Category Archives: Teaching

An Encouraging Site

Shaw 54thI recently accompanied a group of students to Washington, D.C. to take part in a mock Congress.  With a few hours to kill I decided to take a stroll through the National Gallery of Art.  Included in the collection is a reproduction of the Shaw Memorial, which is located on Beacon Street here in Boston.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of students sitting with a museum teacher, who did a wonderful job of interpreting the monument and engaging the group.  The kids talked about the history of Shaw and the 54th as well as the rich symbolism contained in Saint-Gaudens’s relief.  At one point she asked the kids to share sounds that might be heard in such a scene.  It made my day.

 

Crisis at Fort Sumter: The Simulation

fort-sumter-fireEarlier this week my class took part in a simulation that required them to advise the President on what to do with the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter.  Below is the assignment and the list of documents that they used to construct their essays.  The discussion went extremely well.  One thing that I will do next time is have students come to class with outlines of an argument and allow them to use the class discussion to help with a final draft.  A number of students were swayed from their original positions.  The majority counseled that the fort should be resupplied and they argued mainly based on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.  They agreed that some kind of conflict was inevitable, but they also believed that a strong stance in the name of the Union was warranted.

Background: On March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States from the new Republican Party.  Between his election on November 6, 1860 and February 9, 1861, seven states in the Deep South seceded and formed a new nation – The Confederate States of America.  President Lincoln has scheduled a meeting of advisers for March 29, 1861 to discuss the looming crisis in Charleston Harbor at Fort Sumter, where Major Robert Anderson is surrounded by Confederate forces and desperately short of provisions.  He reports that by mid-April he will be forced to surrender unless relieved.

Assignment: As a member of the cabinet you are requested to advise the president on a course of action.  The meeting will take place on Tuesday February 12 and you will come prepared with a 2-3 page essay outlining your recommendation.  Your essay should be addressed to the president and can be written in the first-person voice.  References to individual documents can be made indicating the doc # in parentheses at the end of the sentence. (Doc. #)

Questions that you will likely be asked by the president:

  • Evacuate or reinforce Fort Sumter?
  • Send only supplies or send additional troops as well?
  • What are the likely consequences of reinforcement or abandonment?
  • Is there any hope of South Carolina and the rest of the Deep South returning peacefully to the Union?
  • What is the likelihood of losing the Upper South (especially Virginia) if the decision at Sumter leads to fighting?  What is the feeling in that part of the country?
  • In the likelihood of war, how will the military situation change if we lose the Upper South? (territory, industry, population, etc.)
  • What is the state of morale in the North.  How is a decision at Sumter likely to effect support for the president and the Republican Party?
  • How important is it to show strength at Sumter and reinforce the president’s commitment that the Union will be preserved?

Documents:

  1. Selection from James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom – This will provide you with an overview of events leading up to and following Sumter.  Pay careful attention to quotes that McPherson uses.  They provide a window into what people were thinking at the time about a possible crisis.
  2. “The Choice is Charybdis”/NYTs Disunion by Jamie Malanowski — What important information does Stephen Hurlbut add to Lincoln’s decision?
  3. Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address — What does Lincoln’s speech reveal about his view of the Union and a possible course of action?  Does he anticipate violence?
  4. Jefferson Davis’s Inaugural AddressWhat does Davis’s speech suggest in terms of policy toward Sumter and does it include anything that Lincoln should consider?
  5. Positions of official cabinet members
  6. Secretary of State Seward counsels restraint for the sake of the Republican party and the nation.
  7. Lincoln to William Seward, April 1, 1861
  8. Lincoln to Winfield Scott (Commanding general of United States forces in 1861), March 9, 1861 and Scott’s response to Lincoln, March 11, 1861
  9. Virginia State Representative Chapman Stuart’s address to the secession convention on April 5, 1861 — According to Chapman at this time is there sufficient reason to secede from the Union over slavery?  Why or why not?  Why might this be important information for Lincoln to know and how do you think it should fit into his decision making re: Sumter?  In other words could the opinions of those in the state legislature like Chapman change if Lincoln were to threaten a fellow southern state?  [Note: Virginia’s secession convention has been in session for over two months.  During that time they took one vote for secession on April 4 and those against won (88-45).
  10. Diary entries by New York City resident, George Templeton Strong — Does Strong’s pessimistic attitude (an attitude likely shared by others) pose any problems for Lincoln?)
  11. Congressman John A. Gilmer of North Carolina (March 1861) — reports on the situation in his state between those pushing to stay in the union and those advocating secession.
  12. A Marylander Rejects Disunion – Maryland congressman Henry Winter Davis on secession and the firing on The Star of the West in Charleston Harbor
  13. Entries by Charleston newspaper editor William Gilmore Simms
  14. Diary entry (January 30 and February 28, 1861) by Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard
  15. Maps/Charts — See the class blog for a series of maps on Fort Sumter and Secession
 

No Apologies Necessary

My ClassroomA recent Op-ed piece in the Washington Post written by retired high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein is making the rounds on various social media channels.  I am not surprised that it has resonated with college professors that I interact with online because it is addressed specifically to this group.  Bernstein uses the opportunity to vent her frustration regarding the state of high school education and what he sees as the effects of No Child Left Behind.  I have never operated under its strictures, but I certainly identify with Bernstein’s experience in the AP classroom and the often defensive posture that teachers assume when questioned by non-educators.  In short, I get it and I am sorry to see that it has cost this country another passionate educator.

