Category Archives: Teaching

Civil War Memory: Final Projects

I‘ve got 55 exams to grade as well as end-of-the-trimester comments to write over the next few days.  But for now I am enjoying the final projects from my students who spent this past trimester studying Civil War Memory.  This was one of the most rewarding experiences for me to date.  I had a wonderful group of motivated and curious students who thoroughly embraced the subject and who pushed me every step of the way.  For their final projects I gave them a wide range of options, but encouraged them to come up with their own ideas.  I wanted them to reflect a bit more on some aspect of the course or contribute in some way to the memory of the war.  In the end, their projects covered a broad spectrum.  One student analyzed the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, while another student did a thorough analysis of the Dixie Outfitters website.  Two groups of students made documentaries based on our trip to Richmond while another group did a survey of the school community on issues related to the Civil War and memory.  Two students chose to reflect on how their own memory of the war has evolved over the course of the trimester.  They were quite moving and attest to the continued influence of the Civil War on even the youngest generation.  A couple of students chose to write their own commemorative speeches on some aspect of the war; they were accompanied by slides to give the audience a sense of time and place.  The photos below constitute just a small sample of what was done.

One student decided to do a couple of sculptures.  The one pictured above is titled, “Confederate Bushwhacker Hides from Pro-Union Jayhawker.”  Two students sketched their own idea for a Civil War monument accompanied by an essay which outlines its theme and purpose.  The first one is titled, “Battle of the Wilderness, May 5th -7th, 1864.”  Here is a brief excerpt from this student’s essay:

The monument itself depicts Grant atop his horse with a soldier to his right and another flanking his left side.  The horse is slightly prancing, made nervous by the commotion, fire, and lack of visibility.  Grant sits erect, holding his hat behind him to urge his men to keep moving forward.  There is a bush both directly in front and behind the monument, again giving the sense that these soldiers were fighting in a thicket and  had to maneuver around such obstacles.  Their muskets are raised, ready to fire, and their bayonets are in place and ready for the hand-to-hand combat and bloody fighting that they faced.  The monument is dedicated to the remembrance of Grant and his army, especially the soldiers that sacrificed themselves to make the necessary push forward against Lee’s army, leading the Union to victory.

The next sketch is titled, “Unification, After the War” and features Lincoln, Lee, and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts:

In the center, President Abraham Lincoln stands strong and composed.  He is dressed in his dignified black suit along with his unmistakably famous top hat.  I included Lincoln in my monument because he is the reason why the United States survived and was unified after the Civil War.  Before the war, Lincoln stated that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Therefore, he stands in the middle of General Robert E. Lee and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to emphasize just how right he was.  General is placed to Lincoln’s right on my monument.  He was the heart of the Confederate Army and fought bravely for the South.  His placement besides Lincoln represents the unification of both sides after the war in 1865.  To the left of Lincoln I placed a brave soldier from the 54th Massachusetts commanded by Colonel Robert G. Shaw.  This soldier symbolizes the start of change in America after the war.  Even though laws were not equal for black Americans after the war, victory for the North was the beginning of the transformation of the United States….This monument symbolizes the rebuilding of the United States of America after the war.  Each man represented on this monument had a part in this war; therefore they are equally commemorated on it.

I’ve got some ideas about how I can improve the class if I choose to offer it next year.  For one, I would like to make it much more hands on for students and allow them to work on more detailed projects.  My guess is that this is the first high school elective ever offered on the Civil War and memory.  Now that’s pretty cool.

Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives – Just Not the Lives of Slaves

The other day I came across the “Cotton Campus” website, which is an interactive website for teachers and children on the history of cotton and sponsored by Cotton Inc. As someone interested in how the history of slavery is remembered (and often ignored) I was curious as to how the people who brought us Mary Matalin and James Carville frolicking in bed would handle what is still a very sensitive issue for many.  Needless to say, I was stunned. The only mention of slavery on their website includes a few brief references on their interactive time line.  They mention that “slavery was relied on heavily in the 1800s” and a bit later the emancipation is referenced.  As for their seven pages of lesson plans (pdf files), the word ‘slavery’ is not mentioned once.  Let me give you a sense of what I am talking about.

Consider their fifteen true/false questions: (1) A famous cotton farmer named George Lincoln was called “King Cotton”; (2) In 1607, the first English settlers planted cotton at Jamestown; (3) Eli Whitney built the first cotton gin, a machine that could separate 50 pounds from the seed in one day.

They also give students ideas for “Essay Starters” on various aspects of the history of cotton.

