We have started our unit on the American Civil War. For many students, this is an entirely unfamiliar territory. Our first question was about definition — what is a civil war? How is it different than a revolution or rebellion? We connected with the collapse of the Roman Empire, when civil war and struggles for power among the generals pulled troops away from the provinces and left the gates open for “barbarian” incursion. We asked our students to write down whatever they thought they knew about the Civil War, along with any questions they had at this stage and any topics they thought they would like to pursue as independent research. There is a lot of fuzzy information and confusion within the group, and we hope to resolve most (if not all) of it before we are finished. One student wondered why the army employed only doctors who knew how to amputate limbs instead of saving them. Another asked if the battle of Gettysburg took place in order to free enslaved people in Pennsylvania.
We’re doing some background work first. What, including but not only slavery, divided people and regions? How did lawmakers try to accommodate the wishes of free and slave-holding states as the country expanded toward the west? Where in time did our wagon train journey fit with all this? Was John Brown a hero, a terrorist, or something else? What were Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery, on the limits of Presidential powers, and on African-Americans in general?
We are using short videos from history.com and civilwar.org to bring some life to the facts we are gathering through rather dry reading assignments. There is also an interesting gallery of images and facts at Scholastic.com that students were asked to explore as part of their homework at the start of the week.
Some of what we are reading involves finding the main ideas of short informational paragraphs. This continues to be an instructional focus for most of our students. What is the central topic? What are the supporting details? What is the paragraph mostly about?
We’ll be watching a video based on a Mark Twain short story, “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” It does a good (if somewhat sardonic) job of presenting the contrast between the perceived glamor of war and its harsh reality. And, as we get closer to our trip to Gettysburg on May 11, we will have seen and discussed the rich and moving film of the same name.
We hope that students will end this study in June with the overall understanding that war is not a good solution to conflict, that racism existed (and exists) without regard for regional boundaries, that this particular war has affected American society to the present day, and that there is still much to learn, understand, and resolve about such a pivotal and divisive event.