Teacher Reaction to the Civil War Unit Pilot

Originally posted on July 10, 2012 by Shennan Hutton

“This was a truly amazing unit. I felt that the kids really learned how to think like historians. Even the lowest readers could make connections.” 

“My students were never bored.”

“The single most valuable thing about this unit is that everything was available.”

These statements come from teachers who piloted the History Blueprint Civil War unit in their 8th-grade classrooms this spring. 

The teachers who piloted the Civil War unit are an amazing bunch of professionals! I want to thank them very much for their hard work and dedication to their students, as well as their valuable assistance to the History Blueprint project!

This spring more than 20 8th-grade teachers piloted the History Blueprint Civil War unit in their classrooms. For the pilot, they agreed to use some or all of the Civil War unit lessons and give us feedback and examples of student work. With this information, we plan to revise the Civil War unit once again and then post a final version of it on our website at historyblueprint.org

Originally, more teachers signed up to pilot the unit, but many were unable to use the lessons because of time constraints or other complications. Virtually every teacher who piloted the unit modified the lessons in some way. Although these modifications were highly individual, most did not complete the final lesson (the talk show and essay), because they ran out of time.

The most common critique teachers made of the unit was that it was too long. Most teachers have to conform to a school schedule which dictates what content standards they are supposed to cover by certain dates. The standard allotment is two days per substandard (that is, the subpoints under each standard.) By that allotment teachers would have 14 school days to teach the Civil War standard – or just under 3 weeks. Every teacher thought that this unit was much too long to fit into that schedule. 

There were also features that all the pilot teachers liked about the unit. They appreciated that the unit contained all the materials they needed in one package. One teacher commented that the unit “was like a giant DBQ. I liked that!” In general, the pilot teachers liked the primary sources and the interactive and analytic activities.

Beyond these general areas of agreement, however, the responses of teachers were quite individual. For example, two teachers praised the Battles lesson as one of the best of the unit, while another teacher found it “overly detailed.” One teacher thought that the historical figures activity was too short and had her students supplement the provided materials with research, while another teacher thought the historical figures handouts were too long and too difficult for her students. 

It’s not really surprising that the pilot teachers had such different reactions to the unit, because teachers are quite creative and have strong opinions and lots of experience with the content, teaching methods, and the needs of their students. The History Blueprint materials will have to be flexible enough for each teacher to modify for his or her own needs.

There were two other patterns in teachers’ responses which were interesting. Just as we found in the focus group meetings last year, teachers are deeply divided over the use of sentence deconstruction and other literacy activities, or as they put it, “all those charts!” Some teachers commented that their students found the charts confusing and didn’t know what to do with them. “These are English activities,” said one. “Stick to the history questions. Just start with question #1 and skip all those charts.” Another teacher commented that the charts were especially difficult for her English learners. Other teachers said that the sentence deconstruction charts were not only extremely helpful to their English Learners, but also the English Learners truly enjoyed doing the work because they understood it. They perceived the work as “easy,” but in the process of doing it, they understood the reading, which made the analysis questions “easy” also. Some teachers are comfortable with teaching sentence deconstruction and see its benefits, while other teachers clearly do not find the strategy useful. 

Another pattern was that the History Blueprint unit went beyond the comfort zone of some teachers. Before I talked with them, I had not realized how much control over content dissemination that a teacher has to give up in order to teach this unit. Though we all know that students learn the least from lectures (even with powerpoints) in comparison to other teaching methods, there is something reassuring about knowing that you have told students the information and had them write it down in their notes. Allowing them to gather information from primary sources and talk to each other about the content means giving up some of that control. I’ve often felt this myself. My solution is to have them record the main points in their notes after the activity is complete. I dictate the main points to them, but only after they have thought for themselves. Whether or not that strategy would work for other teachers, there remains the unrelenting pressure on teachers to cover the material that is on the state tests. The questions on those tests (at this moment) are all content-based. 

The biggest lesson that I have learned from this Civil War unit pilot concerns the issue of content, the Common Core, and time. Teaching using the Common Core standards – that is, supporting literacy, analyzing texts closely, and writing – takes a lot of time. If teachers are to be expected to teach the Common Core standards in history-social science classes, the History-Social Science Content standards must be shortened for each grade level. Perhaps eliminating half or two-thirds of the detail in the sub-standards would be a better option than cutting the number of standards themselves. But something has to give. Otherwise, pressure to cover content (because of the tests) will counteract pressure to teach Common Core standards (because of the tests.) Depth requires time. Allowing students to read texts closely, analyze language, and write interpretations takes time. The issue is whether we want to allow them that time, or continue to feed them content.

The student work samples come from the classroom of Jasmin Brown, Cesar Chavez Middle School, Lynwood, CA.