“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 Confederate History Month

A great way to introduce students to the subject of historical memory is to discuss the recent controversy surrounding Confederate History Month here in Virginia.  Ideally, such a lesson would come at the conclusion of a unit on the Civil War, which would allow students to reference previous class discussions as well as any documents that were interpreted.  I was already in the process of putting together a little lesson plan for a TAH workshop that I am taking part in next week when I came across a teacher who had already organized just such a lesson.

Hopefully, the class will have integrated documents that give voice to a wide range of perspectives from the Civil War Era, which must serve as a foundation for any understanding of a proclamation about this event.  I plan on providing my teachers with copies of the Governor McDonnell’s original proclamation:

Confederate History Month Proclamation

WHEREAS,  April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS, Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS,  it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s  shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and

WHEREAS,   this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

as well as the revised version and finally his most recent statement issued at the recent conference on race and slavery at Norfolk.   I am hoping to engage the workshop’s participants in a discussion about how they can use these documents in the classroom.  A quick online search will bring up a wide range of commentary.  I plan on using some video from YouTube as well as the recent issue of CWTs that included a number of brief responses by historians and bloggers.

The lesson should impress students with the extent to which Americans are still divided over the scope of the Civil War as well as its outcome and meaning.  More importantly, it raises a number of important questions that students can consider and debate:

  • What, if anything, should we expect of our public officials when it comes to issuing proclamations about the past?  Do we need such statements and, if so, why?
  • What did McDonnell’s original proclamation reflect about his particular and/or what he believed important for Virginians to remember?
  • Did the governor’s original proclamation accurately reflect the material covered in class on the Civil War here in Virginia?
  • Were the criticisms of the governor justified?  If so, why?  Were those who supported the governor’s original proclamation justified?  If so, why?
  • Was the governor’s revised proclamation an improvement?
  • What does the governor’s most recent statement reflect about the evolution of his own thinking on how the Civil War ought to be remembered and commemorated?

Finally, students will write their own Civil War proclamation.  In addition to the formal statement students should be asked to reflect on specific references made in their proclamation.  References to specific events, individuals, and concepts must be explained.  Finally, students should reflect on the intended consequences of their proclamation.  I need to work on this a bit more, but you get the idea.  Most of the students who are currently taking my Civil War course will also be in my second trimester course on Civil War memory.  This will be their first assignment and I promise to let you know how it goes and I may even try to share some of their work.

Lost Cause Nostalgia

Next month I will be taking part in another Teaching American History Grant workshop in Virginia Beach with Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina.  The subject is the Civil War and historical memory.  I am putting together a couple of lesson plan outlines for the teachers and in doing so I came across this wonderful video that I posted a few years back.  It’s worth airing again for those of you who are relatively new to the blog.  Enjoy.

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.