Guest Blog: Civil War Research

As an American History teacher who has always been a sort of “Civil War buff”, when I got a call from the Education Coordinator at Gettysburg National Military Park asking me if I wanted to be a Teacher Ranger for the summer, I knew there was only one answer – Yes!

My time as a Teacher Ranger at Gettysburg has allowed me to present several of programs to visitors about aspects of the battle and the Civil War. Going into it, I felt like I had a strong knowledge of the events of the battle and that it would just be a matter of organizing an outline of my thoughts for the programs I might present. Boy was I wrong.

Prior to presenting my own program, I went along to observe ranger led tours of the battle. I quickly realized as I looked at the visitors carrying maps of the action and heard the questions that were being asked that this was going to take a lot more research then what I originally thought! After one program, the ranger leading the tour, who had presented to my 8th graders in the spring, turned to me and said “ A little different then presenting to 8th graders huh Rob?”

I realized very quickly that I would be doing more detailed research for these interpretive programs than I had done in a while. Fortunately, I was going into the process with a strong background knowledge , experience researching, and a reading ability on my “grade level”.  It occurred to me when I ask my 8th grade students to research about the Civil War, they may not have the advantages I had when I began my research. I want my students to research not only to learn the process, but also to learn more about the Civil War and maybe make that personal connection. What things can we as teachers do to assist all our students?

Civil War Research Project Ideas

To me , becoming a good teacher is often about trial and error. In my earlier years teaching, I did not give my students much guidance when starting a research project on the Civil War beyond a few web sites and a topic. After several years of struggles, I sat down my school’s teacher librarian and brainstormed what might help students in the research process who don’t have the background knowledge or skills when researching. We attempted to center the project on something the kids can relate to, while asking them to  synthesize and analyze information. We have tweaked the ideas and focus over the past years, but we have seen success.

My Space or Fakebook

Together, we realized that for students with a limited background knowledge about the Civil War, a good starting point is researching about one person. In our first year , students were all using the site “My Space”. With that in mind, we created a template of a My Space page that the students could download and type on. It related to the students right away at their level. Students created a profile for a Civil War Era person with personal information, status updates, friend list, and comments from friends. It looked just like a My Space page on line.

Click below to view my example about General John Buford
Buford_my_space page
Click here to access the templates and Civil War Research Web Site created by Hershey Middle School Teacher Librarian Penny Arnold.

Students were required to synthesize and analyze information to create their final product. Maybe they made a more permanent connection with the material?

This year, as My Space seems to not be “trending” as much a few years ago, I found a site called “Fakebook” where students can create a Facebook profile for a historical figure.  The site has many automatic features that find related pictures and “friends” of famous people. My students created Fakebook pages for Freedom Riders of the early 1960s Anti Segregation Movement for our Active Citizenship Unit.
Click here to view one created by a student.

Think about it

How can you help your students learn the research process and learn about the Civil War at the same time? Try starting with research on individuals and expanding from there. Connect the project with something that the students, whatever the grade level, can relate to, and it will allow them to feel more confident in the process!
Download Generic My Space Document : MySpace Doc
Fakebook page link
Link to Civil War Research web links from Hershey Middle School

Links are divided into categories, along with project ideas and a custom Google Search.
email:  rfinkill@hershey.k12.pa.us

Comment here with questions or other ideas!

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