Teaching the Civil War: Are we doing it right?

Fort Sumter. Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson Davis. The Union. The Confederacy. Slavery. Secession. And that’s just the beginning. The American Civil War of 1861-1865 is a unique topic that offers countless approaches and cross-curricular teaching options. From a purely historical standpoint, the Civil War is a goldmine and a labyrinth for any social studies teacher. Important works of fiction and nonfiction are set during those years, perfect for language arts instruction. Furthermore, I can think of at least one amazing documentary series that peers into every nook and cranny of the conflict, from the front lines to the home front, with groundbreaking insight and comprehensiveness—the sort of multimedia support critical to learning.

As a teacher and closeted history buff, the sesquicentennial of the War Between the States is the kind of teaching opportunity I would relish. Names, dates, places, personal narratives, politics, geography, military strategy. The list goes on. I salivate at the thought of how I could spend a year teaching the Civil War to students.

I never got a chance to teach the Civil War. I was a language arts teacher. And although I worked hard to bring current events as well as history into my classroom, there was rarely enough time to do it well.

I’m wondering whether curriculum requirements and state and national standards limit how you teach a subject that you think requires more. Or have these guidelines created an effective roadmap for teaching subjects in just the right way for a wide spectrum of learning styles?

Tell me what you think about standards before you even consider testing. And remember, there are no right and wrong answers, just your valuable opinions.

Photograph: Outside view, Fort Sumter (1865) by George N. Barnard courtesy U.S. Library of Congress

One thought on “Teaching the Civil War: Are we doing it right?

  1. In New Jersey, the standards provide a framework as to what students should learn by certain grade levels (4, 8, 12). I think that the standards do not necessarily limit what you should or should not teach. Instead, it is the time factor. As you said in your post, you could study the antebellum period and the Civil War for an entire year easily. So, maybe the answer is knowledge of students, what interests them about the Civil War, and taking it from there.

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