Writing Project: Contessa the Sentient Door

Contessa is a very old sentient door. More than 200 years old. She was, for many years, attached to a house that was built when she was. But that house is gone now. For awhile, Contessa was discarded and sat in a junkyard, where nothing around her was sentient, but there was a nice raccoon who kept her spirits up. Then, one day, a lady discovered Contessa and moved her to a store, where she now sits next to many other old things. Visitors compliment Contessa every day, and the air smells like cinnamon.

Create your own family writing project

What in your house would you like to see come to life? What stories does that object have? Start with the questions we listed above, or ask even deeper questions!