History may not always be pretty – but it can be experienced…it should raise questions – cause discussion and debate. As teachers, we hope that ideas and information may “stick” in our students’ brains. Brain research has shown various ways to make ideas “stick” in our brains. Creating a contrast of ideas is one way to make certain things remain in our brain.
The question can be raised – what do we want to stick in our students’ brains?
Names , dates, facts – will be forgotten soon. Some experts think we forget 90% of new information that we learn in a month – or less!
Now getting a student’s brain engaged is certainly not something we can control, but we can control the ideas and questions that we present to them and guide them to. Using something called an essential question or theme that we as instructors keep coming back to helps the brain to make connections and develop a deeper understanding of material presented. The history of our Nation presents many contrasts we can present to students to get their brains “engaged”.
A place of contrast
A look at Gettysburg can create those contrasts and force students to look deeper than just a date , time and a name. Students may get bogged down with all the military terms and battle strategies, but what of the bigger ideas represented by the battle , the Gettysburg Address and the attempts of the nation to come back together as one? Is there a way to show some of those to our students?
Lincoln, of course, gives the Gettysburg Address in November, 1863. The speech emphasized the reason our nation was founded – that “all men are created equal”, but what questions can a location on the battlefield raise to us about the struggle for freedom and equality?
After hearing a presentation this summer by John Rudy, a particular location on the battlefield struck me as a place to think about some of those bigger questions. Oak Hill is a location northwest of the town of Gettysburg and will be a focal point of fighting on July 1, 1863. Confederate soldiers will charge over the hill and drive the Northern troops back through the town. Rebel artillery will use it as a platform to bombard Northern soldiers during the three days of fighting.
A few years ago, a picture was brought to the librarian of Gettysburg National Military park. A woman had found it at a yard sale and the inscription on the picture said:
“Pennsylvania Klan Reunion held on Gettysburg Battlefield Sept 19-20, 1925”.
It was determined that the location was directly in front of Oak Hill. The tower in the background has had its upper levels removed and can be climbed today.
Take a look at the picture with your students
The link below will take you to the image in more detail on a web site created by John Rudy for the Bartol conference.
What questions can be raised?
- Why did they select Gettysburg for their “reunion”?
FYI in recent years, groups with similar beliefs have rallied on the battlefield
- Were they “fighting for a cause” just like the men at Gettysburg?
- What does that say about the progress of Lincoln’s vision of freedom and equality?
Generate some questions with your students and discuss..
The issues of the war forgotten
At that same place, just 13 short years later in 1938, another gathering is held. It will be the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. This time it will be attended by thousands of people, including President Franklin Roosevelt and surviving veterans of the Civil War. Twenty five years earlier, at the massive reunion during the 50th anniversary of the battle, some veterans expressed a desire to construct a monument to the unity of the nation and peace. Donations were collected , even from 7 states, and the Peace Light memorial was constructed. On July 3, 1938 an estimated crowd of 250,000 will gather in front of Oak Hill (where the Klan had rallied before) to hear speeches and watch the lighting of the eternal flame.
Did FDR mention, like Lincoln, freedom and equality? Did he mention the freeing of the slaves? Did he mention the issues that divided the nation? No.
A great question is raised: Why not? Ask your students why not! Get them thinking!
He stated “all [Civil War veterans] we honor, not asking under which flag they fought then, thankful that they stand together under one flag now.”
Keep in mind this is at the height of the Jim Crow South – no mention or thought of slavery or equal rights for those African Americans living in the United States.
Another interesting speech is the one given by President Woodrow Wilson on July 4, 1913. “How wholesome and healing the peace has been…”, Wilson stated.
Healing for whom can be asked..
What questions do these raise for you and your students?
A mention of the “real issue”
Skip ahead to the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. E. Washington Rhodes will speak at the commemoration ceremonies in Gettysburg. The president of an African American organization called the National Newspaper Publishers Association, will state in November, 1963:
“Second class citizenship with all of its attendant evils must end. Unless men of substance and creative minds take positive action, move forward with alertness and stout hearts to remove this injustice, I fear that government of the people, by the people, will soon be endangered beyond repair.”
At the height of the Civil Rights movement, these words are spoken at Gettysburg.
How is Lincoln’s vision of freedom and equality being addressed now?
So What Now?
What questions does that raise – could lead to some thought provoking questions.
What did the Civil War mean to different people?
- To former slaves
- White Northerners
- White Southerners
- Government leaders
Have we grown as a nation as we address the issues of the war?
Is it easier today to address the more controversial issues of the war since the soldiers who fought are long gone?
Gettysburg is more than just a battlefield. Use it to teach your students about the bigger questions the Civil War raises in American History. Create contrast and ask deeper questions beyond the names and dates of the battle and the Civil War itself.
Thanks to the NPS’s John Rudy for his presentation at the Bartol Conference in which he presented these ideas about contrast and the the events at Gettysburg , Oak Hill , and the speeches at Gettysburg Address commemorations. He certainly got these ideas to “stick” in my brain, hopefully this post will allow you to do the same with your students.
Check out John’s Blog here: Interpreting the Civil War
Comment here with your thoughts and questions that can be raised to get our students’ brains engaged.