A few days ago, Kevin Levin wrote a blogpost on teaching fourth graders about the Civil War in Virginia. I thought about my daughter, Stacie Finley, who is in her second year of teaching first graders here in Missouri. The school she teaches at, David Harrison Elementary School in Springfield, is very close to Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. I know that she teaches her students about Abraham Lincoln, and thought it would be interesting to get her perspective on teaching the Civil War. Here is her guest post:
Teaching students about the Civil War is different depending on what grade you are teaching. I teach first grade, and have only taught first grade. Sometimes I wish I taught the older grades so I could explore the deeper issues with students.
For me, teaching first graders about the Civil War is a time to teach them about someone I consider a hero. I teach them that everyone has someone they consider a role model – someone who they believe was/is very wise and helped to make our world a better place. That person to me is Abraham Lincoln.
We discuss how Lincoln started out as a poor boy in a log cabin in Kentucky. We usually build a log cabin out of pretzels and frosting. We discuss how Lincoln learned to read, even though he didn’t spend much time at school as a child. We discuss how Lincoln studied law and how he was a lawyer before he became the president. We discuss Lincoln being an honest person, who believed people were born with certain rights and people should not be bought and sold. We discuss how Lincoln believed the country needed to change and how he did everything he could to see that happen.
I have to be very careful with everything I say when teaching first graders about the Civil War. They still scare pretty easily. I especially have to be careful about what images I show. I mainly focus on Abraham Lincoln. We read a lot of books and usually have great conversations. However, the books usually tell stories the students can relate too. For example, Abe Lincoln; the Boy Who Loved Books by Kay Winters focuses on the love Lincoln had for learning. Another book we read is, Abe Lincoln’s Hat by Martha Brenner. This book focuses on how Abraham Lincoln would help people during his early career as a lawyer and how he would use his top hat as his briefcase. These books do not get too detailed or dig very deep into the Civil War.
It is very difficult to teach students who Abraham Lincoln was however, without teaching them about the Civil War. I discuss with them there was a time when our country did not agree and this disagreement led to a war. We discuss how it was a different time back then and people thought differently. We discuss how African Americans were forced to work as slaves and that they were sometimes treated very badly. We discuss how the Civil War was a time when our country fought itself. We do not get into issues like state rights.
It is difficult for students at this young of an age to comprehend a topic like the Civil War. Especially, in first grade where being friends, solving problems with our words, and sharing are at the forefront of everything we do. I teach my students to work together, to have an opinion, to find solutions to problems in many different ways. In addition, most of them have been raised to treat people fairly, to respect others, and to stand up for what they believe is right. Therefore, they see Abraham Lincoln as being one of them. It is easy to share my passion for Abraham Lincoln with them because they see him as the good guy! Maybe, I am teaching my students with some bias, but the MIGs (Major Instructional Goals) do tell me to teach about the contributions made by non-Missourians such as, Abraham Lincoln. In first grade, our MIGs are written as follows:
Goal 3: The student will demonstrate knowledge of continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States, and the world.
Objective: Describe the contributions of non-Missourians to include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
My hope is students will move up through the educational system with a strong foundation of who Abraham Lincoln was. If they hold Lincoln in high moral regard then when they explore the Civil War deeper, they will see that the rights of human beings were more important than states rights. They will understand the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation and while it only freed a small portion of slaves, the words spoken are still very powerful. I hope my students will realize how powerful the words in the Gettysburg Address and A House Divided speech are. However, my greatest hope is that every teacher my students have after me will teach them the values found in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”