Goin’ to Gettysburg

The Civil War 150thAbout a month and a half ago I was extremely honored to be have been selected as a participant in a national conference arranged by Gettysburg College and Gettysburg National Military Park entitled “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th.” The conference will run from March 14-16 and is going to be possibly one of the greatest conglomerations of Civil War historians and educators that we’ll see during the Civil War sesquicentennial, if not all time. I’m not joking. My jaw drops every time I look at this program and see the names that are going to be there. I will be participating in a working group entitled “Teaching the Civil War: Challenges, Opportunities, and New Strategies for the Classroom.” As the term “working group” suggests, our group has been tasked with discussing this extremely important topic of classroom education and offering suggestions for improving the ways in which we connect with our students, even as the ongoing challenges of standardization limit our creative abilities and force us to work with a model that many of us do not agree with.

Earlier this month the participants, including myself, were assigned to write a brief 2-3 page “position paper” in which we were to reflect on how our educational experiences have shaped our perceptions about Civil War education. To be sure, my experiences in the classroom have been limited, probably more so than any other participant in the working group. I taught for a year and a half at the Orchard Farm School District in St. Charles, Missouri, before moving on to graduate studies at IUPUI, and almost all that time was dedicated towards teaching twentieth century World and American history (when I was teaching History, mind you. As a teaching assistant for the 2011-2012 year I helped students in all subjects). However, this experience was valuable, and I think some of the problems I encountered are undoubtedly the same ones Civil War educators have had to deal with. Furthermore, my work with the National Park Service included educational interactions with thousands of people of all ages across the world that covered topics such as slavery, the U.S. Constitution, and the Civil War, so I think that counts for something as well.

I just received the position papers of the other participants in my working group and am in the process of reading over them and preparing comments. We are all going to be discussing our papers online for the next month and a half until the conference commences in March. In the meantime, I would like to share my position paper with my readers and see what they have to say about it. Here are four questions that I had to address when writing my paper:

1. What are some of the greatest challenges confronting educators charged with teaching the American Civil War? What strategies have proven effective in responding to these challenges?

2. How can we effectively integrate elements of interactivity, collaboration, and place-based learning into our efforts to help our students think historically?

3. Should educators work to cultivate a preservation ethic in their studies?

4. How can new media technologies and resources enhance our efforts to give our students access to primary sources, new interpretations, and interactive approaches to the material we cover?

Here was my response. Readers will note that some of the ideas in it reflect earlier posts on this blog. Others I have yet to talk about. I hope to expand on all of them in the near future:

“As the commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial continues across the United States, history educators find themselves at a crossroads. On one end, lawmakers and education specialists have successfully advocated for an increased emphasis on standardized testing and common core standards as tools for measuring proficiency in history and social studies. For example, a 2006 law passed in Florida stated that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, [and] shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable.” Under this educational model, the results will lead to positive results for both teachers and students, ostensibly. History teachers will be able to collaborate with each other to create uniform measurements of assessment; students will use their textbooks to understand and demonstrate their knowledge of the “facts” of history. The Civil War started with the firing of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861; the Battle of Gettysburg was fought on July 1-3, 1863; the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

A glance at the other end, however, shows that the results of such changes in the education curriculum are mixed at best. An unintended consequence of the increased emphasis on standardized testing–along with the economic troubles of recent years–has been a decrease in opportunities for schools to take their students on field trips to learn about and experience history in person. Furthermore, standardization has led to a wider range of topics being introduced in the history classroom so that students can score higher on all aspects of their tests, which means that complex topics such as the Civil War receive limited attention in the classroom. In sum, history teachers are “teaching to the textbook” in order to succeed in a system that values an “outcome-based education.”

Stanford University Professor Sam Wineburg has pointed out the shortcomings of this approach. He argues that textbooks used from Kindergarten to 12th grade convey information in a way that is bland and devoid of primary sources (if primary sources exist, they are “set off in ‘sidebars,’ so as not to interfere with the main text”). The “corporate authors” of such textbooks speak in the passive voice and reinforce the false notion that “the way things are told is simply the way things were.” In response, many students–even ones who excel in school–no longer read their textbooks. For them, the endless array of “facts” promulgated in textbooks are meaningless, not worth reading until the night before the big test. Considering the rising costs of such textbooks for schools across the country, there must certainly be an educational method that can get students reading about and appreciating the past.

