WCSS 2013 – Spice Up Your Civil War Unit
Getting Curious – A Civil War Museum – A great way to open up a Civil War unit (or any unit) is by turning your classroom into a mini museum. You can use various maps, images, artifacts, primary source documents, magazines, and additional materials to spark some interest in your students. As they walk through the museum (or after their “visit”), have them evaluate their interest and knowledge in the study if the Civil War and identify areas of interest. You can use their feedback to direct class activities or enrichment possibilities and also single out some content for individual students.
Some “museum” resources include NPS battlefield maps, maps from Civil War Traveler and Civil War Trails, Free Civil War Documents on Fold3, Civil War Vault: The War Between the States, Civil War Experience, and more.
You can also check out local militaria shops for some cool artifacts, or ask people in your school community. Some museums have traveling trunks that you can order, including the awesome Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison.
Moving Up in Rank – Gamification – Many students are motivated by grades … but it seems more students find motivation in competition with their classmates. This incentive has been translated into success in many classrooms through gamification, in which various aspects of games (video and board games) are applied to education. I found great success in awarding badges for class performance, homework, various assessments, and extra enrichment opportunities during my Civil War unit this year. As students earned badges and “Civil War points”, they also could rise in rank in our class “brigade”. While I have awarded Civil War points for years (influenced by Bill Lacey and Terry Handy’s Civil War unit from Interact), this past year was my first foray into using badges and ranking up. The results were all positive – the unit had always been popular, but this year student engagement improved, more students pushed to improve assignments, and interest in enrichment assignments increased. Students enjoyed the online component, as the were able to share their work with others, keep up with new achievements and badges, and check the leaderboard. It takes some work … but it is well worth it. The Civil War lends itself very well to badges, rank, and outside assignments!
If you are looking for mor information about the concept and implementation of gamification, Glenn Wiebe has a very persuasive post on HistoryTech. My colleague Michael Matera has written extensively on the topic and is presenting a session on gamification tomorrow.
The Peculiar Institution – I don’t approach the topic of slavery with any fun and games in mind, for obvious reasons. The topic must be presented and examined in a serious and mature manner. However, there are multiple ways and incredible resources to engage students in the examination of the “Peculiar Institution”. I have students begin by creating a list of terms that they associate with slavery in order to activate their knowledge about the topic. They also come up with a list of questions that they would like to discuss in and out of class – these questions guide our class sessions and assignments. As we examine the historical details of slavery, students continue with their list of terms, eventually turning them into a artistic word cloud using tagxedo. I also compile a class list and create an overall word cloud.
Primary sources are essential in our study of slavery, and there are multiple online repositories of material, including many excellent interactive sites. Slavery and the Making of America from PBS is my favorite, especially the feature “A Year in the Life”. Scholastic has an excellent The Underground Railroad: Escape From Slavery activity. Africans in America from PBS is an excellent site for primary and secondary resources. These resources are the spice that engage students.
My students also read extensive speeches, documents, and slave narratives in their English class while we are studying the Civil War – it’s powerful!
Gone for Soldierin’ – There is no better way of teaching students about the life of a Civil War soldier than putting them in the shoes (or brogans) of the men in blue and gray. I set up Civil War Soldier Day with an assignment about the motivations of soldiers, utilizing material from For Cause and Comrades by James McPherson, and also provide a Civil War Soldier Podcast and a variety of online resources to have them preview soldier life. After students fill in their enlistment papers, they come to class for training as a member of the Iron Brigade. We discuss general characteristics of Civil War soldiers and respond to student questions, and then follow with a simulation. The young recruits learn basic commands and drills, model how to load in nine steps, and march outside to meet the enemy in battle. After a return to camp for some questions, connections are made to challenges faced by men and women in uniform today. It’s been the most memorable class of students for years – just don’t forget the hardtack.
Alternative Assessments – My students have enjoyed some of the assessments that are utilized in the Civil War unit (as much as a student can enjoy an assessment). I try to make the assessments involve choice and creativity whenever possible. For the students’ processing of the life of a Civil War soldier, I give them a few options –annotate a Civil War soldier sensory figure, draw and describe a Civil War Soldier Trunk, create and record the Civil War Soldierin’ Blues, or design and represent a Civil War Soldier App. More information on the assessments is available here, and the assessments can also be applied to the home front!
