Category Archives: Teaching

Bud Robertson and the Legacy of Union

I am having a great time here in Hagerstown at the Civil War Preservation Trust’s annual Teachers Conference.  Today was the first day.  I had a chance to chat with Bud Robertson at lunch and I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation.  It’s a talk that I’ve heard before, but it is always nice to listen to a man who has dedicated his life to scholarship and education.  The organization was sad to learn that this will be his final appearance.  It looks like Professor Robertson is going to retire this year.

Robertson spoke on the many legacies of the Civil War, but he was the most eloquent when it came to the importance of Union.  According to Robertson, this nation did not have a history until the Civil War.  Robertson quoted Lincoln and rammed home his belief that the Civil War was nothing less than a test of whether the work of the Founding Fathers could be preserved.  There is nothing surprising about such a view, but I bet some people are taken back by the fact that it is Robertson’s view.  After all, Robertson is best known for biographies of Confederate leaders and he is to a certain extent the academic darling of organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Unfortunately, there was no time for questions.  I really wanted to ask him how he views the uptick in rhetoric of secession that is coming from both the grass roots level as well as our elected leaders.  To what extent should we view this as a legacy of the Civil War?  I wanted to know, given his comments about the value of Union, whether we should encourage this rhetoric and whether he believes it ought to be viewed as patriotic.  Tonight we will get together for dinner and a talk by Peter Carmichael and tomorrow we are off to Gettysburg.

[photo of t-shirt at Gettysburg Visitor Center]

Sifting Through the Social Media Hype (Part 3)

[Part 1 and Part 2]

I want to close out this 3-part series with a few words about social media in the classroom.  This can be both a positive experience for some as well as a walk on the slippery rocks for others.  For me it has been a little of both.  When I first dove in I felt intimidated by the possibilities and pressured to try everything.  Even worse were feelings of guilt that I wasn’t doing enough with it.   It helps to remember the following:

  • Very few so-called social media experts are history teachers.
  • Social media is about the sharing of information and not about building community.
  • You can’t do everything.  Become comfortable with a few tools and explore their full range and potential.  Less is more.
  • Allow yourself to fail.

Social Media Experts?

Let’s face it, social media is the hip thing to be doing in our classrooms.  There is a great deal of pressure from within our school administrations and the broader teaching community.  Even a quick perusal of this universe reveals a multitude of social media folks with the latest tool that will somehow change the way we teach.  My advice is to always remember to stick with your fundamental goals.  What skills that are specific to the study of history are you trying to impart to your students?  Remember that the majority of these people are not history teachers and may know very little about the kinds of skills that are specific to our discipline.  You are the authority.  One way to sift through talk is to find fellow history teachers who are engaged in the same projects.  I’ve found Twitter to be an incredible resource.  It’s easy to find people with similar interests and it’s a great way of sharing information and ideas.

Information v. Community

Quite often you will hear talk about the importance of connecting your students to a larger community beyond the confines of your classroom and school.  While I am open to differences of opinion here, it is my view that the only community worth worrying about is the one that you interact with on a daily basis.  While social media can play an important role in the strengthening of ties among students in your classroom, its pedagogical benefit is in the sharing of information.  Sharing information does not, in and of itself, bring about community.  Many of these tools offer students a way to make connections beyond the confines of the classroom, which can be incredibly fruitful.  A Skype interview with an expert or radio interview offer new avenues for the gathering and sharing of information.

Less Is More

Take the time to explore the limits of specific web tools.  Make sure you and especially your students understand why they are using a specific social media program.  I can’t tell you how many horrifically awful YouTube videos I’ve seen.  Most of them are done by students who have been given very little guidance by their teachers.  Let’s face it, it is easy to say go make a video.  Video production, however, is a wonderful way of getting students to think about the presentation of history to the general public.  It is worth discussing how various filmic elements such as narrative, sound, and images come together to form a coherent interpretation.  Try analyzing a segment of Ken Burns’s The Civil War as a part of their preparation.  If you want your students to blog make sure they understand the format.  Talk about what goes into an effective blog post and if the site is open to comments than discuss what kind of personal profile it is appropriate to present to the general public.  Discuss the importance of collaboration when creating a wiki page or the inevitability and challenges that come with revisions to a Wikipedia page.  And if it is something as simple as collecting images on Flickr make sure that students understand how cataloging works through tags.

