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Curriculum Unit: The Civil War

Copyright © Adam Waxler

The two most important questions a teacher must ask when designing a curriculum unit are what should be taught and how should it be taught.  Educators need to sift through an abundance of information and material to determine the important elements that need to be addressed in a particular unit.  In an effort to go into more depth and to foster a deeper understanding of material, teachers will need to restrain from spreading a unit out too thin.  In other words, less is more.  For example, a curriculum unit on the American Civil War can not possibly address every battle, person, or event of the war; therefore teachers must select the significant aspects of the war and go into those aspects in depth.  It is more meaningful for students to thoroughly learn only some segments of the Civil War and to be able to take something away from the unit, than for them to be forced to memorize every specific date and battle only to forget them after the test.

Once teachers have carefully thought about the information and determined what will be taught, they can then decide how to go about teaching the unit.  However, teachers must first understand how learning occurs in their students.  Children learn through experiences and by making connections with the real world and their interests (Stevens & Richards, 1992).  Educators can facilitate this learning process by making school practices more closely resemble life outside of school, by using a high degree of student collaboration, by addressing the various learning styles of the students, and by using compassionate and flexible assessment techniques.  The role of the teacher in this process should be to create a student-centered curriculum, working more as a facilitator or guide than a know-all instructor.

In developing any unit plan it is important to understand both what should be taught and how learning occurs.  In an effort to address this I have developed a curriculum unit for the American Civil War that involves a high level of student collaboration that allows the students to gain a deep understanding of the more important elements of the Civil War.  The unit revolves around four different groups designing and presenting four distinct newspapers from the Civil War era in which each individual student plays a critical role in the development of their newspaper.  Through the designing of newspapers the teacher is able to address, not only specific battles, events, and people during the war, but also target the social and emotional aspects of the war.  The Civil War is one of the most important events in our nation’s history and still has implications on our society today and should not be taught by having students simply memorize various dates for a test as it often is.  It would be doing the war an injustice to teach it by simply breaking it down into specific dates and fragmented bits of information.

This Civil War unit is designed for an 11th grade American History class that should take roughly 12-15 days to complete, covering several battles, two novels, important people, a timeline of events, and the social and emotional aspects of the war.  The class will be divided into four groups of six, with each student having an individual piece to write for their newspaper and with each group working as a team in the designing of their newspaper.  While some educators believe students should choose their own groups during cooperative learning, I feel this is unnecessary and may lead to chaos, therefore the teacher will place the students in each group.  Since the Civil War unit is not the first unit of the school year, the teacher has the advantage of already knowing his or her students and can therefore place the students in the groups the he or she feels will work best.  This eliminates groups being based on friendship, student’s feelings being hurt, and also allows the teacher to create groups that are of mixed ability.  Of course, this is not to suggest that these groups are written in stone.  The intention is for students to learn through collaboration, but if there is a problem that is hindering learning for a particular group then adjustments can and should be made.

There are six different roles in each newspaper, one for each student in each group.  They are: 1) Write an article on a specific battle or event during the Civil War.  The teacher will give the students a list of important battles and events that they can chose from.  Each group however, will have a different list so no two newspapers have the same story.  2) Write a book review on one of the two Civil War novels that the class is reading.  3) Write a letter to the editor assuming the role of a slave, a free man or women, a Union soldier, a Confederate soldier, or an immigrant, and describe how they feel about the war.  4) Write a “Dear Abbey” letter in response to the actual Civil War letters that will be read in class focusing on the various emotional aspects of the war.  5) Write a biographical piece on an important person during the war.  The teacher will give the students a list a various important people, both male and female, that they can select from.  Once again though, each group’s list will be different so no two biographical pieces will be about the same person.  6) Students can choose between designing a Civil War timeline or drawing two political cartoons.  The timeline will address the important dates of the war in chronological order and must incorporate art and/or pictures into the timeline.  This may be a possible assignment for lower ability students, but will also address some needed information for the Regents examination.  The political cartoons will obviously not be graded on artwork, but must include some type of political satire regarding the Civil War.

While the teacher has placed the students in each group, the students will choose their individual assignments themselves.  This is an effort to give the students some ownership of their work.  Once again though, if problems arise, the teacher will assign the students to a role and the teacher’s word is final.

