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Studying history can be difficult for students because they have no frame of reference to understand the political, economic, and social forces of a given historical period. Primary documents can communicate a distinct impression of a given era. By viewing documents from a range of perspectives, levels of society, and positions of power, students are able to interpret and compose a more educated evaluation of an era.
Reaching an Understanding
This lesson pushes students to reach a more definitive understanding of the Civil War by evaluating primary documents such as letters, journals, articles, and photographs from the era then writing an essay to answer this prompt: Did the cause of the Civil War justify the risks that Michigan soldiers had to face in order to join the Union Army?
*Going into this lesson, students should already have some background on the American Civil War and be familiar with writing a position paper.
Note: before this lesson, we suggest students complete the lesson on Understanding History, which tries to familiarize students with how to use primary documents and make them feel comfortable doing so.
The Learning Process
- examine a variety of primary documents from the Civil War era
- discuss opinions with classmates in debate type setting
- develop a thesis in direct response to the prompt based on their findings
- write a short research paper supporting their thesis with citations from documents, and explanations about why they chose their position
- develop a better understanding of the issues and causes of the Civil War, the role Michigan families played during this time period, and the risks encountered in war
Key Components: You Will Need…
A small collection of Primary Documents, included below
The Position Analysis Worksheet, included below:
(Multiple copies of the Position Worksheet may be needed to cite evidence as students complete research.)
Stage 1: Acquainting Ourselves With The Past
Begin the lesson by introducing the prompt: Did the cause of the Civil War justify the risks that Michigan soldiers had to face in order to join the Union Army? Discuss some background of the Civil War to refamiliarize students with the topic. Each student should receive a packet of the included documents and the Position Analysis Worksheet with the instruction to look through the documents and take notes on whatever comes to mind. Be sure to communicate to the students that the purpose of examining the documents is to be able to answer the question based on opinions they form about the documents. Emphasize the importance of trying to put themselves in the time period; ask them to imagine what they would think, feel, want, etc. if they were asked to join the Union Army. This activity stage can generally take as much time as the teacher allows; we recommend two class periods for this stage.
Stage 2: Bringing Our Thoughts to the Table
Give students the opportunity to share opinions and findings through purposeful discussion in the classroom. As the moderator, the teacher is responsible for setting the stage for appropriate sharing of ideas. We recommend prefacing class discussion by cautioning students against taking arguments personally and emphasizing the importance of learning to listen to opposing positions. It is important that the teacher communicate that there is no correct answer to the prompt question.
Students should use their filled in Position Worksheets as well as the primary documents to engage in discussion. Ask specific questions about each document. In response to the questions, students should refer back to the individual document that helped them form that opinion. Demonstrate that differing opinions can be valid. Encourage students to take further notes on their Position Worksheet(s) throughout the debate; they may find other students’ arguments compelling and want to use others’ points to support their own argument. Notes taken on the Position Worksheet are what the students will primarily be using to support the thesis of their paper.
Stage 3: Composing a Persuasive Argument
Students will develop and support a thesis statement in a short research essay. This activity is meant to show how well students can identify passages that support their thesis as well as assess the students’ general understanding of the political, social, and economic issues the nation faced during the Civil War.
Instruct students to use their Position Worksheet, copies of the primary documents, and notes from the previous debate to write a position paper in response to the prompt. Emphasize the importance of citations from the documents to support their position, and be sure to give the students a format for citing sources. This part of the assignment can either be an in class exercise or a take-home project.
Depending on the age group of your students, teaching them some vocabulary can be a great way to spice up the lesson for them. For an extensive glossary of Civil War-specific terms, look here: http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/glossary/glossary.html#K. Teach them some words like bayonet, and Quartermaster, and stockade. That’ll make their ears perk up.