How Short is America’s Collective Memory?

Today I had the pleasure of skyping with a Civil War class at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee.  Chris Lese and his class have made good use of my blog over the past few weeks so I offered to spend some time with his students to field questions.  In addition to utilizing the blog the class has read a chapter from David Blight’s book, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory and the American Civil War and they are making their way through a critical evaluation of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary.  It’s always nice to see high school kids engaged in serious study of American history and it made for an entertaining and informative 45 minutes.  I am planning on visiting with this class in person during my trip to Milwaukee in April for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.

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Teaching the Civil War

The History Teacher - November 2010

My most recent publication is now available in the new issue of the November 2010 issue of the journal, The History Teacher.  The essay focuses on how I use Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in class and is based on a talk I gave back in 2007 at the first biennial meeting of the Society For Civil War Historians.  [Click here to read the essay (pdf file)]

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years is the opportunity to work with fellow history teachers on how we can better teach our subject.  As much as I enjoy sharing what has worked for me with others I have to say that I’ve learned just as much from my colleagues.  This coming year will be incredibly busy in this regard.  In January I will be leading a TAH workshop with W. Fitzhugh Brundage on the Civil War and historical memory and in April I will take part in another workshop here in Virginia that was organized in response to the recent 4th grade history textbook controversy.  I am also involved in an ongoing effort to secure an NEH Grant for a workshop that will take place next summer.  Finally, I am very excited to report that I recently accepted an offer from the New York Times to write an essay on the challenges of teaching the Civil War during the sesquicentennial.

Let’s always remember to teach our children well.

Using Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” in the Classroom

This talk was presented today in Philadelphia at the 2008 Meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians.  The panel was titled, “Gearing Up For the Civil War Sesquicentennial in the High School Classroom” and included, James Percoco, Ronald Maggiano, and Andy Slap.

When it aired in 1989 Ken Burns’s epic documentary about America’s Civil War garnered the largest audience in PBS history. Viewers who had little interest or knowledge of the Civil War were attracted to the powerful images and sounds as well as the narration by David McCullough and commentary by Shelby Foote – the combination of which served to introduce a heroic and tragic story to a national audience. While historians have spent considerable time analyzing Burns’s documentary as historical interpretation, little attention has been given to the ways in which the film can be utilized in history courses on the high school level.1 All too often the film is used as a launching pad to other classroom activities or simply shown with little student preparation; such an approach renders students as passive observers rather than engaging them in trying to better understand the choices that went into the film’s script along with how the various elements come together to tell a coherent story.2 More importantly, students fail to see the film itself as a product of long-standing assumptions about the war that are embedded in our popular imagination and often guarded as sacred.  The beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011 will provide a unique opportunity to introduce questions of memory and interpretation in our high school history classes.  In the time that I have today I would like to talk briefly about how I engage my students with questions of memory and interpretation through a careful viewing of Burns’s The Civil War.

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