Colonial America: Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America.  One of the imported crops the first English settlers planted was cotton, to make clothes.   During the following, 150 years, cotton became an important crop in the Southern colonies, such as Virginia and the Carolinas.  England passed laws that required cotton growers to ship all their cotton to England, where it was manufactured into clothes.  England then sold the clothing in Europe and to North America at high prices.  In defiance of the English law, some cotton was kept within the colonies and used to make clothes called homespun.  Homespun was rough and not very fashionable.  Clothes imported from England were expensive and only fairly wealthy colonists could afford to buy them.  But during the American Revolution patriots wore homespun to their loyalty to the American cause.  Even George Washington wore homespun during the Revolution.

Eli Whitney and Other Inventors of the Late Eighteenth Century: In 1790, Eli Whitney, a recent graduate of Yale College, moved from New England to Georgia to become a teacher.  In Georgia, Whitney saw how hard it was to separate cotton fiber from cotton seeds by hand.  It took about 10 hours to get 1 pound of cotton.  To help, Whitney invented a machine, called the cotton gin, that could do the work much faster.  The cotton gin cold produce 50 pounds of cotton fiber in one day.  With the new manufacturing machine, cotton became so important to the American economy that it was called, “King Cotton.”

It’s hard to imagine too many teachers utilizing this website.  On the other hand, it is interesting to see how this company handles its own history.  After all, their entire marketing scheme is built around ideas of comfort and softness.  Their website is as much about creating new customers as it is about education – more of the former, I suspect.

Teaching Teachers

This has been an extremely busy week for me.  We just finished our second trimester and will give exams through next week.  Luckily, the following week is spring break.  My department is in the process of hiring and, because I am taking over next year as the head of the history department, I am much more involved in the process than in the past.  I am learning quite a bit and even though I don’t consider myself to be the administrative type, I am very excited about taking on a leadership role and having the opportunity to set goals and work with a few new colleagues.  One of things I’ve become very interested in over the past year is the application of social networking/media in the classroom and I hope to make it my top priority.

On top of all of this I took part in two Teaching American History workshops this past week.  Last Friday I went down to South Boston to share my interest in the Civil War and memory and how I apply it in the classroom, and on Thursday I worked with a group of teachers in Virginia Beach on turning points in history.  This is my first experience working with teachers and I don’t mind admitting that I was just a bit nervous.  In the end, it was a learning experience and both sessions have given me quite a bit to think about in anticipation for future workshops.  First, I need to be much more sensitive to the challenges that public school history teachers in various parts of the state are currently facing.  It can be something as simple as remembering that my class size (avg. 14) doesn’t conform with most public school classrooms or remembering that some schools divide American history into two years and that a teacher who teaches the modern period may not be as familiar with early American history.  Finally, I need to be much more responsive to the fact that these workshops bring together teachers from all levels.  That said, the particular program that I am working with emphasizes critical historical thinking and advanced understanding of the subject.  It is up to the teachers to think of ways to apply what they’ve learned to their classes. Still, I would do well to think about future presentations with these facts in mind.

In the end, both groups were very engaged and curious about the subject.  They asked insightful questions, challenged one another, as well as their instructor.  One particular moment from last Friday stands out for me.  I was suggesting various ways of teaching the Lost Cause and so I decided to introduce them to the Dixie Outfitters website, which I used this past semester to highlight its continued influence.  They thought the idea was pretty interesting and we had a wonderful discussion about the site’s commentary on the cause of the war as well as the content of the clothing they sell.  One gentleman inquired about the racial/ethnic profile of my school.  I knew exactly where he was going with the question and I felt just a little embarassed that I had not anticipated such a question.  He mentioned that a number of his students buy clothing from this site and did I really expect him to raise this as an issue in class given his school’s racial profile.  The teacher admitted that it would indeed be an interesting way to discuss the continued influence of the war in our culture, but that it would not come without some risk attached.  Added up these little moments have given me a great deal to think about, which I hope to use to improve future presentations.

Overall, it was an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to work with enthusiastic and bright history teachers.  I’ve said it before that we spend so much time exposing what is wrong with our public school system, including teachers gone bad, that we completely ignore those individuals who are in the trenches and doing amazing things with their students.  The one depressing moment came last week in South Boston when I learned that a few of the participants had to leave early to attend meetings in their school districts about whether jobs would be cut for next year.  We don’t live in a society that values its teachers.  If we did a great deal would be different.

I have my concerns about Obama’s new budget, but I have no reservations whatsoever for strengthening our committment to public education.  The teachers I worked with this past week deserve it and more.

Live Blogging From Norfolk State University (TAH Seminar)

Please keep in mind that this is a very rough post.  I didn’t take the time to review it for grammar since I wanted to post this as part of the day’s proceedings.  Perhaps later I will follow-up with a short post on my session as well as my thoughts concerning Prof. Glymph’s presentation.

We are about five minutes from the start of today’s Teaching American History grant session on major turning points between 1850 and 1877.  The sessions that I am helping out with are being organized by Andy Mink, who is in charge of educational outreach for the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia. There are 18 teachers and 2 administrators who are participating in a series of talks on the teaching of history.  The morning session will be run by Duke University historian, Thavolia Glymph, and I am taking care of the afternoon session.