A solution that provides exciting opportunities for the future of Civil War education is the integration of digital history in classroom. Knowing that the present generation of students process and understand information differently than older generations, we must utilize methods that best suit their learning needs. By using digital technology in the classroom, history teachers can bring the power of primary sources into the classroom. By incorporating digital resources offered by museums and archival institutions around the country into the classroom, students are empowered to learn about history through the millions of online documents available at their fingertips. Furthermore, teachers will be able to use their history textbooks as a resource that compliments the primary sources offered by museums and archival institutions, rather than being the only source in which students learn about history.

Examples of excellent digital resources are prevalent. The Library of Congress’s “American Memory” page is a “digital record of American history and creativity” that allows students the ability to study photos, letters, maps, and many other sources, while their “Chronicling America” website gives students access to more than five million pages of historic newspapers. The IUPUI University Library of Digital Scholarship has digitized all of Indiana Governor Oliver Morton’s telegrams during the Civil War. Edward L. Ayers’s “Valley of the Shadow” website shows how two communities, one northern and one southern, were affected by the Civil War. These primary sources can be utilized by students of all ages and are waiting to be uncovered and studied in classrooms all over the United States.

History educators cannot cultivate a preservation ethic in their students if they don’t understand why the artifacts of history they study are worth preserving. The current model of teaching, although slowly moving towards the digital model, has continued to struggle in answering the question that so often accompanies the study of history: so what? Digital history is unique because it challenges students to understand history as a method of critical thinking and asking questions of the past, not just a passive recitation of content. Students can use digital technology to create their own active interpretations of the past through collaborative projects such as creating a Word Press website for a walking tour of a Civil War battle field, a blog that collects and discusses the importance of Civil War letters in maintaining communication during a time of war, or the use of primary source newspapers to help strengthen a student’s argument in their research paper.

Students want to know that what they are learning in school is relevant to their lives and their future. Civil War history has the power to demonstrate to these students how the past affects the present and how the problems of contemporary society dictate the questions we ask of the past. Digital history brings this past to life and provides new ways for understanding it. Let us push forward in creating exciting learning opportunities for our students in the history classroom.”

What do you think? Any sort of constructive criticism is welcomed.


4 thoughts on “Goin’ to Gettysburg

  1. Interesting read, Nick! In my experiences in the classroom (as limited as they are) I would have to agree with your overall assessment of the greater situation, so to speak. Although, beyond the scourge of standardized testing, which luckily testing such as that of the MAP variety isn’t a part of the overall Social Studies curriculum(many thought on that as well), I feel a giant restriction to addressing critical issues is the restriction of time. For example I think I had maybe a week, maybe, to teach the Civil War and 4 days to teach WWII ( one day each for the Pacific and European theaters, respectively) and what do you do to effectively bring a student to that time period and environment in a memorable and thought provoking manner? I know you know this as well as I do. I feel the resources on line are partly the answer. Being able to almost literally bring a student to the scene many times is amazing. Utilizing digital history as well other resources and almost ditching the text books entirely is my view and exactly what I did in the classroom. I felt that designing a lesson or unit or whatever around an essential question (ex: How did the issue of sectionalism continue after the war and contribute to the economic struggles and social rupture in the South?) helps greatly. That way students can ponder an important issue and then I would let them explore their thoughts in a variety of ways such as writing, arguing, researching, ect. This manner of teaching still allows exploration and definitely is defiantly testable as I would allow all students to do and say anything they wanted as long as they could back it up with measurable facts. Gosh, I could talk forever and I don’t even know if what I’ve said so far is relevant to what you’re looking for. HAHA

  2. Daniel, thanks so much for your comment. What you said was definitely relevant and I appreciate your input. The time constraints are tough to work with and require some slick maneuvering on the teacher’s part. Four days to cover WWII is extreme; thankfully when I covered the topic I was given a week and a half to two weeks, if I remember correctly. There are no easy answers for addressing the time concerns, but one of the other participants on my working group has made some really good points arguing for the integration of “case studies” into the curriculum. These case studies are large collections of letters, diaries, newspapers, etc. that an individual student or collaborative group could work on for a project. Perhaps doing such a project in four days would be tough, but it’s not impossible. For example, as a teacher in Missouri, you could have one individual/group study a collection of records from a Missouri regiment that fought for the Union while another group does the same with a MO Confederate regiment, giving the students a chance to compare and contrast the experiences of each one. Another group could study the Dred Scott case, while yet another could study a collection of letters from ousted Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson. Some preliminary communication with a local museum or archival institution would could help to facilitate some sort of method for getting these documents to the students, either digitally or “live.” Just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Thanks again for the comment!

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