At the Blueprint Civil War Unit Institute

Originally posted on June 30, 2011 by Shennan Hutton

I’ve had an amazing time the last three days. I’m at the Blueprint Civil War Unit Institute, working with six amazing teachers: Jah-Yee Woo (from Oakland), Angela La Torre (from Mount Diablo), Mark Ennen (from Long Beach), Jasmin Brown (from Lynwood), and Amy Hale and Kristi Peckham (from Orange County.) Our mission is to write a complete curriculum unit to teach 8th-graders about the Civil War. The unit will include lesson plans aligned with the content standards and the Common Core standards for literacy in History/Social Studies, support for English Learners and students with low literacy skills, historical thinking skills, primary sources, digital media, and formative and summative assessments, all in a package that takes no more than 18 school periods to teach. It’s a daunting mission.

On Monday we launched into the work. Professor Alice Fahs of the University of California, Irvine, inspired us with a suggestion that we assign each student an individual person who lived during the Civil War. By reconstructing the life-stories of a variety of people, reading their words, and imagining their reactions to the events of the war, 8th-graders will be intrigued and engaged, and also challenged to understand past events from someone else’s point of view. We are searching through diaries, speeches and letters to find personal comments on secession, slavery, the outbreak of war, and news from the battlefield. Kristi and Angela developed a “character card” for students to collect information about their assigned person and to analyze primary sources composed by that person.

Mark and Amy have written an activity designed to get 8th-graders through five of Lincoln’s speeches to show the progression of his thinking during the course of the war. They began by creating Wordle puzzles for two- or three-sentence excerpts of each speech. Using the Wordle, they first ask students to predict what the speech is about. Then they have students relate the content of the speech excerpt to the goals of the Declaration of Independence. At the end, they ask students to return to the Wordles to trace how Lincoln’s thinking changed over the course of the war.

To get students to appreciate the effects of the death and destruction of the Civil War, Jasmin and Jah-Yee are designing a matching worksheet with two columns and seven pairs of artifacts, one modern and one from 1860s. For example, in column one, there is a picture of a first-aid kit, and in column two, the picture of bandaging on the battlefield. Another pair is a photo of modern communications contrasted with the photo of a drummer boy. After students have matched the pairs, our teachers will ask them to explain the connections. 

I really am not giving adequate justice to the innovative and brilliant ideas that have been sprouting around me for the last three days. All I can say is that I am humbled, inspired, and excited about the prospects for superior history education.