My plan is to use the battle of Antietam as a case study of a classic turning point of the Civil War.  I am using it, in part, because most of us think it is a crucial moment in the course of the Civil War.  My goal, however, is to look at the battle and its aftermath by looking at a range of primary sources that give us a richer sense of how people – at the time – viewed events.  As teachers we ask our students to think about important events or turning points as a way to understand change over time.  The SOLs single specific events out as more important than others and it is up to us to explain why they are important and worth remembering.  It’s a way of organizing material and making sense of a past that is incredibly complex.  The concept works well when trying to cover a great deal of material in a short period of time and it works effectively to help us distinguish between degrees of importance in the past.  In doing so, however, we often reduce the past to a point where we are unable to appreciate the perspectives of those who lived through momentous times.  In our need to organize the facts we sometimes fail to appreciate the sense of contingency that defined the lives of historic actors.  Finally, we overlook the many perspectives that colored those on the ground.  As a teacher I strive to achieve a balance between high-order understanding of the sweep of major events such as the Civil War without overlooking those whose lives were inextricably shaped in ways that they could barely comprehend.

Now to Professor Glymph’s presentation: “The Crisis of the Union”

Focus of the talk is on the Emancipation Proclamation and she chose it because it is not considered a traditional turning point as compared to battles/campaigns.  Overall focus on how the EP introduced or forced the question and problem of black citizenship.  We must understand the extent to which the United States emphasized that the war was not about emancipation.  In 1861 Federal commanders arrived with orders from Washington which prevented them from taking the property of slaveholders.  The movement of men and ships, however, placed them in direct contact with fugitive slaves who reminded commanders of the First Confiscation Act.  How do slaves know?  They hear their masters as well as other whites who discuss the issue in the open.  Other important decisions leading to September 1862 include the Article of War (March 1862), the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act (July 1862).  Each step worked to secure the sense among fugitive slaves that their owners could not reclaim them.  Glymph emphasizes the Second Confiscation Act since in its emphasis on treason as a sufficient reason for the emancipation of their slaves.  It also authorized the president to employ people of African descent; this represents an important transformation for the Federal government.  In addition, if the nation continues to move to a point where large numbers of slaves are emancipated a solution must be found as to what to do with them -  colonization/”anywhere tropical” according to the 2nd Confiscation Act.  The Militia Act stated that if African American men sign up their families will also be freed.  So, then why is the Emancipation Proclamation so important?

In what ways was it a revolutionary and conservative document?  One of the reasons Glymph believes is important has to do with the emancipation of slaves in Washington, D.C.  Slavery had for a long time been considered an embarasment given its symbol and visitors from outside the country.  The government focuses on it since it is not a state and comes under its authority.  Emancipation was compensated in the capital in April 1862; the government appropriated  $1 million dollars for the project.  It helps to understand the importance of the EP since it did not involve compensation.  It minimizes its importance as a moral decision given that the government is purchasing private property rather than simply declaring them free.  If you were a slave in D.C. your freedom was purchased for you; F. Douglass had a serious problem with this decision – slaveholders don’t lose and the plan is to colonize the freed population.

Throughout this period the slaves continued to impose themselves on local Federal commanders and setting up contraband camps.  Some black regiments were organized in South Carolina and Kansas in 1862.  The EP is critical because it makes it possible for blacks to be recruited as solders and take up arms.  On the surface, according to Glymph, this is significant and many Union soldiers acknowledged that it was time to use them in battle, though the government continued to move slowly.

The EP has been criticized for what it didn’t do and Lincoln has been called a racist by some historians.  Lincoln was explict in the EP and stated that the EP is a war measure and nothing more.  He was not trying to do anything but win the war; the EP, then, must be understood as part of the original intention of Lincoln to save the Union.  [Students read the EP]  Glymph argues that this is not a document that can be used to say anything about Lincoln’s view on race.  Lincoln acted as commander-in-chief and that is how this documen must be read.  The document was designed to accomplish one thing and this is why he draws distinctions between where the proclamation will apply and where it will not apply.

Importance of the document must be understood in terms of its refusal to offer compensation.  For Glymph’s important not for what if says but for what it makes African Americans feel.  It legitimizes what African Americans already knew.  Glymph believes that it is important for students to understand the courage it took for thousands of slaves to leave their homes and leave, not knowing where they would end up – think of refugee camps.  They were also no longer working for the Confederate nation.  Every body removed was potentially a body for the United States.  The proclamation fuels this process and because it does, because fugitive slaves are not leaving for foreign land, the federal government must deal with them.  The Federal government creates the American Freedmena Inquiry Commission (AFIC)-precursor to Freedmen’s Bureau.

