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  • Teaching History by Living History
  • Joe Foster

The Civil War in Public Education

Overshadowed by Common Core, Parternship for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), and other reforms, the Civil War is not exactly a hot topic among policymakers. According to the Social Studies Indicators created by the state’s Department of Education (ODE), in Ohio the Civil War is only taught in seventh or eighth grade. And its emphasis is restricted to a few key individuals, causes, Gettysburg, the abolition of slavery, and the Lincoln assassination. Interested in Sherman’s March to the Sea? The contributions of immigrants? Not here.

High school is worse. The only mention of the Civil War in the ODE Standards appears in grade 12 as one of a list of potential cause-and-effect topics. However, the ODE Standards do provide a loophole: twelfth grade students are expected to be able to

  1. 1. Analyze primary source material to see if a historical interpretation is supported and

  2. 2. Analyze cause-and-effect relationships and multiple causation, including the influence of ideas, the role of chance and individual and collective action.

Electives are hard to come by at a small school such as Waynesfield-Goshen. Our graduating class size averages forty students, and we have fewer than six [End Page 63] hundred students in the entire district. With limited finances and numbers of students and staff, it is difficult to offer many electives. In 2006, using a combination of the Civil War Curriculum ( and personal preferences, I developed an elective class on the Civil War to provide an increased focus on historical cause-and-effect and analysis of primary resources—just as the ODE Indicators suggested.

In the Classroom

History books are filled with names of individuals whose heroic and sometimes terrible deeds are recounted in static and lifeless prose. That’s sad. Every person is unique, with a story, personality, family, loves, and dreams. A history teacher has to get students to understand those stories and to consider their own individual ones.

I focus on individuals and follow their lives through the Civil War. The course syllabus stresses military science, including organization, strategy, and conflict. Along the way, we encounter people whose lives were either affected by the war or whose actions affected the course of the war. I want students to visualize how the war would have affected their own lives. If the students can’t internalize the history, then they will never fully grasp its importance. Current junior Stephen Hayes explains, “I believe the end of the war is the most interesting because I can’t comprehend why the South would not just give up when they saw their fight was futile. They continued to get their men slaughtered. When is enough enough?

Each student is expected to choose six topics to research and present to the class over the course of one semester. Each project includes primary sources, maps, and photographs presented in a multimedia format. I urge students to consider three essential questions in their research.

  1. 1. How did events unfold to lead our story to this person or event?

  2. 2. What decisions were made or actions taken by this person to shape the story of the Civil War?

  3. 3. How did the story change due to this person/event?

Encouraging students to become the educators is valuable in any educational setting. Each semester, my students prepare and deliver one lesson to an elementary school class, forcing them to become more engaged and gain [End Page 64] additional perspective. While some students complain at first, nearly all of them find the experience rewarding.

Civil War Photography

In an age in which technology has placed almost limitless information at the mere swipe of a finger, the ability to discern accuracy and bias has never been more lacking. My students joke, “Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t make it true.” Yet in their next breaths, they will quote Internet farces as fact. To compound matters, efforts to correct often only anger and strengthen their resolve!

I strive to guide students to proven sources while encouraging them to search for new ones...


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pp. 63-69
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