Never Too Early to Cultivate History Geeks

While I always identify myself as a primary grade teacher, many people who know me well are often saying stuff like, “You should be teaching high school history,” because I love history so much.  I’m actually certified to teach through 9th grade in social studies, which means if I ever did move to the 7th-9th grade level, I would get to teach history all the time.

But you know what? I do get to teach history all time, despite the fact that my students are 7 and 8 years old.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. What kind of history could possibly be taught at the 2nd grade level?  Well, on the most basic level, you would be correct in assuming that there is very little to no history (American, world, or otherwise) in the NYS second grade social studies curriculum.  I mean, the general curriculum standards look at things like community and basic map skills, and being able to identify, say, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

You’d be surprised how many kids think MLK was a president.  Which is awesome, but often requires some lengthy explanations.

A couple years ago, my school started using a program called Studies Weekly, which is like those good old Weekly Readers you and I used as kids (which is still in existence by the way), except nothing but social studies.  The program covers everything from school responsibilities to the Constitution, to historical figures like Frederick Douglass, to how money and markets work.  You try explaining to a 2nd grader that when you use a credit card to buy stuff at Walmart, you still have to pay somebody something at some point.

Anyway, this program is, in my book, officially awesome.  Mostly because it has given me a launch point to hold dozens of in depth discussions about various topics in history.  The little magazines cover the most basic aspects of history, geography, and economics, but I don’t stop there.

Want to know why?  Because, my God, the QUESTIONS these kids ask!

They ask fantastic questions.  They ask me for books about the people, places, and historical events we learn about.  They want to see pictures – I’ve shown them everything from a video of a Civil War artillery demonstration to different photography collections on the Library of Congress website.

Want to know what’s even better? They remember and make connections between what we’ve talked about at different points in the year.  For example, because of the yearly calendar, we learn about MLK before we learn about Abraham Lincoln.  And we study them about a month apart.  (Well, this year was a little different – we did some Lincoln learning in September when the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was in Syracuse.)  One of my students made a very astute observation. “Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King were kinda the same because they both thought there were laws that were unfair and they tried to change them.”

Very simple, yes, and perhaps not a particularly accurate comparison.  But remember, this came from a 7 year old.

So I must now proudly admit that, over the past three years, I have manged to turn three classes of students into little budding history geeks.  There are some topics that I have to sort of simplify – I get asked every year when we talk about Abraham Lincoln, “Why did the Civil War start?”  Then that leads into showing some maps and discussing slavery, which in turn leads to lots of little horrified gasps at the idea that people were once treated like property.  Echoes and echoes of, “But that’s not fair!” ring through all those discussions.  And there’s visual relief on their faces when they discover that slavery was made illegal, even though it took a hundred more years for all people to start getting treated equally in this country.

But even though it’s sometimes necessary to “tidy up” very complex historical issues, the fact that the kids are so interested and ask about stuff in history proves that they can and should be taught about history. I’ve never believed in dumbing down instruction in case a student doesn’t understand a word or two.  When I read a book about MLK that talks about segregation, I just pause and explain what the word means.  Fortunately, many fantastic books, and other materials, have become available in recent years that offer instruction on topics in history while still being kid friendly.  It piques their curiosity.

This week, I just wrapped up my President Biography project with my class.  Each student had to choose one president (except George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, since we learn so much about them in class) to study and write a very brief biography about.  They were so excited to choose their presidents, and during reading station time and free time, they looked through the books and information about other presidents by choice.

I can’t wait to do the women’s history project at the end of this month.

Now, I do realize that most 2nd graders are naturally curious, which is why they get just as excited about finishing all 100 addition or subtraction problems on their weekly timed test as they do when I break out the magnets or read about George Washington.  And I also realize that in just a few short years, that curiosity will be stunted by the general apathy that accompanies the onset of puberty.

But maybe, just maybe, someday I’ll stumble across a former student at a Civil War reenactment who will tell me, “Mrs. Rowan, you made me love history.”