However, before the groups begin working on their newspapers, the first week of the unit will be devoted to five different lesson plans that address all the various roles of the newspapers.  On the first day of the unit a syllabus will be handed out and used to explain the newspaper assignment, the four different groups, the roles involved with each newspaper, how the students will be assessed, and the two novels that they can choose from.  For this particular unit the novels the students can choose from are Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Allan Gurganus’ Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  ColdMountain is a story about a wounded soldier’s journey back to his prewar love at the end of the Civil War and how the two characters confront the changed world they know live in.  The book is an observation of society undergoing change.  The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is a story of the south from the voice of a ninety-nine year old woman regarding two wars, the Civil War and the gender war.  She presents Sherman’s fires, the slaves’ local pain, the mixed joys of motherhood, tales of sharecroppers, and General Lee and President Lincoln.  It is important that students have the opportunity to read these trade books to complement their textbook reading.  Trade books can personalize the war in ways that textbooks can not.  The horrors of war should not just be more information to be memorized.  Trade books make the experiences of war more sincere by giving specific, colorful examples as seen through the eyes of a character that students can relate to. Trade books have the ability to hold students’ interest and teach them at the same time.  After giving a quick summary of each of the trade books students can then make their choice.

During the first day, the homework for the week will also be explained.  Each night the students will have two reading/writing assignments.  The first will be to read their trade book for at least thirty minutes and then write in their response journals that will be used later in the week in small group discussions.  Response journals allow the students to thoroughly express and expand on their ideas about the novel, as well as consider any questions they might have.  The journals can then be used to make the small group discussions that meet at the end of the week more productive by giving students something to refer to (Feathers, 1993; Vacca & Vacca, 1999).

The second homework assignment is to read a small section in the textbook that covers one or two specific battles or events.  The purpose of this is to give students a factual account of some of the more substantial events of the war.  Along with the textbook assignment, students will be handed a different reading strategy to use each night, such as K-W-L, Metacognitive Reading Awareness Inventory, Direct Reading-Thinking Activity (DR-TA), and concept guides (Vacca & Vacca, 1999).  With each textbook reading assignment, the class will review the particular reading strategy that is to be used.  The purpose of this is threefold.  First of all, strategies such as K-W-L and DR-TA help students make connections with prior knowledge.  K-W-L asks students to think about what they know and what they want to learn before reading a text and DR-TA’s ask students to make predictions and then respond to those predictions.  Both strategies, therefore, encourage students to think deeply about the reading.  Second, the Metacognitive Reading Awareness Inventory strategy lists different ways for students to cope when they run into trouble reading the textbook.  This cultivates the students’ ability to apply various learning strategies when reading.  Third, concept guides let students understand that certain concepts are more important than others are (Vacca &Vacca, 1999).  For example, a concept guide may ask students to answer 5-10 questions before reading the assignment, thereby helping students know what to look for when reading.  The point of having the student read the textbook is for them to gain a factual account of important battles and events, not a factual account of superfluous information.  All of the above strategies can and should be used to assist low ability students with textbook reading, however, they are also beneficial to the average and above average reader.

The textbook reading will be discussed at the beginning of each class by having the students write outcome sentences on the reading that will then be used as a springboard for a quick class discussion.  Outcome sentences are one or two sentences about what the student has learned, is surprised about, has rediscovered, or has questions about (Harmin, 1994).  They are for the student to reflect on their own thoughts and questions, and are to be handed in at the end of the week, not to be graded, but rather for the teacher to know where the students stand and what material needs to be gone over again.  It is the textbook reading, the trade book reading, the outcome sentences, and the response journals that one student from each group will use to write an article in their newspaper about a specific Civil War battle or event.

Each day following the outcome sentence/discussion, the teacher will begin the lesson that will later be incorporated into the newspaper.  On day 2, the class will read actual Civil War letters from a local veteran.  For example, on the East End of Long Island students can read actual letters from George C. Case who fought in the Civil War and lived on Shelter Island until his death in 1878.  While certainly anyone’s letters can be read, it makes a greater impact when the person is connected to the same community as the students.  To further promote student interest, before actually reading the letters, Civil War memorabilia will be passed around such as an actual Civil War belt or Union Army hat.  These shows students that the past isn’t just something that you read about, but is also something that you can see, touch, and even smell.

From here the class will form literature circles to discuss the letters (the same groups will be used for the literature circles that will be used for the newspapers, this allows students to get to know each other and enables the teacher to foresee any possible problems with the groups).  Within the literature circles, students will take turns reading the letters aloud to each other, then react to the reading with written responses, and then use those responses to guide their small group discussion about the letters.  The students should read aloud rather than silently so no student finishes before another (Feathers, 1993).  These written responses and discussions can then be used as the foundation for the “Dear Abbey” letter in the newspaper focusing on the emotional aspects of the war such as missing loved ones, fear of dying, and wondering if the war is going to end.

