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.


We are just starting our unit on the Civil War, which ought to raise all kinds of interesting questions, but rarely does. 8th graders (and Americans, generally, come to that) think of the Civil War in very simple, easy-to-understand terms: the South was Bad, the North was Good, "we" won because we were better people and the whole thing was about slavery.

I try to get my guys to take a more nuanced view. What I'd really like them to do is ask themselves: What would I think about the Civil War if I was alive at the time? Whose side would I take? When is it okay to kill other people? How does this apply to my actual life today?

So, before we talk about any battles or generals or simulate any amputations (Yes. We actually do that.), I want them to do a little soul-searching. This Chalk Talk is a good way to start that process.

The three questions in this Chalk Talk:

1)  Is there such a thing as a good war?

2)  Is violence ever justified?

3)  What would you be willing to kill for? (It's pretty easy to think of things we'd die for; turning the question on its head makes us think a little harder.)


Some of their answers this year were very interesting:

What Would You Kill For?:
  • "Freedom"
  • "My family"
  • "If I had to because my family or home was in danger, I would kill for them."
  • "My cat"
  • "A Klondike Bar"

Is Violence Ever Justified?
  • "Yes, to protect your rights"
  • "For revenge"
  • "Never"
  • "If somebody has insulted your honor"
  • "Only against my brother."

Is There Such a Thing As a Good War?:
  • "Yes"
  • "I don't thing there's such a thing as a 'good' war, but...."
  • "I think there are bad wars and very bad wars and sometimes you have to have a bad one to prevent a very bad one."
  • "No"
  • "This is a complicated question"
  • "Is it time for lunch yet?"


Excluding the comments about the cat and the Klondike Bar, most of these comments would have found a lot of resonance with Southerners in the 1860s.

(And the comment about bad wars and worse wars really anticipates William Tecumsah Sherman.)

This is a good start.

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