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Geeked Out and Happy

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were unabashedly full of historical geek-out for me.  And almost all of it was spur of the moment and last minute discoveries.

First, I found out on Wednesday night that the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was going to be displayed in Syracuse, for one day only, on Thursday.  The 150th anniversary of the Proclamation’s issuance was September 22nd, and the document is on a tour of New York State as part of the First Step to Freedom exhibit.

Now, why was this so particularly special, besides the whole anniversary thing?

Well, this draft copy is the only surviving copy of the document, written in Abraham Lincoln’s own hand.  The official final draft of the document was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  This preliminary draft was donated by Lincoln to the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1864, and it was auctioned off as part of a fundraiser to raise money for the war effort.  The draft was purchased by abolitionist Gerrit Smith for $1000 and then later donated to the New York State Museum.

The last time the Proclamation made “the rounds” was over 50 years ago.  This was a prime opportunity.  On a Thursday night.  So the hubs and I ate a lighting fast dinner and hied ourselves southward to downtown Syracuse.

And stood in line for about 3 hours in what could possibly be the worst organized historical event ever.  It was so anti-climatic, and by the time it was my turn to see the document, I felt guilty spending more than a few seconds taking pictures of the four pages.  Which is a shame, because it could have been so cool.  I mean, page 3, they think, has Lincoln’s fingerprint on it!

See the fingerprint? Right under the glued-in clipping.

But it was the chance of a lifetime, so at the end of the day I was glad I went.

Then on Friday, I discovered the music video for the song “Some Nights” by Fun.

Watch it.  It freaking features the Civil War!  Brings a whole new meaning to the lyrics.

And lastly, it was Civil War weekend at Fort Ontario, and Saturday was a beautiful day to catch a reenactment.

And I managed to capture the instant one of the cannons was fired.

I even got a chance to chat it up with some of the reenactors.  One (the guy with the long hair sitting on the ground by the cannon) tried to recruit me.

Oh, don’t tempt me!

Civil War Sesquicentennial – Battle of Antietam

We need to start off today with a quick vocabulary lesson, because while I’m a geek and a vocabular-iholic (is that a word?), not everybody is.  Sesquicentennial is just a fancy way to say the 150th anniversary of something.

In case there are those of you out there who aren’t aware, we are in the midst of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.  The War Between the States.  Whatever you call it – and there are literally dozens of names for what is arguably the greatest tragedy in our nation’s history and the turning point from which all of modern history and present American society developed.  The Civil War’s 150th anniversary is being observed across our country in a variety of ways, and while the anniversary years of the war are technically from 2011 to 2015, the anniversary really began in November of 2010, which was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election.  Right now, we are only about  a year and a half into observing the sesquicentennial of a war that lasted four bloody, terrible years, resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 men and caused millions more to spend the rest of their lives as invalids from wounds and diseases suffered during their service.

Regardless of which “side” you take (and I hope you readers are the sort willing to engage in an unbiased study of ALL sides), the next two and a half years are the perfect chance to learn more about the Civil War.  Honestly, everyone who is a citizen of this country should learn about the Civil War, and it sadly doesn’t seem to get much attention in school.  Understandably so – even after 150 years, it’s a touchy subject in many parts of our country.  But it’s important.  You can’t understand the Civil Rights Movement without studying the ideologies and political rhetoric leading up to the Civil War or what came from its aftermath.  Heck, the “indivisible” part of the Pledge of Allegiance, which millions of school children say every day across America, is in the Pledge because of the Civil War.

Think about that for a minute.

All set? Okay, let’s move on.

Now, as I’ve already said at the beginning of this post, I am a geek. Not just about words.  I’m a huge history geek.  Especially when it comes to the Civil War.  And as a writer of historical fiction, I feel it’s extremely important to be as accurate as possible in the historical details pertaining to your story.  A few months ago, I wrote about this and offered some of my favorite resources.  Even if you don’t use the actual details in your story, your knowledge of them strengthens the setting you’re building in your narrative.  Your background knowledge provides a framework for the choices your characters make and the things they do based on what’s happening in the world around them.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, which remains the single bloodiest day in American military history.  23,000 men were dead, missing, or wounded by the end of the day, over 3500 of them killed outright during the battle.  And that, my friends, is the whole reason for this post.

