Using The Civil War Day by Day in the classroom
Introduction: Primary source materials, like the letters, diaries, photographs, and newspapers featured on The Civil War Day by Day, can be used for various purposes in the classroom. They can enliven history. Moving beyond the abstractions of history textbooks to the original documents helps to restore the reality of past events by connecting the students to familiar and concrete documentary forms. They can also facilitate critical inquiry by offering students the opportunity to evaluate multiple sources presenting multiple perspectives.
Application: Here are some ideas for using primary source material in the classroom:
- Identify perspectives–Select 2 or 3 letters that describe the same event from different viewpoints (like those from the First Battle of Bull Run), have students identify the perspectives from which they are written, and then analyze how the authors’ language and style influences the account. Does one letter seem more trustworthy than another?
- Compare primary and secondary sources—Examine firsthand accounts of the same event or similar topic, and then compare these firsthand accounts with what has been written up in a secondary source (like your class’s history textbook). Do these accounts differ? Does one source emphasize something that another dismisses? What has been left out?
- Evaluate a single document—Have students examine a letter, diary entry, or a newspaper article and identify its key components (author, intended audience, genre, content, &c), and then have them examine it more closely, noting how its language and style contributes to the message. For instance, does the author use charged phrases like “the Rebels” or “Lincolnites” that indicate his or her perspective? What about style and tone—does the author write methodically and relate his activities in detail, or does he seem to dramatize his account? How trustworthy does this account seem? Does the author leave anything out?
- Analyze cultural elements—Select an account and have students identify the author’s personal beliefs and cultural context. Does he or she express a belief in God, for example? What does he or she value? Does the author mention food or music? Does he or she refer to any traditions?
- Follow one person’s experience—Choose a series of letters or diary entries written by one author and trace his or her experience throughout the war. Does the author change during the course of the war, or do his or her reactions remain consistent? Plot the events he or she recounts on a time-line. Guide students in reconstructing the person’s life through additional resources. Tip: identify series through the tag cloud in the sidebar.
- Creative writing prompts—Locate a photograph and have students describe what they think is going on, or have them create a story around that photograph, or select a personality and have students write an entry in a journal or diary as that personality.
Additional Resources: Other institutions offer helpful resources for incorporating primary sources into the classroom. Here are just a few to get you started:
- Documenting the American South’s Classroom Resources offers strategies for using DocSouth’s resources in the classroom; in particular, check out the Teacher’s Toolkit for activity guides and lesson plans
- LearnNC’s Classroom offers digital resources and lesson plans for K-12 teachers in North Carolina; its Civil War digital textbook is available here
- Smithsonian Education: Educators offers lesson plans and other resources revolving around the Smithsonian’s collections; its Heritage Teaching Resources groups the classroom resources around federally mandated Heritage Months
- Library of Congress: Teachers offers classroom materials, professional training, and guidance on using primary sources; in addition, check out Teaching with the Library of Congress, a blog featuring documents from the Library of Congress collections along with particular strategies for teaching with them
We welcome your comments and suggestions. For instance, how do you incorporate primary sources into your lesson plans? What sorts of activities can you suggest for teaching with primary sources? What sort of classroom resources do you find helpful? We’d love to hear from you:
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