Historically, the project my students like most is one where they use very little technology. Students create Civil War journals from the perspective of a Civil War character. While this project relates specifically to the Civil War, I suspect the ideas can be modified for use in other historical units.
When asked if they would let me keep journals to show future classes, students refused to part with their projects.
The unit runs between six and eight weeks of the school year. Throughout the unit, students create a number of pages. Their writing indicates both knowledge of Civil War content, research skills, and the 6+1 Writing Traits. Some pages are required, others are not.
I’ve seen and commented on articles bemoaning the ease of plagiarism in the age of the Internet. Much plagiarism can be avoided when students take on the perspective of a character rather than writing a report. Simple character names and identities can be obtained from an Interact Simulation of the Civil War. The packaged unit is modified to meet the needs of Upper Primary students.
The Battle of Bull Run is my favorite battle to teach. To help students build background knowledge, you can read Paul Fleishman’s Bull Run. Each of the sixteen chapters is written from the perspective of a different character in a different place – excellent modeling for students as they write in their tea-stained journals. An audio version of the book is available. I enjoy switching voices and having student read some of the character entries. Using Jean Fritz’s Stonewall, students visualize and sketch as I read. They can follow the actions from Stonewall by using maps from Bull Run. Again, students combine factual information with their fictional character’s life.
My students tell me that some of their favorite pages are Letters from Home. They pretend they have received a letters from family members such as mother, fathers, and siblings. How would the voice of a mother’s letter differ from the voice of a father?
Sometimes envelopes will contain “momentos” from girlfriends, pictures from children, or a newspaper article update.
Throughout the unit, students also learn to write essays and research reports. Here are a couple of examples:
Creation of Freedom Quilts
Since we focus on the courageous stands that were taken during the Civil War, students research Freedom Quilts. They learn some of the codes embedded into famous quilts. they also research tactics used by conductors on the Underground Railroad.
Then, groups of students create their own Freedom quilts. To the left is a scanned copy of students’ creation along with a short explanation of the codes.
Students also write biographical essays on important Civil War people. Essays force students to process information in yet another way. After researching a person, students have to grown an idea that becomes a thesis statement.
Again, it is difficult for students to plagiarize if instruction is scaffolded so that students create thesis statements and topic sentences prior to writing an essay.
Summaries and Reflections
It’s important to me that students reflect on the Gettysburg address. Can they come up with at least a one-sentence explanation of each paragraph? What makes it such an important speech?
Newspaper Articles and other Free Choice Pages
Students are allowed “free choice” pages. Some choose to make drawings of their homes. Others make newspaper articles like the one to the left. Still others take “family” portraits, change the font to sepia, and write captions about what their family, friends, and fellow soldiers were doing. Students might write a eulogy mourning the death of a good friend. Below are some thumbnail pictures of other Civil War Journal ideas.
I don’t know what makes this project so exciting for the students. Maybe they like writing in books that look old. Maybe students have come to know their character so well, they have a hard time parting with him. Perhaps they treasure the journals because they have put so much effort into writing and designing them. Whatever the reason, I am convinced that students can get as excited about non-tech projects as tech projects.
In what non-tech ways do you help bring history alive?
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