- Classroom Reflections from the Ohio Valley
I approach teaching the American Civil War to my middle school students by immersing them in the experiences of the conflict as it relates to the middle of the nineteenth century. I have to set the stage, actually trying to put them into the environment of the period. I can do this with all the resources that are out there for educators. The Internet and resources provided by great organizations have made lesson planning easier. I utilize the textbook, not a primary resource, only for a concise overview of the conflict. It is the starting point, the hook, to set the interest in a war that tore the country apart. The use of many outside resources reels them in for the duration of the war. After each class, I leave them wanting more. I leave them asking “What will we learn tomorrow?” To meet the students’ expectations of learning more, I spend a lot of time researching and reading resources on not only the Civil War but history in general. The substance of my Civil War unit is the many outside resources I bring into the classroom; I use a wide range of primary and secondary sources.
The most difficult part of planning how to teach the Civil War is deciding where to start the timeline and making sure I can get all the material taught in the available time. Where do I start? The beginning, for me, is the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Congress’s attempts to deal with the issue of slavery, maintaining the balance of power within the Senate. I then teach about the abolitionist movement and the protests over slavery and the Underground Railroad, the Compromise of 1850, with the Fugitive Slave Law—as the passions begin to heat up on both sides, eventually leading to the Civil War. Slave revolts, Bleeding Kansas, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry follow as the embers of conflict begin to boil over. The concluding event of part 1 of my war unit is the Confederates’ firing on Fort Sumter.
Part 2 is the war, the advantages and disadvantages of both sides, the North’s strategy for victory, the southern plan to fight a war for independence, and the [End Page 69] people involved in the war. I focus not only on the main leaders but also on the soldiers. We discuss the battles, the successes and failures of sides, the lack or loss of strong military leaders, legislation, and important speeches. The role of African Americans in the war has greatly increased in my classroom, now that I have seen presentations by Hari Jones, assistant director and curator of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum. The information he has given to educators is awesome. Also, I recently added the home front to my plans. Until a teacher institute I attended in 2014, I did not put much emphasis on the home front. Since then, I have added more on the home front. The Ohio Historical Society has a replica of a town from the mid-1850s on its property. As institute attendees, we were given the opportunity to spend many hours in the village, learning from the people of the town. Each character in the town worked from a prepared script for the events of the period. There were a storeowner, a pharmacist, a doctor, and many others who shared their ideas and feelings on the climate of the United States in the 1850s and ‘60s. This year when I teach the Civil War, I will be able to use what I learned and show my students the photos of the town and the people.
The final emphasis of study is on the ending of the war, Appomattox, the assassination of Lincoln, and Reconstruction—what happens now the physical fighting has ended. We study the development of military districts and the constitutional amendments giving freed African Americans rights as citizens of the country. We also deal with the evils of discrimination and bigotry that developed after the war. Before I begin teaching about the Civil War, I focus on the background information on the North and the...