Gettysburg (or another battle) on the Floor – Students are always excited about the battles of the Civil War, but it’s impossible to get into the minutia of every specific conflict of the war of find the class time to spend on the major military engagements. However, it’s tough to completely understand (and appreciate) the flow of the war without examining some of the major turning points in the battlefield – especially Gettysburg. The best way to have students understand the flow of the battle, discuss and predict military strategy, and engage in the tactics of any battle is to take them to the battlefield – or, bring the battlefield to them. I have presented the battle of Gettysburg on my floor for the past few years, and students have responded very favorably. Students are divided into two sides and complete an introductory reading setting up the battle. Upon entering the room, students get a map and a numbered primary source quote. Using a combination of my notes, a multimedia presentation, clips from the movie Gettysburg, and a huge map on the floor, we experience the three days of the battle. Students move soldiers and brigades around the map, making decisions about possible troop movements and evaluating the actual choices of the generals. We also focus on some of the interesting side stories of the battle and meet some of the great personalities of the war.
The Civil War Preservation Trust has some awesome maps available, including excellent animated ones of the the most significant engagements. Civil War Animated is a great resource for seeing a progressive overview of some of the major battles, complete with troop movements, battle sounds, and horses!
Fun with Civil War Geography – In order to visualize and understand the impact of geography on the Civil War, students can use Google Maps to create various depictions of events in the Civil War. A specific battle can be the focus of a series of entries on a map, incorporating images and primary sources to tell the story of the engagement. Students could create a geographical biography of an individual from the war, identifying and summarizing important events on a map. The chronology of the war could be the subject of a map, or important and interesting Civil War sites today can be presented as a Civil War road trip. Students could also create their own story about the war, using the map as platform for telling their Civil War tale. One of the great aspects of Google Maps is the ability to convert the map to a Google Earth file with a single click! Google Maps has an easy interactive tutorial available, and you can check out more about using Google Maps here. There are also some Civil War Google Earth files already available online – just search for “Civil War .kmz”.
Podcasts – A few years ago, it seemed that podcasting in education was the new rage. Classes were developing podcasts to communicate with students, present content, and even showcase student work. However, we often overlook the use of existing podcasts for student engagement and professional development. The Civil War is all over iTunes, and utilizing the various casts for content and enrichment is simple. Here are a few Civil War casts (and general topics)I recommend:
- Civil War Talk Radio – The best place to start – Gerry Prokopowicz of East Carolina University hosts an interview session with leading Civil War historians every week – (pretty great, considering he is a leading CW historian himself). I have learned so much from his hour long interviews, as historians provide details on specific aspects of the war that I may have overlooked in my reading … and I can relate this content to my students (and send them to the podcasts for more). I feel smarter just listening to these chats.
- The Pritzker Military Library has podcasts of speakers, interviews with historians, and an awesome collection of discussions with veterans. I have been led to many invaluable books and authors simply by listening to these presentations, many on the Civil War era.
- Gilder Lehrman has an insane (in a good way) collection of audio and video casts about pretty much everything you can think of when it comes to American history. Leading historians, fresh faces and viewpoints, and a wide variety of topics make these a standard on my playlist.
Battle Cry – Bottom line – kids love games, and not just the ones that have screens and beeps. Battle Cry is an engaging Civil War strategy game that allows students to make battlefield decision as the general of the Union or Confederate armies in actual Civil War situations. The game is easy to learn, and a single battle can be completed in a class period. Students can be solo generals or compete as a team against opponents. I have offered Civil War points for students to play after school, and the opportunity is always filled. For additional enrichment, students can blog about the battle, write a creative journal entry as a commander or soldier, or describe the battle as a news reporter. The game can also be played online at GameTableOnine … but that’s not as fun!
Get Local– The Civil War is a huge part of Wisconsin’s history, and there are incredible resources and locations that can lead to greater student engagement and appreciation for the Civil War era. Student curiosity increases when they see the war linked to their region, state, or community. Depending on your location, you can offer students credit (or extra credit) for doing some research or visiting monuments, memorials, or other Civil War era locations. Local monuments and memorials also make great writing prompts and service learning projects! The Historical Marker Database is a great place to find historic locations in your area get the kids to work!
There are two excellent museums in Wisconsin with direct Civil War ties – the Kenosha Civil War Museum and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. Each is a must see for anyone interested in learning more about the war, and they also have excellent resources for you class!
There are some great online and print resources about the war available, including …
- Civil War Wisconsin – The official site from the Wisconsin Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission
- Wisconsin in the Civil War – links and more from the Wisconsin Historical Society
- Wisconsin Goes to War: Our Civil War Experience from the Usniversity of Wisconsin Library
- Wisconsin in the Civil War: The Home Front and the Battle Front, 1861-1865
- Exploring Civil War Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Historical Society
- Freedom Train North: Stories of the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin
- Those Damned Black Hats!: The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign by Lance Herdegen
- Iron Brigade: A Military History from Alan T. Nolan