“Teachers Are Nation Builders”

Today was one of those days that I live for as a historian and teacher.  I spent the day in Virginia Beach with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a workshop on the Civil War and historical memory.  I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Fitz Brundage sketch out some of the salient commemorative themes during the postwar period while I worked with the group on analyzing a collection of primary sources and discussing how to approach some of these themes in the classroom.  The teachers were enthusiastic throughout both sessions.  It was impressive given that the material can be incredibly difficult and even a bit draining to those who are approaching these issues for the first time.   We have amazing teachers in our classrooms and we need to support them.

The president was right to describe teachers as “nation builders.”  I wish the general public had the image of teachers sitting around engaged in serious discussion as part of their professional development rather than the stereotypical views so closely associated with our worst fears about public education.  So, what were we really doing today in Virginia Beach?  We were doing what we do every day in our respective classrooms, which is making a G-d Damn Difference.  Now what about you?

Teaching Who Won the Civil War

Charlottesville's Civil War Soldier at Courthouse Square

This week I will be working with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a Teaching American History workshop on the Civil War and historical memory.  This time around I am teamed up with historian, W. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina, who will take care of the morning session with a lecture that provides an overview of some of the major themes of postwar narratives of the Civil War.  My job is to provide teachers with a foundation of content and skills that can inform the way they teach history.

I have a two-hour slot in which to work so my plan is to divide the time between two activities.  During the first hour I am going to introduce the group to documents related to the recent debate in Virginia surrounding Confederate History Month.  No doubt most of these teachers will be familiar with the controversy, but this activity should give them a chance to think further about many of the points made in Brundage’s opening lecture.  I recently completed a lesson in my Civil War Memory class in which we analyzed the very same documents; the lesson concluded with students writing their own proclamation.  The results were quite interesting and perhaps at some point I will share a few excerpts.

The next lesson will explore the question of who won the Civil War through a close reading of a collection of primary sources.  I teach the Civil War and Reconstruction as part of the same unit and I try to provide as smooth a transition between the two as possible.  In other words, I want my students to see the period following 1865 as an extension of a war that raised fundamental questions about the place of African Americans within this nation.  In doing so, we move beyond the overly simplistic image of Appomattox as a symbol of reunion and even reconciliation.  The challenge of how the nation would be reconstructed raises the obvious question of whose vision of reconstruction would prevail and within what particular time frame.  I ask my students to think about these questions to reinforce the importance of acknowledging perspective and the open-ended nature of certain historical questions.  Here is a taste of the kinds of documents that we will explore together.  Continue reading “Teaching Who Won the Civil War”

Teaching Civil War History 2.0 (New York Times)

Welcome New York Times/Disunion blog readers. I hope you take some time to browse my site. Click here for more information about me as well as recent publications and current projects.  Click here for additional information about the black Confederate debate.  Join the Civil War Memory Facebook group to stay updated on future posts and other Civil War related links.

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Clay Risen of the New York Times to talk about what it might take to make their Civil War blog, Disunion, more appealing to teachers.  I’ve been reading it for some time and I am thoroughly enjoying both the range of writers and subject matter discussed. Disunion recently won the 2010 Cliopatria Award for best series of posts.  We had a nice talk and by the end of our conversation I suggested that an editorial on the recent black Confederate/4th grade history textbook controversy here in Virginia might be worth writing.  I wasn’t so much interested in rehashing the historical debate about black Confederates since that has been done to death.  Unfortunately, what has been left out entirely from the debate is the fact that the error came about as a result of the author’s failure to understand how to search and assess Online information.  It goes without saying that I am honored to published in the New York TimesClick through to the NYTs and the comments which follow.

Calling All American History Teachers

I know it’s only January, but I know some of you out there are already thinking about professional development workshops for this coming summer.  I strongly encourage you to consider the Civil War Trust’s (formerly known as the Civil War Preservation Trust) annual Teachers Institute.  This year the gathering will take place in Nashville, Tennessee from July 14-17.  I attended and thoroughly enjoyed last year’s meeting in Hagerstown, Maryland, where I took part in a roundtable discussion on how to use social media in the classroom.

I will be leading two sessions this year.  The first one will be made available to all participants, though it will cost a bit extra.  The title of the talk is, “Cutting and Pasting Black Confederates On the Internet and In Our Classrooms”.  We are going to discuss the textbook debacle here in Virginia, but my overall goal is to use this incident as a case study for how to both search and assess Online information.  Participants will have the opportunity to evaluate some of the most popular black Confederate websites currently available.  Instructors need to be committed to teaching their students how to intelligently access digital information; unfortunately, this has been almost entirely ignored by the media and other commentators in the wake of this scandal.  [Tomorrow the New York Times will publish my Op-ed piece on just this issue on their Disunion blog.  I will post the text and a link when it becomes available.]

The second session is titled, “Separating Fact From Fiction: Teaching Glory”.  I love showing this movie to my students, but all too often teachers fail to introduce it as a popular interpretation of the 54th Massachusetts and the experiences of black Civil War soldiers.  While the movie does function as a useful entry point to numerous issues concerning slavery and race there are factual and interpretive problems.  More importantly, however, the script offers a highly selective understanding of the unit’s importance to the Civil War that, in the end, may more closely reflect our collective need for a certain view of the legacy of the Civil War.  I explored this in a previous post on the movie and how I use it in the classroom.  Participants will discuss the roles of individual characters and we will examine specific scenes from the movie.  I also plan on distributing a collection of primary sources that challenge some of the interpretive decisions made in the movie and that can hopefully be used in the classroom.

I am looking forward to this trip.  I’ve only been to Nashville once and I have never had the opportunity to explore the many Civil War sites in the area.  Information about individuals sessions and presenters will be added in the near future so check back.

So You Want To Be a Civil War Historian

Presentation of M.E. Rachal Award at the Virginia Historical Society (2005) w/Paul Levengood and Nelson Lankford

The other day I received an email from a reader looking for advice on writing and publishing in the field of Civil War history.  I thought it might be a good idea to respond on the blog so as to allow the rest of you to add your own perspective.  First the email:

I’m emailing to seek advice on writing and publishing.  I’ve always been what I guess one would call a Civil War “buff” and am now trying to take my understanding of the period to a higher, more serious level.  I think the sesquicentennial is an opportune time to do so. Last month I joined the Society of Civil War Historians.  In the past 1 1/2 years I’ve published a book chapter on library instruction, spoken at a few on-campus events here at my college, and presented at a few conferences as well.  Later this year I have four articles being published in a woman’s history encyclopedia published by Facts-on-File.

I’m emailing because I have what I feel are some strong ideas for both academic journal articles and the general interest ACW magazines.  My focus is more on the immediate postbellum period than the war itself.  My position is somewhat unique because though I don’t hold the PhD, I have faculty status.  (I have two masters degrees.)  In a way the pressure is off because this past semester I was given tenure.  (I’m thinking about starting my own blog this coming fall when my tenure becomes official with the new academic year.)  Anyways, I’m emailing to see if you might be able to give me some advice on breaking in.  A few questions I have are:

Again, please feel free to add your own thoughts based on your own experiences.  I don’t have any hard and fast answers.  That said, I do see my own story reflected in this email.  I do not have a PhD in history, but I did manage to work my way to a point where I can maneuver between a number of different communities.  Continue reading “So You Want To Be a Civil War Historian”