Learning is personal
Recently , I have talked with several visitors to the Park who have expressed a deeper desire to understand the experience of soldiers during the war. One visitor, while scrunching up her nose, expressed to me that it’s impossible to keep track of all these generals and strategies and that was all she had ever learned about in school. Making a personal connection with information is an excellent way to make something learned more permanent in memory.
Beyond Power Points
Presenting interpretive programs in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery has allowed me to explore the more personal experience of soldiers and families during the war as I have had the opportunity to read letters of some of the soldiers who would give the last full measure of devotion at Gettysburg. In my interpretive programs at the cemetery I hope that visitors may make a personal connection with one soldier’s experience and take that away as a powerful memory. I think the same can be transferred to the classroom. I have spent many days “wowing” my students with power points full of names of generals, battle dates, and tactics to have them fill the correct answers in on a test, but have my students made a more personal connection with the content? My guess is no…
So how can you have your students make a personal connection with Civil War material? One way is to use the words of the soldiers themselves. I can present a list of foods that soldiers ate, but why not have students read how the soldiers themselves described their food? What about the experience of battle? The casualty numbers of Civil War battles are well known, but when you read the words of a soldier like John Futch (click to read the letter) , it helps students to see the harsh reality of war and the impact that it had. Futch held his brother in his arms as he died near Culp’s Hill and expressed that he was going “crazy”. Later it will lead him to desert the army. Sadly for Futch, he is caught and executed.
The Civil War Trust unveiled a new Civil War curriculum this spring which included lessons using actual letter soldiers wrote. I used it in my class and felt the students made a personal connection with the material.
To me , I love learning about the generals and strategies of the war, and those things are important, but I’d rather have my students make personal connections with the themes of my Civil War Unit then have them just be able to tell me how many soldiers were casualties at Gettysburg on a test. Helping students make it “personal” will lead to a more enduring understanding so they don’t end up like many people I talk to who tell me “I don’t remember much from my history classes”. This year, try using the soldiers’ own words to enhance your Civil War Unit.
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