“You mean I was learning things while we were on vacation?! How can you be in homeschool on a vacation?” These were the exact words that my 7-year old son said when I was talking to him in the car on our long journey home from The Keys.
When I told my sister that we were going to be “interrupting” our homeschool with a two week vacation she suggested that we turn it into a curriculum. What a great idea! Thinking outside the box about education was one of the reasons I was excited to homeschool, so I jumped at the idea and remembered I had a book about Flagler’s Railroad Key West Extension, Last Train to Paradise. It was perfect because the beginning of the railroad was in St. Augustine, very close to where we live!
We spent about six weeks studying Flagler and the railroad before we went to The Keys. The book began with Flagler’s life so we broke out the map and began finding all the states and cities mentioned in the book.
Once we found all the places mentioned in the beginning of Flagler’s life, we moved on to Florida, where it all begins.
My son, Kade, then traced a map of Florida; he marked Jacksonville where we live, St. Augustine where Flagler traveled to, and then finally Key West. He then also traced the Railroad lines from St. Augustine to Key West all the way down the east coast of Florida.
When the book began to cover just the Key West Extension of the East Coast Railway Kade traced just The Keys, marking the major Keys and the railway route.
The book actually begins with The Hurricane of 1935 destroying the railroad. It was a perfect introduction to study hurricanes! Especially since we live in Florida. We took a trip to the library and checked out a few books including The Magic School Bus Inside A Hurricane. I also used Storms and Hurricanes (Usborne Beginners) and Storms and Hurricanes (Usborne Understanding Geography) as base texts. Kade copied facts that he found were interesting and drew pictures from photos in the books.
My husband and I told stories about our experience with hurricanes. My husband’s were especially interesting since he actually sat through Andrew as it went over Marco Island, where we grew up. He talked about what they had to do to get ready for the hurricane, his father owned a marina on the island so there was an enormous amount of prep work for the boatyard. Kade loved hearing about what it sounded like and the destruction afterward (such a boy!).
We showed him the Storm Surge Markers in our area, and discussed what each color meant.
We even put together a hurricane preparedness kit. You can find information on how to create your own at NOAA.
We also did a small science experiment I found on Inspiration Laboratories.
Last Train To Paradise introduces Ernest Hemingway during the hurricane chapter. Luckily, one of my son’s favorite books is The Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway. It was a perfect addition to our curriculum!
We did a little biography on Hemingway because I knew we were going to visit his house in Key West, so Kade was excited to meet the 6-toed cats!
We also read Kidnapped in Key West, a fun story about how a boy must save his father who is a worker on Flagler’s Key West railroad. The book is historical fiction and mentioned many places in Key West like Duval St. and the lighthouse, so Kade was extremely excited when he started recognizing all these places.
Well, it’s all history! But it was important to me that is was local history. I just loved that he could physically visit all the places we were discussing.
I used Last Train to Paradise as our guide while we learned. I used it as a jumping off point for many of our lessons and field trips. It is not all appropriate for a 4 and 7 year old to hear (I read it out loud), so I did skip chapters and sections. I had read the book before so I had an idea of what I could cover.
If you do not have time to read the whole book prior, just read a chapter or so ahead. There are some pretty graphic descriptions and pictures of the hurricane damage.
I began the field trips close to home. We visited the locomotive at the Beaches Museum.
We then went to St. Augustine to see the East Coast Railway buildings at Flagler College, and the Ponce de Leon luxury hotel Flagler had built.
We were staying in Islamorada on vacation, so the very first place we visited was the 1935 Hurricane Monument. It was the beginning and end to the book and was a perfect way to explain memorials to my children.
There is also a railcar on Islamorada that we visited, but the most exciting was the passenger car they converted into a store for the Pigeon Key Tour. This was the BEST field trip we took relating to the railroad. I highly recommend it. The tour is 2 and a half hours by boat to the island and back; there are historical buildings, a tour guide, and a little museum. It is located at the bottom of the original 7-mile bridge where you can appreciate the construction of the incredible “8th Wonder of the World”.
After visiting Hemingway’s Home we crossed the street to the Key West Lighthouse. My son was super excited to pet a Hemingway 6-toed cat and see the lighthouse window and banyan tree that was part of an exciting part in Kidnapped in Key West. As we drove around Key West he made connections with street names, like Duval, and other historical places. It was wonderful to listen to and watch his excitement!
Flagler Station was adorable too. The museum brings you back to the day when Flagler rode his railway the first time to Key West. It was a perfect addition to our field trips.
Our vacation included many more fun field trips and hours fishing, snorkeling, diving for lobsters, and just swimming in the pool, but this additional unit on Flagler’s Key West Extension added an excitement to the trip we’ve never had on a vacation before. My son couldn’t wait to actually see the Seven Mile Bridge, pet Hemingway’s cats, and walk around an original railway work camp. He made my husband stop under the original bridges when we were on the boat just so he could see the construction from below. He had so much fun with learning that it was infectious!
Do you ever do this for vacations with your children, even if you don’t homeschool?
(This post includes Affiliate Links to make it easy for you to find the books I mentioned. Please see our Disclosure Policy.)