Once you become comfortable with a few specific programs you can think about using them collectively for a more detailed project.  One that I have been working on involves the development of a website that serves as a guide for tourists and those interested in the many Civil War related sites here in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Another idea is the creation of an elective that would allow students to formulate their own conspiracy theory of a historical event that would involve the dissemination of online information.  All of these uses involve different ways to present history to the general public and different tools force students to think critically about the organization and presentation of information.  Most importantly, it gives students a sense of ownership of what they are studying in a way that goes far beyond a standardized test.

The Importance of Failure

I recently gave a talk to our graduating class and one of the things I wished for them was a certain amount of failure.  Give yourself plenty of room to experiment and fail.  It didn’t take me long to realize that there really is no set plan on how to use these tools in our classrooms.  The sky is the limit.  I’ve had my share of success and probably more failures and even experiences that I am still having difficulty assessing.  For example, a few years ago I had students in a class I taught on Abraham Lincoln set up Facebook pages for the various people within his private and public circle. All of the profile information had to comply with the historical record.  Once the individual pages were set up students could interact with one another by posting messages and links.  The most hilarious aspect of the exercise were the decisions made as to who to “friend” and under what conditions someone might get un-friended.  You can also use Twitter to role play historical figures.  Monticello has their own Jefferson profile up on Twitter as does Mount Vernon.  I don’t know whether I will ever do this again, but I am glad I gave it a shot.

In closing I think it is important to point out once again that we are not teaching social media.  These tools can be explored in just about any type of academic setting.  The question that we need to keep in mind is how it helps us to teach this subject called history.

There is Nothing Traditional About the Traditional Research Project (Part 2)

[Part 1 and Part 3]

Few will deny that the expansion of web technologies has drastically transformed our classrooms.  It has allowed me to do things in the classroom that I could only dream about just a few short years ago.  That said, in the end my usage of this technology has enhanced and improved my ability to achieve certain goals rather than transform the goals themselves.  Let me explain.  I love primary sources.  My courses are built around a belief that the best way for students to understand the past is for them to engage the available primary sources.  I want them to learn to analyze sources, appreciate perspective and develop interpretations that form the foundation for classroom discussions and debates as well as various written assignments.  Yes, I give my students every opportunity to display their understanding in various ways, but at the end of the day I want my students to develop their critical writing skills.

They even write a substantial research paper over the course of two months.  I hope you are not too surprised to hear this, but unfortunately, more and more history teachers are ditching the traditional paper.  That is unfortunate because there is nothing traditional about writing formal papers given the online tools now available.  If you are my age you probably remember writing research papers that were almost, if not entirely, based on secondary sources.  The teacher took the class to the library and we spent our time reading encyclopedias, books, and maybe a few magazines.  The goal was to synthesize what other had written on the subject.  In the case of my library most of the books were old, which I now understand was a significant problem.  Such a project left very little room for original thought because there was no access to the relevant primary sources.

Because there is now a wealth of primary source material available online I can teach the kind of essay that allows students (echoing the words of Carl Becker) to be their own historian.  A two month process allows students to experience the entire research process from gathering materials, formulating a thesis, outlines, and rough drafts.  So, the most important websites for me are those that function as online repositories such as the Richmond Daily Dispatch, Valley of the Shadow, and Library of Congress.  While secondary sources aid my students in understanding the outline of their subject their essays are built from the ground up with online primary sources.  They gather their online sources using social bookmarking sites like Delicious that allow them to tag and organize their sources.  What I like about Delicious is that it allows users to network with others with similar interests.  The more sophisticated may find Zotero to be helpful in organizing sources.   Every stage of the writing process is done on Google Docs.  First, it makes it much easier to follow and comment as the teacher, but it also allows other students to read and comment on their peers’ work.  I think this helps to foster community as well as an appreciation for the communal aspect of research.  Students can also take advantage of programs such as Noodle Tools for the proper citation form of their sources.

