I received a letter from a fellow teacher today and thought that given that a fairly large number of k-12 teachers read this blog I would respond in a way that might benefit all those interested:
I am teaching a class next year called “The Civil War and Reconstruction.” It is a semester class. We are the only school in my district, and maybe the state, to offer the class. I am searching for an appropriate text with supporting materials to use. The students will be college bound 11th and 12th graders. Any ideas would be appreciated. I will use Furgurson’s book as supplemental. (Freedom Rising) Any books I buy have to come out of my pocket since there is no budget. I am also looking for a good primary source packet. I would appreciate any ideas to help me get this class going. I have taught U.S. History survey courses for almost twenty years.
First, let me say that it is always nice to see teachers introducing the Civil War on the high school level. The material literally teaches itself and you are likely to inculcate a love for history through the material. There is an abundance of materials and much of it is worthless so it is important to be able to judge for quality. As far as a textbook is concerned I tend to use titles that serve as supplements for other documents. I assign pages for students to read as background and rarely as their primary reading. You want to find something that is short, concise, and written by a competent scholar who understands historiography. The best book I can recommend is Brooks Simpson’s America’s Civil War (Harlan Davidson, 1996). It is 217 pages long, relatively inexpensive, and does an excellent job of balancing the relevant military, political, social, and economic factors. I’ve also used This Terrible War: The Civil War and It’s Aftermath by Michael Fellman, Lesley Gordon, and Daniel Sutherland but it is too expensive and a bit more difficult to use in the type of class that I teach.
There are a number of decent primary source texts that should be considered. I’ve used with some success the volume from the Major Problems Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin. It includes some very good primary sources as well as excerpts from various secondary sources. Of course you can find pretty much anything online if you know where to go. Check out some of the links on the left hand side of the blog as a place to start.
I’ve taught my Civil War course as both a readings class and as a research seminar. In the case of the former my textbook supplements articles and chapters from various secondary sources. One of the best sources is North and South Magazine which I’ve used with great success. The articles are authored by some of the top scholars who understand the complexity of the subject and are able to convey these issues to a wide audience. Back in 2005 I published an article on how I use this source in the OAH’s Magazine of History. I want my students to understand that the Civil War is incredibly complex, and the best way that I’ve found to introduce students to this is by using the work of professional historians. My classes are structured as seminars where students take turns leading the discussion and focusing the class on thesis evaluation. In addition to printed material I’ve used segments from Ken Burns to illustrate interpretive points through film as well as music. Last semester I used Ken Burns and a chapter in a recent edited collection to highlight the way we perceive Lee’s decision to resign his commission from the U.S. Army.
I have also organized the class as a research seminar where students spend the semester researching various topics from the Valley of the Shadow. Students are introduced to every aspect of the research process from the formulating of questions to learning how to properly document sources. Throughout the semester students are required to update the class on their progress and share both ideas and source material. Fortunately, I have a mobile laptop lab with 16 computers, but you could conceivably use a computer lab on campus if available.