In each issue, we introduce a teacher who has participated in Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) professional development and successfully uses primary sources from the Library of Congress to support effective instructional practices.
This issue’s Teacher Spotlight features middle school Social Studies teacher Rebecca Byrd. The TPS program at Middle Tennessee State University nominated Rebecca for her effective classroom use of primary sources to teach about the Civil War. A 16-year teaching veteran, she currently teaches at New Center School in Sevierville, Tennessee. In this interview, Rebecca discusses teaching strategies and her favorite Library of Congress online resources.
Tell us about the first time you tried using primary sources in the classroom.
When I began teaching, I often tried to incorporate primary sources into my lessons. However, I was always disappointed with the results. The students seemed bored and I ended up doing all the talking. Using the inquiry method with primary sources really transformed the experience. I have learned that in the beginning of the school year, I need to directly teach students how to break down the analysis of primary sources and consider each aspect of the source. Once they grasp the basics of analysis, they literally use the primary sources to teach themselves. No matter how much I study the sources while preparing the lesson, my students consistently notice some detail or make some connection that I have not seen myself. Those are actually my favorite moments when the barrier between teacher and student falls away and we are just a room full of people excited about history.
How do you use primary sources to teach about the Civil War?
In popular culture, the Civil War is often portrayed as simply a fight over slavery or a battle for state’s rights. It was both of those, but it was also much more. Using primary sources helps students grasp the enormity of change that the Civil War wrought in America, and also the complexity of the issues involved. When students read the letters of Civil War soldiers, they realize that the “good” guys were not always good, and the “bad” guys were not always bad. Primary sources help students understand a war that holds center stage in America’s collective memory and continues to incite controversy today.
Because Tennessee played such a major role in the war, there are many wonderful photographs and documents about Tennessee available from the Library of Congress. I was able to incorporate a number of these into a lesson plan I created called A House Divided: The Civil War Home Front in Tennessee. I love to see my students’ reactions when I distribute the materials, and they realize that they are looking at photographs or reading about places that are familiar. Having that personal connection to the past really helps to bring the war to life. By 8th grade, most students are already familiar with names like Grant, Lee or Gettysburg. In order to make the war real to them, I take a “bottom up” approach and emphasize the war experiences of common soldiers. I also engage students with diverse learning styles by doing a number of experiential activities. My students sing Civil War songs, try on reproduction clothing, eat hardtack, and march around the parking lot carrying their backpacks to recreate a sense of what Civil War soldiers and civilians experienced. Finally, I try to make connections between the experiences of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq with the experiences of their Civil War counterparts.
What is your favorite resource available on the Library of Congress Web site?
One of my favorite collections on the Library of Congress website for teaching about the Civil War is the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. The summative activity in my House Divided lesson plan asks the student to assume the role of a Civil War soldier writing home about his experiences in the war. I assign students a photograph from the collection to inspire their creativity and to help them empathize with the soldiers, many of whom were not much older than they are. Last year, I discovered the collection Poet at Work: Walt Whitman Notebooks 1850s-1860s that I am planning to incorporate into my Civil War unit this year. It has amazing accounts of the war based on Whitman’s visits with wounded soldiers in Washington.
What advice do you have for teachers who have never tried teaching with primary sources, especially in subjects other than social studies?
Because the Civil War touched every facet of American life, teachers of any subject can find ways to engage their students in a study of the Civil War using materials from the Library of Congress. A Language Arts teacher can use a recruitment poster from the collection An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera to analyze persuasive writing techniques. A math teacher might use the same poster and have students calculate what a Civil War bounty would be worth in today’s dollars. Science teachers could explore the chemistry of developing a daguerreotype or the changes in technology that made photographing Civil War battlefields possible