Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tools for Teaching the Civil War in Fifth Grade

Recently, one of my students asked me what was my favorite subject to teach? I explained that's a tough question for me, because I love to teach every subject. In all honesty, whatever I am teaching at a given moment is my favorite subject until the next lesson starts. Except for social studies, that is.

Social studies is my Achilles Heel when it comes to instruction. I never feel like I know enough, and I am always second guessing whether or not I am focusing on the most critical information. The standards help with narrowing the scope of what needs to be covered, but I never feel confident that I am doing the content justice.

Two weeks ago I sat staring down the barrel of the Third Quarter Social Studies Planning and Scheduling Timeline. I sat for hours trying to decide how to teach my fifth graders the causes of the Civil War, the events that lead to the War, the importance of slavery to the Southern economy, the elements relating to the abolition of slavery, the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, the major battles of the Civil War, the contributions of African Americans to the Civil War, the government plan for Reconstruction after the War, and the challenges the South faced after the War. Initially, I was paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge, but then I took a deep breath and went back to what I know best - children's literature. I figured if I found the right picture book to introduce the unit, at least I'd have a place to start.

My literary scavenger hunt resulted in not one, but two, awesome books I could use to make the abstract concepts of politics, government, economics, and war more understandable for my students. The book I decided to use to introduce the Civil War to my class is Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. My thinking was that I had never gone wrong with Patricia Polacco before, so I figured I might have stumbled upon a winner. I was right. The kids were riveted by Polacco's retelling of her great-great grandfather's memoir from the Civil War. Sheldon Curtis (Say), passed down the touching story of his rescue by Pinkus Aylee (Pink), an African American Union soldier, to his descendants, and Polacco shares the story with her readers in Pink and Say.

The book sparked curiosity in the minds of my students, and compassion in their hearts. They had questions about fifteen year old boys going to war and the cruel treatment of Pink after he and Say were captured by Confederate soldiers. During our conversations, I was able to assess the children's prior knowledge of the Civil War, which turned out to be minimal.

I knew the kids were not ready to handle the Civil War content in their gargantuan Social Studies textbooks, so I fell back on another trusted "friend" to help them unwrap some of this complex material. Tim and Moby from BrainPop did an excellent job breaking down the background and the causes of the Civil War in two BrainPop videos. The first, called Civil War, is free. The second, called Civil War Causes, is not. The BrainPop classroom subscription is a little pricey ($205.00), but it's definitely worth asking your administration for, especially if you have off-level readers who can't handle the text complexity of an on-level textbook.

We set up Civil War folders for the graphic organizers and vocabulary sheets that come with the BrainPop movies and used our textbooks as a supplemental resource to help fill in the required information. So far so good!

After break, we'll be covering slavery in more depth. I can't wait to read Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine to my students. The illustrations are captivating, and I know they will be intrigued by the story of Henry Brown, a slave who MAILED himself to Philadelphia after his family was sold off to other plantation owners. The children do know a little more about slavery and the Underground Railroad than they do about the politics of the Civil War, so I am confident that they will do well with the slavery timeline assignment I have planned for after we finish Henry's Freedom Box.

At that point, I'll be two-thirds of the way through the eligible content. I found this awesome PowerPoint to organize the Battles of the Civil War in a meaningful way, and I know this SEMANTIC FEATURE ANALYSIS will further aid my students' understanding. Once we have finished this last part of the unit, it will be time to assess what everybody has learned.

We haven't played I Have, Who Has yet this year, but every class I have played it with in the past has loved the game. These CARDS will be a perfect review before we "test". Reviewing in a game format will help motivate my reluctant learners, and everyone will get to have a little fun.

I'm planning on turning the learning objectives from our Planning and Scheduling Timelines into a few constructed response items to assess how much knowledge the children have gained. Of course, the children will have access to their Civil War folders and their textbooks during the assessment, so I am confident they will do well.

Viola! I faced my fears and broke a seemingly insurmountable task into a manageable course of action. I am no longer feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of covering the Civil War with my class. Instead, I am looking forward to the Civil War biography projects we will be doing in the afternoons during state testing in two weeks. I am using an idea for cardboard cutouts like these that I found on a couple of the amazing blogs I follow.

My grade partners and I have agreed to set up a living museum once the biography projects are done. We plan on inviting the fourth grade and our kids' parents to view the projects and listen to the "autobiographies" the children will be writing.

Social studies may not be my forte, but I refuse to let anything hold me back from providing my students with the educational experience they deserve.


  1. I agree, both Pink and Say and Henry's Freedom box are winners! Teaching historical events through literature is powerful.

    The Living Museum is an experience your students will long remember. You may not love teaching social studies, but you rocked this course of study!

    Read with Me ABC

  2. This is great! The Civil War is the first unit I'll teach in August, so I'm definitely going to use this for a resource. Also, I've nominated you for a Liebster award. Check it out!