Continue reading

Teachers, Technology, and Gettysburg (Part 1)

[Part 2 and Part 3]

Tomorrow I head out for the Civil War Preservation Trust’s 2010 Teacher Institute in Hagerstown, Maryland.  The conference doesn’t begin until Friday, but since the good people at the CWPT put me up in the hotel beginning on Thursday I decided to make a day of it in Gettysburg.  I’m looking forward to the conference, which includes a number of interesting workshops as well as keynote talks by Bud Robertson, Peter Carmichael (filling in for Gary Gallagher) and Jeff Shaara.  My responsibilities are minimal.  On Saturday evening I am taking part in a roundtable discussion on the role of technology/web2.0 in the classroom.  I am joining Jim Beeghley and Eric Miller with Robert Shenk moderating.  I have five minutes to share some thoughts before the audience has an opportunity to question all of the panel members.  In preparation for the session I thought it might be helpful to write up a few thoughts.

What is the role and place of technology in our history classrooms?  This may seem like an obvious question, but unfortunately, not enough people in our field are exploring it with the level of importance it deserves.  I am constantly being asked if I use this or that in my classroom as if we are dealing with a continual wave of fads that come and go.  My response is always the same: Why should I be using a specific program?  To answer that question we need to first understand our goals as history teachers.  I teach a specific subject and there are various methods and tools that can be used in that process; technology is but one of them.  The teaching of history involves both a content and skills component.  My overall goal is to teach students how to think critically about the past as well as their place within that broader narrative.  This involves both the analysis of primary and secondary sources as well as the development of their own understanding of the past through some type of presentation.  So, there is both an emphasis on how students process information as well as how it is shared with a broader community.  Every piece of web technology that I use in my classroom somehow fits into this overall goal.

Continue reading

“War So Terrible”

One of the highlights for me during last week’s Petersburg conference was the opportunity to view Pamplin Park’s feature film, “War So Terrible: A Civil War Combat Film.”  Will Greene describes its inception as a response to visitors who reflected on their experience in the park as somehow enjoyable or entertaining.  Greene and the rest of the staff did not want visitors, especially students, finishing their tour with a glorified view of war.  Rather, they wanted to convey the horrors of battle and the changes that soldiers underwent over the course of the war and beyond.  [This is something that I've discussed on this blog on a number of occasions.  See here and here.]

There are two versions of the film, the full length running 48 minutes as well as a less graphic version that runs 23 minutes.  The film is framed around a veterans reunion that takes place somewhere in the South.  During the ceremony both Benjamin Franklin Meyers of the Union and Andrew Jackson Stewart of the Confederacy reflect on their experiences during the war from their first battle to the trench warfare of 1864.  The film delves into questions of why men fought and persevered in the ranks without reducing the war to any one explanation.  There are no transcendent figures and no references to Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant or anyone to detract from the focus of the film.  Viewers empathize with both individuals and suffer through some very difficult battle footage, which is emotionally draining.  The film succeeds brilliantly in conveying the emotion of battle.  Finally, the reunion scenes steer clear of the mistaken notion that Lee’s surrender at Appomattox or even later events involving Union and Confederate veterans reflected the healing of old wounds and bitterness.  I don’t want to give too much away about this movie.

At the conclusion of the movie our group remained silent for a few moments before discussing it with Greene and I don’t mind admitting that I had a tear in my eye.  I made it a point to purchase a copy before leaving and I plan on showing the full version to my Civil War class this year.  If you are a teacher I encourage you to purchase a copy through Pamplin Park’s online store.  It’s only $9.95 and I guarantee that you won’t be sorry.

Congratulations to Will Greene and the rest of the staff for this fine film.