One of my professional development goals for this three-year, re-certification cycle is to spiral coverage of various Social Studies topics, so that they keep coming up again and again, thus impressing themselves on 7th and 8th grade students, who would rather devote their brain cells to more urgent things, like tacos, cat videos and fart jokes.

As part of the notes I gave my 8th graders, while we were studying the Civil War, I covered some of the technological advances during the war, including the introduction of rifles, iron-clad battle ships and the Gatling gun. Because we are a New Hampshire school, I included the use of hot-air balloons by the Union Army. (Most of the notable balloonists of the period were from New Hampshire.) I pointed out that using balloons for observation led almost directly to the use of blimps and dirigibles half a century later in World War One, which led to the use of fighter planes and bombers, which led to modern air warfare. 

This was all well and good - if a bit over-simplified - but probably didn't make much of an impression on most of my students.

Until we ran across this account of the Battle of Fredericksburg while investigating our Mystery Soldier of the 9th New Hampshire Volunteers:
I like it when stuff like this works out.
For several years, my 8th grade American History students used to devote a month or so to a project we called the Adopt a Dead Person Project, or as my students called it, "The Dead Guy Thing".

The gist was essentially this:

We would take a field trip to three of our town's 100+ cemeteries. Students would find 19th century gravestones that interested them, then each class would choose one person whose grave they had seen to study. I would then spend the next several months collecting as much primary source data about these people from census and probate records, town reports and military pensions. I would present what I had found to the students, and they would do research on aspects of each person's life.

For instance, they investigated the death of a railroad brakeman who had been run over by a train or what life was like for a Civil War veteran who had died of tuberculosis. The idea was that when we were done, we'd have compiled a reasonably comprehensive biography of an otherwise obscure historical figure.

Over the years however, the project has fallen by the wayside, primarily because of the huge amount of legwork involved on my part.

Once or twice a year, I have my 8th graders do a Chalk Talk. The goal is to have them think about and discuss knotty philosophical issues from a fresh perspective. As we start our Civil War unit, I like to ask three provocative questions:
  • Is there such a thing as a good war?
  • Does violence ever solve anything?
  • What would you be willing to kill somebody for?

This year, my students were very resistant to digging deeply into any of these questions.

Q: Is there such a thing as a good war?
A: "Yes."  "Yes."  "I don't know." "Maybe" "Probably"

I discovered quickly, that for this group, I needed to frame my questions much more specifically:
  • What is a good war?
  • When does violence solve problems?
  • What would you would be willing to kill somebody else for?

A good lesson for me.
As always, their answers were really interesting, if you compare them to what a Civil War-Era Southerner might have said.
The Civil War ruined Charles Jones' life.

Charles Jones was eighteen when he enlisted in the Union Army in September of 1861. The War had been going on for about six months and it was just occurring to both sides that this was not going to be the 90-days dust-up that everyone has assumed it would be. So far as I know, Jones did not leave a diary or any letters, so it's tough to know why he joined up, but his census and military records hint that he was from a poor family and needed the money. He joined the 2nd NH Volunteer Infantry.

Over the next three and a half years, his unit fought in most of the major battles in the Eastern Theater - 2nd Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg and Cold Harbor. At one point, his unit was sent back to New Hampshire on furlough and he deserted, but was dragged back and served out the rest of his enlistment. Along the way, he came down with chronic malaria, that plagued him for the rest of his life.

After the War, he worked a series of low-skill, menial jobs, got married and divorced a couple of times and ended up drinking himself to death at the age of 68. His son, who wanted nothing to do with him, sent his outstanding debts on to the Pension Department, which is how we know anything about him. Today, his grave lies more or less forgotten in a corner of another family's private plot.

Looking back on the life of Charles Jones with modern eyes, he seems like a text-book example of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, to Victorian eyes, he was the victim of his own moral failings. No matter how you view success in life - money, professional accomplishments, good health, the love and respect of a good family - he didn't have any of that. He died alone and an utter failure in life. The Civil War killed him just as surely as if he'd been shot on the battlefield - it just took fifty years to do it.

Charles Jones didn't just give his life to the Civil War; he gave up his hopes, dreams, self-respect and his future.

On Friday, our school held its traditional Memorial Day assembly. Students read poems. One student sang Amazing Grace. Two trumpeters played Taps.

During the whole assembly, I couldn't help thinking of Charles Jones, who - willingly or unwillingly - had given up so much for his country and about my own father, a Vietnam vet who has a lot in common with Jones. As the assembly wrapped up and students straggled back to their classrooms, I pulled one of our 8th graders aside - a very nifty girl, whose father is an active duty serviceman and who feels passionately about such things. I asked if she had any plans for lunch and could she do me a favor?

She was agreeable, so I checked with my Assistant Principal and called this girl's mother to get permission to take her off-campus during lunch.

At lunchtime, a colleague, the student and I jumped into my car and drove to the cemetery where Charles Jones is buried. We brought along some lilacs that I cut from a bush at school. We cleaned off his grave and I told the two ladies about Jones' rough life. They placed the lilacs on his grave and we went back to school.

It was only a symbolic gesture, but it seems like the least we could do. After all that he had given up, Charles Jones deserves to have a couple of pretty girls put flowers on his grave.
One of my goals for my 8th grade American History classes is to foster a spirit of introspection. In one sense, that's easy - you'd have to look really hard for anyone outside the world of show business more self-centered than a fourteen year-old.

Or outside politics.

Or professional sports.

Or law.

Or banking.

Okay - on second thought, fourteen year-olds aren't any more self-centered than most of us.

Which makes it even more important to get them in the habit of examining their beliefs from time to time and seeing how they stack up against a larger framework.

One way to get a conversation going is to use a tried-and-true classroom technique - the Chalk Talk.

The idea behind a Chalk Talk is that the teacher - me, in this case - writes one or more questions - preferably provocative ones - on the whiteboard in my classroom. Students write responses to my prompt and respond to each other's responses. They are not allowed to speak while they do this - all communication is supposed to take place on the board.

In theory, this all takes place in silence, but I actually like to play appropriately-themed music while they do this.