A journey into learning – and how we can help our children learn

It was a simple box that started my latest expedition into learning something new. A simple, plain, ordinary – some might say ugly – box. But to me, that box represents a magical journey.


It started in a warehouse in New York City this summer – a warehouse so full of boxes upon boxes of beads that the narrow aisles between stacks of boxes are lined with beads. As I squeezed between boxes piled high, digging through piles of beads, I listened to the crunch of old, wonderful, vintage beads crunching beneath my feet.

And then I saw it. The box. And I knew straight away that it was something special.

It wasn’t the box, itself, that captivated my attention, but its contents. Inside that box lay the most delicious, the most delightful beads I had seen in a long, long time. I knew nothing about them, but I could tell with my semi-trained eye that they were something special.

mourning beads from Victorian era

Plain, unassuming black pieces of glass. Some shaped into flowers, other round buttons. Some carved, some plain. I couldn’t put my finger on what I liked about those beads, but there was something about them that called me.

mourning jewelry Victorian

Having no idea what it was that I was buying, I bought a bunch of the black beads, and headed back to the cottage…

…and immediately started researching.

The packets of beads were labeled in French, so I called up Google Translate. Every packet was labeled with the word deuil. Google quickly told me deuil means mourning.

Victorian mourning jewelry

Mourning? I raced over to Google and typed in “black beads mourning.” A whole new world opened up before my eyes.

And that, dear reader, is how I found myself falling head over heels down the rabbit hole into mourning traditions from Victorian times.

Queen Victoria in mourningThe educational journey

As it happens, Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Albert, died in 1861. That event sent Queen Victoria spiraling into a deep depression, and she donned black mourning garb as an outward sign of her devotion. Dressed fully in black until her death, Queen Victoria started a tradition that quickly took hold.

Women, with their love of all things sparkly and pretty, quickly discovered a need for black jewelry to go with their black dresses, a need jewelers were only too happy to fulfill. A new industry quickly spawned, with jewelers churning out black mourning jewelry by the bucketful.

And that was what I had stumbled upon in that warehouse in New York City. The raw material, never made into anything. Discovered in a corner of the basement of a business that had been around for 150 years. “In the bowels of the earth,” according to the man I bought them from.

While driving through the long, lonely prairies of Nebraska and the windswept plains of Wyoming on my way home to Idaho, I thought about those beads. The stories! The history! The culture! My curiosity had been piqued and I couldn’t wait to dive in even more.

Within thirty minutes of arriving home (after a long day behind the wheel traveling from Denver to Boise, no less) I was glued to my computer.

Black mourning beads

Mourning jewelry

Victorian mourning traditions

Each search led me to new sites and information. I devoured each and every tiny morsel of information I could find about mourning traditions in the late 1800’s. What did they wear? What was the jewelry made of? What kind of symbolism did they put in their jewelry?

“What about…?” I wondered. “What about Civil War reenactors? They might know something about this.”

Civil War reenactmentI quickly found a Facebook group specifically for people involved with reenacting Civil War times and posted a question. “I found these beads this summer and want to know about them. Can you direct me to someone who might know? Or a site with info?”

That question led to me connecting with Mandy, who creates jewelry for reenactors. And she, in turn, connected me to other experts in the field. All of a sudden, my head was spinning and I was learning more and more with each passing moment.

It was exciting, heady stuff. These beads I found had led me on a wild journey, a fantastic expedition of discovery. I’m still learning, and am branching out into other aspects of that period of history – all sparked by a random discovery in a warehouse full of beads.

What does this mean for kids?

That experience made me start to think about the process of learning, and about how we might be able to use that with our children. Nothing could have held me back from researching and learning – my interest was piqued and my brain was engaged. How could I engineer that set of circumstances for my children?

As I see it, there are five things parents can do to encourage learning for their children:

1) Be a learner

Children learn, first and foremost, from their parents. If parents are excited about learning something, chances are the kids will be as well. Parents who do Civil War reenacting as a hobby tend to have children who are passionate about the period as well.

2) Be enthusiastic

Show your love of learning. When your children comes home from school, ask them what they learned, and express your enthusiasm for that topic. If they learned a new equation in Algebra, then be excited about that equation. If they learned that deforestation causes run-off, be excited about taking care of the environment. Your child will pick up on your enthusiasm.

3) Seek out opportunities

How many museums or other sites are around your house that might arouse that sense of curiosity in your children? Take advantage of them. Some will bomb, for sure, but others might be that random event that will spark that sense of curiosity. Consider historical sites, museums, botanical gardens, or nature reserves. You never know what your child find fascinating.

4) Be willing to take an unexpected journey

Just as I never expected to delve into Civil War history, your children might find something unexpected as well. Don’t be afraid to “go there.” Support them. Encourage them. Learn with them.

5) Deemphasize grades

Does it really matter what grade your child comes home with? Or is the important thing the learning. Don’t pressure your child to get “good grades,” encourage him to learn lots.


books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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3 Responses to A journey into learning – and how we can help our children learn

  1. Alex | Partial Parallax September 25, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Interesting article showing your train of thought very nicely and how this one discovery sparked your intrigue and how it brought you about to thinking about the wider picture of learning. It’s vitally important to keep children excited about learning and all of these are great ideas especially the grade side of things. Grades really are not that important in the wider scheme of things but I feel many people lose sight of that.
    Great article

  2. Ashley Wells November 23, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Experimenting with different learning styles and environments may improve the child’s accomplishments and feelings of achievement.

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