Bringing a book to life

My son Ben (who will turn 6 this summer) picked up this very cool book at the Durham Library recently:

ben book

It’s a great book — filled with examples of what the title promises.

One section caught Ben’s attention, and he asked me if I had heard of the Falkirk Wheel.  I had not, and so Ben told me all about it — here’s where he got his information:


Ben was excited about a Ferris Wheel for boats, and I of course said “let’s look it up on Google Earth.”


We then found this 36-second time lapse video of the Falkirk wheel in action:

Ben’s excitement about a picture in a well-researched book helped bring to life a part of Scotland I’d never heard of before — the Falkirk Wheel.

When I saw this video on YouTube, there were related videos that seem like they would be worth checking out at some point — we could watch these videos and locate the places they show us using Google Earth:

side videos

At Triangle Learning Community Middle School (TLC for short) we will have the time to look into the deeper significance of forms of transportation such as bridges and locks and airports. This morning, for example, I looked more closely at Ben’s library book, and learned about the locks of the Rideau Canal.

Note that if I were working with middle school students, I’d make sure they understood what “locks” look like and how they work — we could even make a working model of locks if students got into the topic. For now, I’m assuming my reader knows about locks.

Here’s the image from the book:

rideau canal

I found the Rideau Canal on Google Earth, and learned from the Wikipedia article about the canal that it was built in response to the US building the Erie Canal.  The Erie Canal was conceived in 1807, and took eight years to build (1817 to 1825).

The Rideau Canal started to be built one year later, in 1826, “and it took a total of 6 years to complete … the majority of the actual work was done by thousands of Irish and French-Canadian labourers.”

So that’s interesting — I wonder what the lives of those Irish and French-Canadian labourers (I’ll keep the English spelling) were like…  At TLC we would take time to do some research and empathize with the workers who made these structures.

I was also impressed to learn that the Rideau Canal is 123 miles long(!) and was “built as a military route and incorporating 47 locks, 16 lakes, two rivers, and a 360-foot-long (110 m), 60-foot-high (18 m) dam at Jones Falls (Jones Falls Dam)”

I found Jones Falls on Google Earth, and now, thanks to this compelling drawing from Ben’s book…

rideau canal

I have expanded my global knowledge about canals and locks in Canada.  The zig-zaggy yellow line on the left traces the basic route of the Rideau Canal from Ottawa to Kingston:

montreal kingston

According to the article about the Rideau canal,

Tens of thousands of British immigrants traveled the Rideau in this period. Hundreds of barge loads of goods were shipped each year along the Rideau, allowing Montreal to compete commercially in the 1830s and 40s with New York (which had the Erie Canal) as a major North American port.

My grandmother Bertha (in whose honor Ben is named) is from Montreal, and I’d never stopped to think about what made Montreal such a big deal city.  Apparently, part of the story is the Rideau Canal…

It would be good for students to consider that before airplanes (1903), the main way to travel long distances in the world was by boat — mainly on rivers. So these canals were a huge deal in the 1820s and 1830s.

At some point in my high school education, I know that I learned that the Erie Canal was a big deal in US History. I’m sure I answered a multiple choice question about it. I learned some fact or other about the Erie Canal without any context; I learned it (and promptly forgot it) because a teacher made me learn it. I never cared much about the Erie Canal.

Somehow, reading these sentences from the Wikipedia article about the Erie Canal helped me see why the Erie Canal was such a big deal:

It was the first transportation system between the eastern seaboard (New York City) and the western interior (Great Lakes) of the United States that did not require portage, was faster than carts pulled by draft animals, and cut transport costs by about 95%.

The canal fostered a population surge in western New York State, opened regions farther west to settlement, and helped New York City become the chief U.S. port.

Wow — cutting the cost of transportation by 95% would be huge. When I fill my tank with gas these days, it can cost nearly $50.  Imagine spending 95% less on gas — what would 5% of $50 be? (We will do applied math all the time at TLC).

Well ten percent of $50 would be $5, so five percent must be half of that — imagine spending $2.50 to fill your tank with gas.  That’s the sort of change the Erie Canal made back in the mid-1820s.

I want to learn more about the Erie Canal. And I want to check out that YouTube video of the world’s most dangerous airports — the one with more than 9 million views.

The beauty of the learning model at Triangle Learning Community Middle School is that every day, students will have time to explore areas they find interesting from around the world. They will then blog about what they learned so that they develop strong communication skills along the way.

Here’s a blog post from a few months ago that describes in more detail how typical mornings will work at TLC.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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