Academic journal article Social Education

Humanities and the Social Studies: Studying the Civil War through the Third Space

Academic journal article Social Education

Humanities and the Social Studies: Studying the Civil War through the Third Space

Article excerpt

The mood in our class is barely-contained restlessness among my squirmy eighth graders--a group of students eagerly anticipating their winter break, but willing to give me some of their attention during our final meeting before the mad dash to the airport, ski hill, video games, or the mall. My students drop themselves into their seats around our large table. They secure their overfilled backpacks under their feet, arrange their materials in neat piles in front of them, and take on an attitude of "scholarly demeanor." My plan on this day involves one last visit to Gettysburg, and, though my students are too kind to tell me straight out, I know that we have dwelled too long in this haunted place. The Civil War, this frustrating, never ending, bloody, dark era in American history, must surely make these dreary winter days seem even longer for my students. But the Civil War ... the temptation to linger on it is always strong. I cannot help myself. Silently, I vow to limit our time studying this unit next year. We will move on to other revolutions and lighter times more quickly, next year. But right now, before we separate for winter break, I surrender to Gettysburg, dragging these young minds with me.

**********

Because of its enormous significance to American history, I want my students to gain a rich understanding of the Battle at Gettysburg; I also would like them to make a strong emotional connection to it. I want my students to engage with the Battle of Gettysburg on many levels--to become tangled up with the past. My goal is to guide them toward an in-depth understanding of this event--the larger historical context in which it occurred, the ideology that drove many Confederate soldiers into this battle (an ideology grounded in the spirit of the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary War), the events that caused both Union and Confederate soldiers to converge at Gettysburg, the dramatic stories of people who participated in the war or waited anxiously at home, and how this battle shaped events following the Civil War. And through these historical investigations, I have woven a strand of study that encourages students to make emotional connections to the characters and events, engaging their imaginative and literary powers to enter the world of their history studies by engaging in literary activities such as reading and writing stories, poems, and diary entries from the perspectives of the historical figures we meet along the way. This weaving together of diverse content strands, discourses, and skills is my work as a humanities teacher.

So on that restless day before winter break, our final work at Gettysburg goes something like this:

Me: Imagine that you are a 7th grader. You are standing on a hill called Little Roundtop, at Gettysburg, and you are gazing over this beautiful landscape. You have a notion of what happened here, but you have not yet studied the Civil War as we have together this year. So when you stand there, what do you see?

Student: Pretty hills, a curvy landscape, markers along the way, lots of people wandering around. I might think about the Gettysburg Address and wonder what it means.

Other students share similar responses....

Me: Now you are an 8th grader who has lust completed a unit of study about the Civil War and Gettysburg. You are standing on that hill, full of all the knowledge and understanding you possess. You are looking over this beautiful landscape at Gettysburg, but what do you see? What do you see? Write about that.

And so we write about that. When I hear pens dropped on our table or chairs pushing back, laptops closed and feet shuffling to the printer, I look up. Nory, who has been waiting to catch my eye, shoots her hand in the air. Here is what she wrote on that day:

   Gettysburg
   Men died here.
   Lee failed himself here.
   Armistead died
   On a hill,
   A little hill.
   In Western Pennsylvania. … 
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