A group of about 30 history and social studies teachers from Connecticut visited Chattanooga on Wednesday as part of a 10-day expedition to learn how to better teach the Civil War.
Wednesday’s visit included stops at Chickamauga Battlefield and Point Park atop Lookout Mountain.
The teachers-all at the elementary and high school level-were joined on the trip by nationally recognized historian/author Kevin Levin, an expert on the Civil War and American history teacher at Gann Academy in Boston.
He stressed that much of his guidance to teachers has been focused on the broader connections between the different battles.
A “major Civil War trip,” according to Levin, the tour began on Monday at The Hermitage and will continue through stops at Appomattox, Fredericksburg and Antietam before concluding at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Levin said a stop in Chattanooga was critical to understanding the scope of the war.
“Making the connections back to the home front, particularly the political connections, are crucial when it comes to Chickamauga,” he said. “Having a defeat so late in the war down here affects Washington and Lincoln’s view on the war, the morale, and also understanding that the events in Chattanooga are a precursor to what is going to happen in Georgia with Sherman’s march to Atlanta.”
Teaching the Civil War
Trying to condense the scope of the Civil War enough for students to grasp can prove difficult.
Part of the trip is designed to help make the Civil War personal for the teachers, according to Joe Jelen, a history teacher on the trip.
“The unfortunate part of history is the march through history that is a timeline of events and dates,” Jelen said. “But now, we’ve had the experience of traveling to some of these sights. We now have the ability to speak with more confidence.”
Jelen is moving from Connecticut to Maryland in the near future to teach. One of his areas of focus is finding a way to bridge the gap between learning history and technology.
According to Levin, the primary issue with teaching the Civil War is time.
“I think you have to be very confident and think very carefully about what events during that four- and five-year period and beyond you want to focus on,” he said. “Now with the technology we have, it’s so easy to bring the voices we have, from the highest-level politicians down to the average farmer from all walks of life, into the classroom. You can really give students a sense of perspective and also that human element that we so often lose sight of.”
Funding for the trip was provided by a Teaching American History Grant from the Department of Education. It was organized by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale.
This is the final trip before funding runs out.
Jelen said the trip is bittersweet for him and many of the other teachers.
“It’s sad that teachers aren’t going to experience this level of development in the future, specifically history teachers,” he said.
This source of funding provided the teachers opportunities for other tours in the past. Those trips included visits to California, a guided tour of the Oregon Trail and a Civil Rights tour through Birmingham and Memphis.
“Professional development money has tended toward STEM, that is, science, technology and mathematics,” Jelen said. “Social studies is kind of getting nudged out a bit.”