From the Front Lines of the Civil War

Donna Woody, Head Librarian as well as Middle School Librarian, takes us inside a seventh grade research project on Civil War battles.  Historical research has certainly changed!


Mrs. Woody, I just read a Harper’s Weekly article about the Battle of Bull Run. They make it sound like the NORTH won the battle.”

“Did Lincoln’s assassination end the war, or did the fall of the Confederacy end it?”

“Did the Quakers have to choose between nonviolence and putting an end to slavery?”

“So that is what the Emancipation Proclamation was…”

These are some of the reflections of seventh grade students as they conduct research – a collaborative project between the library and the Middle School history department where information literacy skills are taught within the context of Civil War events. The students’ assignment has two parts. First, students are paired to research significant battles or events that occurred during the Civil War. In preparation for the writing of their newspaper chronicling the incident, each student composes a main article highlighting the sequence of events. Then they determine who will author various newspaper sections (an editorial, an obituary, a protest letter, a political cartoon, a letter from the front line of a battle to a relative, and a diary entry) between the two of them. The students also create a “Top Ten” list of significant facts about their events to share with their classmates. The second component of the assignment requires the students to present a visual aid that demonstrates their knowledge of the event and to teach the information to the remainder of the class.

“Although it was ultimately a loss for the Union, I think this is one of the reasons that the Union forces ended up winning in the end. It was impressive and inspiring reading about the amount of bravery necessary for these men in a stand in which they knew they would lose. This is bravery.”

“Until now, I did not see how gruesome this battle was, and also how technical and detailed it was compared to other battles.”

No longer do students rely solely on books, old green Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature, microfiche, or microfilm. Instead, students have access to a wealth of information in online library databases – extensive collections of print resources such as books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and images digitized and easily searchable. They also investigate ebooks, web sites, and primary source documents found in newspaper databases or online. Students learn to evaluate resources found using a variety of search engines such as Sweet Search, Boolify, and Blekko as well. Because the use of these resources is taught in context, students remember how to utilize the sources in other research projects.  Students utilize critical thinking to find the best resources and filter through them to find the pertinent information needed to write their articles as well as explain the nuances of the Civil War events. These online resources have been curated by the librarian for the students’ use in a LiveBinder (access code CW7). Of course, print resources are always available as well.

“Over fifty thousand men were lost…at what point is victory a defeat?”

“Lee must have been a brilliant general to be forced not to resign.”

The note taking and citation process has been digitized, too. Using a program called NoodleTools, students create their bibliographies in MLA format through the use of the online citation generator. The sources may also be identified as primary or secondary by the click of a button. Note cards are created by copying a direct quote, providing a paraphrase, and then developing ideas for further research or to reflect upon the information gleaned from a source. The note cards can be tagged, sorted, and placed into an outline. This way of note taking assists the learners in avoiding plagiarism which is an ongoing skill that the students work to master throughout their Middle School years.

“Shoes? The battle of Gettsyburg was fought because of SHOES?!!?”

“I wonder what would have happened if the Confederates had the same number of soldiers?”

“I feel this is actually quite an important battle, but I am wondering how it affects the Civil War as a whole.”

During the research process, students collaborate with each other regarding the contents of their newspapers as well as plan for the opportunity to teach the class the information they have assembled from the resources used. Their presentations begin with the First Battle of Bull Run and chronicle major battles and events ending with Lincoln’s Assassination.  The presentations offer the students the opportunity to discover patterns and draw conclusions. For example, the students see that the North’s lack of military leadership prolonged the war, that Robert E. Lee and the Southern generals were brilliant strategists who could win battles despite incredible odds, and that one of the effects of Lincoln’s assassination was the harsh period of Reconstruction in the South.

“Lincoln was a great man in his beliefs and moral compass. He seemed ahead of his time.”

When students research their own topics and create projects to reflect their new found knowledge, the learning becomes richer and more meaningful. The events of the Civil War are no longer dry dates on a page in a textbook. As students themselves teach the concepts, the “teachers” synthesize the information to create deeper meaning. Using the abundance of library resources and utilizing newly acquired information literacy skills in the historical context of Civil War events, the learning becomes more vivid, more memorable, and more significant.

“He was wrong. The world did ‘long remember what we say here.’ ”

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