- Civil War“To See the Elephant” in the Classroom
“Butts of muskets swung like clubs and shattered skulls, spraying brains and teeth. Men bit and clawed, they pulled at eyes, ripped into flesh, tore beards off, and all the while . . . they screamed. They screamed in fear . . . in horror at what they saw . . . what they did . . . and what they had become.”1 Have I got your attention? Would it attract the attention of those students in the back who are typically concerned about anything but the topic at hand? You know the ones I speak of—they fiddle with the lead in their mechanical pencils approximately every five minutes or believe that with an eraser and two pieces of a broken pencil they are destined to develop NASA’s newest design for a spacecraft. I’ll go ahead and check off step 1—the hook, as part of the several steps necessary in constructing an effective history lesson plan. But what could make this scene more compelling? Perhaps throwing in some of Alexander Gardner’s “Harvest of Death” photos to go along with the quote? Check off step 2—using primary sources.
These are the kinds of questions I ask when developing a historical lesson plan. They represent the first two steps in a process I believe integral to not just the understanding of but also the appreciation for the Civil War by America’s middle and high school students. Many successful educators, across many disciplines, use it: [End Page 57]
Step 1: Lure and hook students into the topic.
Step 2: Engage and immerse students in the examination of primary/secondary sources.
Step 3: Lay the groundwork—provide the facts after they have explored sources to corroborate their findings.
Step 4: Challenge students to connect with the past.
Effective use of such a process requires the understanding that a good historical educator is a facilitator for learning, one who auspiciously provides opportunities for his or her students to discover, analyze, examine, draw conclusions, experience, and, when necessary, manifest their ideas. When examining America’s Civil War, one quickly finds that opportunities abound for such student engagement and practice of historical thinking skills—including sourcing a document, contextualizing, corroborating, and using evidence to support a claim. Considering that these are the skills we want our future citizenry to master, coupled with the fact that they are studying one of the most influential moments in their nation’s history, it is necessary and proper that we should drive learners to do this. Exposing students to all of these different learning experiences throughout any given unit of study allows an educator to give students a wide variety of tasks and topics to explore. It keeps them wondering about what they may encounter each day in your classroom—and you’ve got them hooked.
Using Civil War Primary Sources
When the Civil War is the topic in your classroom, you have a special opportunity to immerse your students in history. There is no period in American history prior to the Civil War that so intimately touched so many parts of the nation and in doing so left behind an abundance of artifacts and evidence waiting for future generations to scrutinize. Use these sources often, every day, in fact, and in varying forms. Keeping students on their toes creates an air of excitement and elicits an array of questions.
While examining the opening sequences of the war at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, you may, for instance, ask students to examine southerner Mary Chesnut’s diary account of the battle. Keep in mind the importance to not only ask text-dependent questions such as “What was the outcome of the battle?” or “What was Chestnut’s take on South Carolina’s secession?” but [End Page 58] also require students to examine a document’s source by considering when and where the account was written, as well as whether and why there is any reason for the author’s bias regarding southern secession. Take it a step further by introducing students to excerpts from additional sources about the same topic, perhaps a northern newspaper or the diary of a Federal trooper inside of the fort...