Two Septembers ago, I had the opportunity to visit Antietam National Military Park.  (Side note – check out their site.  So comprehensive.  Go check out their YouTube channel as well.)  This was awesome for two reasons.  First – hello!  Civil War geek here!  But the second reason the visit was total awesomesauce was because, in my magnum opus, one of my main characters fights at Antietam.  And it’s one thing to study history books and maps and so on. It’s another to actually go to the place where this major event happened, see the layout of the land, and visualize what happened that day while you’re standing on the same ground.

It’s a really amazing experience.  Especially since most Civil War movies do a terrible job of depicting battles.  The only two Hollywood productions I can think of, off the top of my head, that actually presented worthwhile battle scenes were “Gettysburg” and the First Battle of Bull Run sequence in the “North & South: Book II” miniseries.  Why?  Because they filmed the battles with volunteer reenactment groups who knew what they were doing, and they filmed on location. And I know they filmed on location because I have been to both Gettysburg and Bull Run.

Antietam National Battlefield is kind of a special thing.  It’s nestled in the Maryland countryside, and the battlefield and surrounding area really hasn’t changed much in the 150 years since the Union and Confederate armies clashed in battle over what amounts to about 3 square miles, maybe a little more.  Sharpsburg is still a small town.  The farm fields are still in use.  It doesn’t get the huge levels of traffic larger, more well known sites like Gettysburg see every year, but in a way that helps maintain its charm.  When you walk out onto the battlefield, there’s very little to get in the way of your imagination.

I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow history lesson about the battle.  You can read up on it anywhere – Wikipedia, the National Park Services Website, the Civil War Trust’s website, countless books.  I do want to share a handful of my favorite photos from my trip, along with a video of an artillery demonstration.  If you want to see more of my pictures, you can check out the full album here.

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Civil War Resources (because accuracy counts!)

I believe I’ve mentioned once or twice (or thrice) that my current work in progress has taken about 18 years of my life to get to the complete first draft point.  I can assure you, it hasn’t all been about writing and editing and revising.  A huge chunk of that time has been spent on research.

Because I believe in historical accuracy.

I love reading good historical fiction – I’d either start screaming hysterically from joy or faint from shock if I were ever to actually meet John Jakes.   Any historical fiction author worth her salt knows the value of honest, accurate research.  Part of creating your world is understanding… well, the world you’re writing.  And nothing makes me more twitchy than reading historical fiction in which the author has obviously not done the required homework.

I don’t care what your historical passion is, but if you want to be taken seriously, I really believe you should know what you’re talking about when you place your characters in the middle of the American Revolution or Tudor-era London.  If you want me to read your book, do your homework.  Yes, you can sometimes get away with vague references, and a little creative license is allowed as long as you’re not changing history. But that said, nothing makes me put down a book faster and think the author is an ignorant git more than stumbling across a fact that is blatantly wrong.

I am a slave to historical accuracy. When I sat down six years ago (!) to start my complete rewrite, I vowed I would fill in the historical blanks in my original manuscript.  I felt it was important for my characters to exist in a world that was as true as possible (at least, true from their perspectives).  And besides that, in the years between my first attempts at publication and the start of the rewrite (years that included a personalized rejection letter stating areas I needed to improve upon), I had done a slew of my own research and exploration into the Civil War. Not specifically for my book – rather, I am a geek. And while I am an avid student of all history, the Civil War is, by far, the most fascinating to me.

Anyway, I digress.

Because historical accuracy is so important to me, and because I’m sure there are writers out there who also would like to churn out a bit of historical fiction of the Civil War persuasion, I decided to list out some of the resources I’ve used over the years to hone and expand my knowledge.  This will be something of a “living document” post, as I will add and edit as necessary (especially in the case of websites).  If anyone comes upon any broken links, please let me know!

Books

Online Resources/Websites
Documentary Videos and Other Media