Professional Development

Teachers Prepare for Tough Classroom Conversations on the Civil War

By Madeline Will — August 06, 2019 8 min read
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Was Abraham Lincoln a hero? How do we memorialize Confederate soldiers, or should we? Where do we draw the line between remembering the problematic parts of our past, and celebrating them?

Almost two dozen teachers from across the country spent a week in July wrestling with these complicated questions, and learning how to get comfortable in the gray area of history. The educators—who taught grades 3-12, with most teaching history—were here for a professional development program, run by Ford’s Theatre Society, that focuses on how the Civil War and Reconstruction have been remembered throughout U.S. history.

The training started in 2015, and has become increasingly relevant. After a mass shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, and a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, more than 100 Confederate monuments have been taken down, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Dozens of public schools have also changed their names to disassociate from Confederate leaders.

These efforts have been hotly controversial, and history teachers are on the front lines of these tough conversations.

“Teachers are tasked with being this objective authority—'you can’t be biased, you can’t be presenting an argument, you have to just give the facts'—but the reality is, we’re all responding to the world around us,” said Alexandria Wood, the education programs manager at Ford’s Theatre Society. “We are making choices about the stories we tell and how we tell them. ... It’s really hard, and it’s really overwhelming to dig into this history when there’s limited time, when there’s so many different perspectives coming to the floor.”

Many teachers, she said, receive pushback from their administrators or students’ parents about wading into such charged issues like the movement to take down Confederate statues.

“How can we possibly be neutral? This isn’t a neutral subject,” Wood said. "[This program is] really trying to figure out, how can we support our teachers and give them ways to, with courage, dive into these hard histories, this non-neutral territory, [and] teach the students how to think, not what to think. ... As a student, as a person, as a lifelong learner, questioning how you think is really hard, and it’s a challenge. It comes with doubt, and it comes with unanswerable questions, and it’s hard to live in that discomfort.”

See also: Are Confederate-Statue Controversies Teachable Moments?

During Ford’s Theatre’s professional development, teachers tour monuments and memorials in the Washington, D.C., area, including the African American Civil War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Wood said the training’s goal is for teachers to leave prepared to have difficult conversations with their students about the nation’s violent history—but also with tangible takeaways, such as primary sources on the Civil War and Reconstruction, lesson strategies, and pedagogical techniques.

And the teachers will get a crash course in the history of this time period, said Kevin M. Levin, a Civil War historian and educator who facilitated the Ford’s Theatre training. The first step to leading conversations with students about Confederate memorials is understanding the Reconstruction—the period right after the war ended where freed men and women were granted some rights, but where Southern states passed restrictive laws known as “black codes.” It’s an era in history that’s often given short shrift in schools.

Many teachers who’ve gone through this training have said they didn’t learn much about the stories of this time period in their own schooling, Levin said. But so much of what happened then laid the foundation for the civil rights movement and still resonates today. When teachers are well-versed in the history, Levin said, they’re more confident leading these complex conversations.

Discussions about whether to remove a Confederate monument are “fraught with so many landmines,” he said. “It’s a very messy discussion, and I tend to think that’s the way it has to be. I think a lot of these questions have been lying dormant for so long that once they emerge, you just have to kind of run with it and just accept the fact that it is going to be controversial.”

Civil War-Era Monuments Today

On the fourth day of the training, the teachers were preparing to visit the Emancipation Memorial, which is located in a park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of D.C.. The monument features Abraham Lincoln standing with the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand, and a formerly enslaved person crouched at his feet. Lincoln’s left hand is poised over the head of the kneeling man, who is wearing just a loincloth and broken shackles.

The statue, which was funded through donations by former slaves but sculpted by a white man in the 1870s, has long been controversial. Critics say the statue presents a paternalistic narrative in which Lincoln is portrayed as saving people who couldn’t save themselves, while supporters say that the monument was a source of pride among the black community at the time.

