History on Location Follow-Up Part 5: Archives, African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, American History Museum

Note:  This is the final entry on our trip.  Previous entries are on our investigations in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania UGRR, John Brown sites, and Antietam/Lincoln’s Cottage/Ford’s Theatre.

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Beautiful weather followed us to DC, providing project participants with stellar nights and breathtaking mornings through which to enjoy the capital.

Our final day focused on how the Civil War story is told in DC.  We began it with Missy McNatt at the National Archives, who gave us a “backstage tour” of the Civil War exhibit to begin April 30.  Ms. McNatt asked us to consider which themes and documents should be highlighted by the exhibit.  She previewed “Docs Teach,” the Archives soon to be released new effort to move teachers beyond simply using primary sources but to use them in ways which excite students and catalyze inquiry.

From there, we went to the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial.  There, Frank Smith discussed how that site emerged from twinned interests in historical memory and neighborhood revitalization.  Spencer Crew discussed how efforts to broaden the historical narrative can conflict with donors’ visions of the past.*  Spencer then joined us on a short visit to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where he asked us to compare the story told in the exhibit with the one we had been studying for the previous week (and which we had begun with Jenny Wahl, Paul Finkelman, and him the previous summer.)  He encouraged us to pay particular attention to The Price of Freedom:  Americans at War exhibit.

I was particularly struck by the statement which introduced the Civil War gallery, “Americans battled each other over preserving their union and ending slavery.”  I realize that it’s hard to be pithy – and accurate – when describing the cause of war, but I thought that this one’s word choice sent it in the wrong direction.  Yes, it was a war over slavery and union – but was it over “preserving union” and “ending slavery”?  Couldn’t it also be described as a war over “ending” union and “preserving” (or, better yet, “extending”) slavery?  Nice to still have the energy to be energized by words after 6 days filled with them!

All in all, a rich, robust week thanks to the efforts of all the presenters and the people working behind the scenes.  Teachers were equally glowing and exhausted after a week’s “vacation” immersed in a professional development experience will immeasurably enhance their abilities to teach students.  I have no doubt that teachers are already trying new strategies and testing new targets.  This week, we’ll begin collaborating on classroom implementation through Lesson Study.

I’ll leave off with just a few of the enthusiastic responses written by project participants:

This experience has reminded me how important basic content knowledge is to powerful teaching.

It will greatly help me teach the Civil War.  I think I’ve avoided it in the past due to lack of knowledge.  This year I will make time!

Incredible experience…  I am re-energized about my professional development and teaching in general.

It reminded me that history is ever-changing, not static – and that approaches to teaching history where students compare, contrast, and evaluate are more effective and growth inducing.

Visiting the Soldier’s Home was incredible and provided a unique perspective on Lincoln and the war decisions he made.  I learned so much but, more importantly, it instilled in me a desire to learn even more.

Thank you, American taxpayer!

*Note:  I missed much of Dr. Smith’s talk – and all of Dr. Crew’s – because I was running up and down U St. trying to make up for a catering snafu.  If any participants are able to add their reflections on these two presentations, I’d be much obliged.


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