I recently found out that I will very likely be back to teaching all World History next year. I'm not going to lie - I'm glad. U.S. History was a serious challenge for me this year and while I feel like I did a good job overall it just never quite clicked with me.
Still, I wasn't going to go down without a fight.
Today was basically our last uninterrupted day of the year (well, except for the 6 kids of mine out for testing...) and I decided it was time to go big. I wanted to leave my kids with a lesson to remember. I had the vestiges of an old experiential exercise on the Siege of Vicksburg from TCI as my starting point. I knew it would be a fine lab but what could I do to next level it?
Ta da: The Siege of Vicksburg
The first step was to find better sources. The lab is essentially a stations lab where students investigate a series of descriptions of life in the south during the second half of the Civil War. The ones provided by TCI (or at least previously so, I couldn't find this lab in their new online materials) were largely secondary sources with no specific site or battle reference. I decided to find actual primary source accounts of Vicksburg to make things more authentic. I found some great diaries and letters and pulled excerpts until I had 10 that provided a solid overview of life in the town.
The second step was to up the experience. TCI advised setting up the quotes around the room with the desks set around the rooms like outer walls. The placards would be under the desks requiring students to crawl around to read them all. Meanwhile, civil war battle sounds would play from the computer speakers. I kept this overall set up but make some tweaks. First, I arranged the desks into a much less easy pattern. I still set up outer walls but I also used some desks to build snaking pathways within the walls. This would simulate the caves and trenches in the city and also force kids to find ways to work with (and through) one another. I also scattered the placards around and numbered them. Kids would have to do them in order (starting from wherever they were) thus forcing even more bumping and interaction.
Next, I upgraded the sound. I created 3 separate sound files. The main file was a constant sound of gunfire and cannon pops. This sound played from a speaker at the front of the room. I kept it fairly low to simulate far off shots and battles. The second file contains a bunch of night sounds like crickets along with footsteps and hushed whispers at various times. This played from the center of the room using a bluetooth speaker. The final file was just a very low cannon boom that played from the room's overhead speakers very loudly. Whenever this sound happened the screen flashed white to simulate a nearby cannon.
I liked where it was going but I needed a few capping pieces. I found a great intro and closing video at civilwar.org that perfectly set up and summarized the battle. For actual student work I had them, after visiting the 10 placards, write a letter as if they were a civilian in the siege. They had to use a piece of scratch paper (as opposed to a new one) to simulate the difficulty finding paper in Vicksburg at the time. To close it all I showed them a copy of a parole sheet from a Confederate soldier signed after the battle. It just so happened to be a direct relative of mine which made it even cooler.
The lab went pretty well (nothing goes as planned the first time) and my students absolutely got the point far better than they had in any previous lectures or readings. They understood the devastation of the Confederate cities and populace. They came up with some inventive ways to get around each other and remain crawling (both periods realize that crawling under the desks worked out pretty well.) They also wrote excellent letters (mostly.) They were not, however, blown away as I'd hoped. I guess 8th graders are just too jaded. I still had plenty just going through the motions showing no empathy toward the civilians or even towards their fellow students trying to get around. If I got to do it again I could fix these issues, or at least lessen them, with some small changes but overall I was happy with it.
I continue to encourage others to go big when they can. It really does help the kids engage and learn - even if they don't always show it. Plus, for me at least, it makes me excited to come to work. I couldn't wait to share this experience with them (which may well be why I saw the flaws as negatively as I did) and finish strong. I hope one day they'll look back and remember the work I put in to provide them with this experience. I hope they recognize what it means to be a civilian in war - even if you're the "bad guys." I hope going big pays off.
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