Before visiting the statue, the educators had a group discussion, led by Levin, about the place of Civil War-era monuments in 2019. They grappled with questions like: What do Confederate soldiers deserve in terms of memorial? Where is the line between preserving Southern heritage and continuing to promote racism? And how do we make sure these monuments are teaching moments, and not celebrations of white supremacy?

“I am so deeply opposed to Confederate memorials and things that honor what I see to be false narratives,” said Caroline Bednarz, a high school instructional coach in Washington, D.C., in an interview after the discussion.

But she wrestles with the fact that those monuments “help show almost a snapshot of people’s perceptions in that moment, and certain people’s understanding of their own histories,” she said. “It’s such a teaching tool to see the origins of the historical misunderstandings and racist narratives. ... It’s such a powerful tool, especially for students of color, to see where these ideas came from and how they’re perpetuated and how they continue to live on our landscape in plain sight.”

See also: When Confederate Monuments Fall, Move Them to the Classroom (Opinion)

Levin suggested to the teachers that they could pose some of these thorny questions to their own students to see what they think. And they can use the history they learned in this professional development to provide context for some of these monuments, he added.

Teachers also debated the role of heroes and villains in history class. There’s a tendency, educators said, to paint history as black-and-white, but that polarization misses a lot of important nuance.

“My goal as a teacher is to teach [students] context and perspective, and to teach them that no person is [only] good or bad,” said Lauren Sonka, a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher from Midland, Tex., during this discussion.

Then, the Ford’s Theatre trainers led the teachers in a close reading of Frederick Douglass’ speech in memory of Abraham Lincoln, which the former slave had delivered at the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial in 1876. In the speech, Douglass praised Lincoln as a “great and good man” who “delivered us from a bondage"—but also called Lincoln “the white man’s President,” someone who was willing to “deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.”

Teachers worked in small groups to paraphrase some of the language in Douglass’ speech to modern-day English—a skillset that they can later teach their students, to help them understand the meaning of Douglass’ words. They discussed the nuances of the speech, and how Douglass depicted Lincoln in shades of gray.

Shanon Blosch, an 8th grade English and history teacher in Ammon, Idaho, said in an interview that she already uses Douglass’ ”What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” speech in her classroom.

“They really love the language he uses, that he doesn’t pull any punches,” she said. “It is a sock in the gut, and I watch their faces, and they get really uncomfortable. ... My students will say, ‘I feel really guilty.’ You don’t need to feel guilty, you need to feel uncomfortable, you need to be aware so you can share the narrative as you go forward.”

‘Difficult Histories’

At the Emancipation Memorial, Levin gave a brief history lesson to the teachers. This statue, he said, was the first one of an African American, and it’s based on Archer Alexander, who escaped from slavery. He freed himself, Levin said, but consider how he’s portrayed.

After some reflection, the teachers recited an excerpt of Douglass’ speech that he gave at the statue’s dedication. It can be powerful for students to hear these words read aloud, the training’s facilitators noted.

The teachers might leave their week of professional development with more questions than they had before. But hopefully, they’ll feel more confident leading nuanced conversations about the country’s troubled past and how it’s remembered today, said Wood, of the Ford’s Theatre Society.

A lot of teachers, especially teachers of younger grades, tend to think, “How can I dig into these scary and violent difficult histories?” she said. “And you can. I hope that our teachers feel empowered to do that after this week.”

Blosch said her main takeaway from the professional development is that “history is not as straightforward as it seems.” There are few Confederate statues in Idaho, she said, and her predominately white students don’t have a lot of exposure to these conversations. This professional development gives her a solid foundation to lead classroom discussions about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the ongoing national debate over monument removal, she said.

“I’m excited about that, to broaden their thinking and give them a bigger perspective of their country,” she said. “To me, the greatest compliment my students can give me is when they say, ‘I never thought about it this way.’”

Image of the Emancipation Memorial, by Madeline Will

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.