AFIC spent time in various parts of the South to try to figure out what to do following emancipation.  They approached the question with typical northern prejudices when interviewing slaves.  Asked slaves what they would do with their freedom.  Their report led Congress to form the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865.  The EP allows former slaves to think about forming families and their place in the civic culture.  These are questions that must be understood independently from what we think of Lincoln on race.  Freedom would mean the right to an education, the right to marry legally, etc.

When Glymph teaches a turning point she emphasizes what the decision does or how people responded.  Group analyzes a set of documents to begin to answer that important question.  Doc. 1 is a letter from J. Boston to his wife who is still enslaved.  Boson lets her know that he is safe, but also begs his former master to be kind to his family.  In another letter from Hannah Johnson to A. Lincoln she informs the president that her son is serving in the 54th Massachusetts and encourages him to continue the policy of the recruitment of black Americans and to ensure that “he [Jefferson Davis] will never let them sell our colored soldiers for slaves.”  Johnson is writing to remind Lincoln what freedom means and his responsibility in protecting the lives of black men in the ranks.  The letters demonstrate how blacks interpreted the Emancipation Proclamation.  One of the things that black Americans interpreted the EP as heralding is a claim to citizenship and respect as men for those who served in the army.  [All too often we interpret the document's importance w/o looking at how black Americans viewed the situation.]  Finally, Corporal James H. Gooding wrote from Morris Island, S.C. pleading with the president to allow them to fight as soldiers rather than digging ditches: We “have shared the perils, and Labour, of Reducing the first stronghold, that flaunted a Traitor Flag.”

Finally, freed slaves fought to ensure that they would not be reenslaved.  The fact that Lincoln did not revoke the EP is, perhaps, the most significant reason to single this decision/event as a turning point in the Civil War and American history.

Don’t Fear the Twitter

web20It’s never a good idea to approach the unknown with an attitude of fear.  It distorts the subject from the outset and almost always results in judgments that emphasize worst-case scenarios rather than what is possible.  Such is the case when schools try to figure out how to introduce and/or regulate student behavior on the internet – especially in the case of those websites that fall under the heading of web 2.0.  I am talking about websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, etc.  The problem is generational or at least the perception that there is a difference between the level of comfort and ability when it comes to maneuvering through the web and understanding specific sites.  I say this because most of my students are not aware of the many sites that enhance networking beyond Facebook and MySpace.  The other day I conducted a poll among my students and out of 75 only 2 had ever heard of Twitter.  I inquired into a few other sites, but the results were pretty much the same.  My point is that our assumption that the younger generation is necessarily more web savvy than us is a lot of nonsense.

My school has been dealing with the problem of how to teach students to better utilize web 2.0 technology for the past few years.  Much of the discussion stems from utter ignorance of what these sites offer or they are preoccupied with nightmarish stories of suicide associated with Facebook.  A few of my colleagues have Facebook pages, but it doesn’t extend much further that that.  Part of the problem is that unless you have someone on staff who works with this technology in the classroom and who can explain it to those interested it is a waste of time to talk about it.  We recently paid an “expert” to discuss these sites with the entire faculty during one of our workshop days.  It turned into a complete waste of time owing to the fact that there was no hands-on time for the faculty and how this technology connects to different subjects.  It turned into three hours of, “Look at me and what I can do and what you can’t do.”  To me, web 2.0 represents a new way of thinking about your relationship to others as well as how we collect and disseminate information.  That necessarily impacts how we think about our roles as teachers.  But because it is a process or way of thinking these tools must be introduced and slowly integrated with careful consideration. 

Beyond blogging I’ve only become interested in these sites over the past two years and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to utilize this technology in the classroom.  It seems to me that networking sites are part of the reality of Thomas Friedman’s “flat world.”  It’s here to stay and we better educate our students on how  best utilize it so as to allow them to collect valuable information, compete in a global market, and break down barriers that up until recently have seemed to be impenetrable.  As a blogger it is easy for me to see the possibilities given that my site has put me in touch with people from around the world.  Through continued contact with my readers, and links to other bloggers, I now have access to information that has added significantly to my knowledge of a whole host of topics.

How we utilize these tools in the classroom must be decided by each instructor.  The challenge for me has been to figure out how these tools can enhance what I already do and what works.  Nothing that I’ve experimented with has yet to supplant my basic approach of utilizing primary sources and encouraging classroom discussion.  It is convenient, however, to be able to Skype with an expert in a given field right in the classroom or collect information via RSS Feeds or search for photographs in Flickr via tags. 

Until we start to see these sites as tools that can enhance our lives as well as our students we are not going to be able to talk intelligently about it.  More importantly, we would have missed the boat on introducing these valuable tools to our students.  It’s not about what students will do, but about what they can do.