My frustration with this editorial comes not so much with its content, but in who it is addressed.  At the end Bernstein essentially apologizes to college instructors for the quality of students that now populate their classrooms – even in elite schools.

Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.

Whether Bernstein intends it or not such a view reinforces a complaint that I am hearing more and more from friends of mine who teach at the college level.  I should point out that I know for a fact that many of my friends are passionate teachers who take their responsibilities in the classroom very seriously.  Still, the tweets and Facebook updates that pick out deficiencies among students or the questions that are asked of me directly about the state of secondary education grate on me.

What I want to ask in these moments is what are you doing in the classroom to address this?  What kinds of pedagogical practices are you utilizing in the classroom to address specific problems?  No research skills? No analytical writing skills?  How exactly are you addressing this.  The shift from high school to college is no longer a matter of handing students off, but a close continuation and even introduction to certain methodologies and content.

We are all teachers, we are all in the same boat.  No apologies necessary.

 

The View From Virginia in 1861

fort-sumter-fireI am putting the finishing touches on my Crisis at Fort Sumter simulation, which my students will work on throughout this week and present next Tuesday.  Thanks to those of you who offered suggestions on primary and secondary sources.  One of the documents that I am including comes from William Freehling and Craig Simpson’s edited collection of speeches from the Virginia State Convention that met in early 1861 to discuss the secession crisis.  I want my class to reflect on the importance of maintaining Virginia in the Union along with the rest of the Upper South.  On April 4 the Virginia convention voted 88 – 45 to remain in the Union.

Included in their documents is an excerpt from a speech given by Representative Chapman Stuart of  Augusta County Tyler and Doddridge counties on April 5.  What I like about this document is that it first reminds us that slavery was central to the concerns of this group.  Most convention members would certainly have disagreed with folks today who deny the centrality of slavery in the deliberations of Virginians in the wake of Lincoln’s election and inauguration and in contrast with those states that viewed the Republican Party as an immediate threat.  What they miss is the fact that many conditional and unconditional Unionists believed that the institution of slavery was safer in the Union.

Chapman owned no slaves and yet he puts forth a vigorous defense of the institution and a commitment to working with colleagues from the Tidewater who owned the majority of Virginia’s slaves.  I hope my students are able to use this document to reinforce a line of argument that cautions Lincoln not to threaten the loyalty of those who up to this point have prevented Virginia from seceding.  Stuart references the strong desire of his constituents, who hope to maintain ties with the North.  Of course, that could easily be challenged depending on how the situation develops in Charleston and the types of choices white Southerners are forced to confront as a result.

 

Crowdsourcing Lincoln and Fort Sumter Classroom Simulation

fort-sumter-fireTime for a little crowdsourcing in preparation for a simulation on Lincoln and Fort Sumter that my students will perform a week from this coming Tuesday.  The overall idea is to have my students play the role of cabinet advisers and I, of course, will play Lincoln.  Since I only have nine students we should be able to have a pretty lively discussion/debate.  Yes, I am going to show up dressed like Lincoln and don’t worry as I will come prepared with plenty of responses that begin with, “That reminds me of a story…” Their responsibility is to advise me on what to do about the situation at Fort Sumter in the period following Lincoln’s inauguration. Should it be resupplied or abandoned?

I want to use the opportunity to have students consider the question from multiple perspectives and in light of recent events leading to Lincoln’s inauguration.  Based on the available evidence they will also have to argue as to the likely consequences of Lincoln’s decision for the nation.  Among other things, I want them to think about the differences between the Lower and Upper South, material differences between North and South, political differences in the North, Union, Southern Unionism, and disagreements in Lincoln’s cabinet.  Their packet will include both primary and secondary sources.  I’ve already put together a few things that I’ve used for various purposes in the past.

Secondary Sources (short excerpts)

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals
  • James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom
  • David Potter’s The Impending Crisis
  • Maury Klein’s Days of Defiance

Primary Sources (short excerpts)

  • Lincoln and Davis Inaugurals
  • Lincoln on Southern Unionism
  • Crittenden Compromise
  • Speeches from Virginia’s Conditional Unionists
  • Positions of Lincoln’s Cabinet members
  • Horace Greeley Editorial
  • Advice from Winfield Scott
  • Correspondence with Major Robert Anderson
  • Newspaper Editorials
  • Letters and Diaries (George Templeton Strong)
  • Maps

This is just a start, but I would really appreciate any suggestions you might have.  Please be as specific as possible and include sources.  I am especially interested in online sources because they are easily accessible.