N.H. Teachers Explore New Ways To Teach Civil War History

Jul 6, 2016

School may be out for the summer, but some teachers in New Hampshire have been keeping busy by becoming students again. At a teachers’ workshop in Keene, educators brushing up on their Civil War history.

On a sunny morning in Keene, a group of Civil War reenactors from the 6th New Hampshire regiment march in formation and fire their replica muskets. They’ve set up camp here outside the historic Wyman Tavern to meet with about 20 local educators.

“One of the things I wanted you to keep in your mind as you’re attending this is how can this be applied to your classrooms."

Jeremy Robinson is a teacher himself when he’s not reenacting. Today, he and a half-a-dozen others are dressed in Union blue to give educators a sense of the day-to-day life of a Civil War soldier.

A collection of Civil War era items is displayed on a table.
Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

The teachers who signed up for this workshop have come here to be students again; picking up ideas they can bring back to their classrooms in the fall. They learn about how the soldiers would soak their hardtack in coffee to make it more edible, and how long it took to get a letter from the front back home. Terri Stack teaches 8th grade American history at Amherst Middle School.

“I’m just interested in anything that makes it real for children," said Stack, "and this encampment is an excellent example of how kids can touch and feel and learn from that experience.”

This meeting with the reenactors is just part of a three-day workshop on teaching the Civil War hosted by the Cheshire County Historical Society.

Other sessions included a discussion on the causes of the war with faculty from Keene State College. There was a presentation on bringing Civil War music into the classroom. And another where teachers learned about a lesson plan that uses the Civil War correspondence of two Keene residents to teach cursive handwriting.

The goal throughout the three-days is to give teachers a way to make the history more accessible to elementary and middle school students.

Teachers and reenactors mingle in camp.
Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

“We’re used to teaching in a style that’s kind of lecture and more generic," says Eric Stinebring, a 7th grade social studies teacher at Keene Middle School. He says the workshop has given him plenty of ideas of how to shake up his usual lesson plans on the Civil War.

“By doing things like carrying a PVC pipe that’s weighted about the same as a rifle," explains Stinebring, "loading up a backup with enough weight so that the kids have a sense of what it means to march 20 miles with a full pack.”

But capturing students’ interest is only part of the challenge to teaching this historical period. For these elementary and middle school teachers, finding ways to make the material age appropriate is also a concern.

“We’ve had lots of discussions about how appropriate is it to talk to kindergartners about slavery."

Brenda Haenchen of Symonds Elementary School gives a presentation on teaching the Underground Railroad.
Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

In this final session of the workshop, Brenda Haenchen of Symonds Elementary School speaks to the teachers about how to convey these ideas to elementary students. At Symonds, one way they introduce the Underground Railroad is through a role-playing game in gym class. Foam and rubber obstacles represent the difficult route taken by runaway slaves. Students crawl through tunnels and climb over barriers. Teachers darken the gym to simulate the night and play the sound of barking dogs coming to find them.

“And we feel like this is sort of a safe way to talk to them about slavery where they get the idea but it’s not too scary,” says Haenchen.

'Not-too-scary' is the goal. But exactly how to convey these uncomfortable historical facts in an age- appropriate package is the challenge facing teachers when they return to their classrooms this fall.