In another attempt to address the social/emotional aspects of the war, the third lesson of the curriculum unit will be spent on the differing views about fighting the war.  The purpose of this is to show the students that choosing whether or not to fight in a war was as hard then as it is now.  There is a tendency for people to think that if you lived in the south you automatically fought for the Confederate Army and if you lived in the north you willingly fought for the Union Army, but in reality it is not that simple.  In an effort to address this aspect of the war and in an attempt to appeal to the various learning styles of the students, this lesson will present two different views of fighting the Civil War by playing two songs from the Civil War era.  One song, “The Opinions of Paddy Magee”, portrays the view of being honored to fight for Lincoln while the other song, “Paddy’s Lamentation”, takes the stand that the Irish did not come to America to fight someone else’s war.  Playing music from the Civil War era allows students hear for themselves the emotions that were involved with fighting and students will understand how real these people actually were.

However, before playing the songs, the teacher first goes over the lyrics so the students can better understand their meaning.  By placing the lyrics on an overhead projector, the teacher can use a DR-TA strategy by blocking out most of the song and allowing the students to make predictions.  Then as each verse is uncovered the students respond to their own predictions.  This way the songs are not just played, they are understood.  After the songs are played a “discussion web” is handed out (Vacca & Vacca, 1999).  In the center of the web a questions asks, “Should the Irish immigrants have been forced to fight the war?”  On either side of the question are two columns, one for “yes” and one for “no”.  On their own, students are to fill in bothcolumns.  When the students have given at least two reasons in each column they split into pairs to share their reasons.  After sharing, each student writes a final answer to the question.  The purpose of the discussion web is for the students to examine both sides of an issuebefore drawing a conclusion.  Similar to day two’s lesson this lesson can be used for either the “Dear Abbey” letter or the letter to the editor.

The biographical piece of the newspaper will be the focus of the next lesson.  Students break into their groups with any adjustments that have been made by the teacher and each group receives a different person from the Civil War.  Within each group, students receive a variety of information concerning their person that they use for in-group discussion.  Afterwards, each group must make the rest of the class guess who their person is.  The catch is that there is a list of five words that each group cannot say when describing their person.  This is combination of Robert Slavin’s (1995) jigsaw approach to cooperative learning and the Milton Bradley game Taboo.  The idea is for this to be fun and loud.  A timer will be used and the teacher acts as the judge disqualifying anyone in the group that uses one of the “taboo” words.  A gag price is to be given to the team that gets their classmates to guess the right person in the least amount of time.  Obviously, from this lesson students will have a basis to write a biographical piece for their newspaper.

The next lesson is the last lesson before students begin to put their newspapers together.  Each night for homework the students have been writing in their response journals about the novel that they selected.  During this lesson students will put those response journals to use as springboards for discussions in literature circles.  However, this time the groups will be split up according to the novel each student chose.  Having students discuss different novels within the same group, in this case, is counterproductive and may be confusing.  It is more worthwhile to have each group discuss the same novel.  Also, it may be a nice break for the students who have been meeting in the same groups for over a week now.  These literature circles allow students to extend their interaction with the book and encourage them to expand on their ideas.  The purpose is for the reader to construct his or her own meaning, not only from what the reader brings to the text, but also from discussing the reading with others (Spiegel, 1998).  By hearing other students’ views during their group discussion, students’ gain an appreciation of different interpretations and increase the number of strategies they will use when reading (Spiegel, 1998).  Students can then apply this lesson to the book review section of their newspaper.

The pervious five lessons will take roughly five to seven days to complete.  Each one should take about a day, but some may run over to the next day.  Once these five lessons are complete the students will spend the next four days writing their articles and designing the layout for their newspaper.  To start, each group will choose a name for their newspaper and each student will pick one role.  During each of the previous lessons the teacher will refer to upcoming newspaper roles that the students should be thinking about, so hopefully the students have an idea about which article they would like to write and hopefully they have already worked out who will write each piece.  Unfortunately, this will not always be the case.  Therefore, no role should be set in stone.  A teacher needs to be flexible, a may have to let two students within the same group assume the same role.  However, if two students want to do the biography piece, they will have to do it on different people, if two students want to write about a specific battle, they will have to write about two different battles, and so on.  Still, this may not prove successful and if a particular group cannot resolve the problem themselves, the teacher may be forced to assign the roles.

Once the roles have been determined, the teacher will give a brief demonstration on how to use the computer to design the newspapers.  A computer projection monitor can enhance this demonstration if one is available.  The teacher will display Microsoft Word on the screen and click the template called “newsletter wizard”.  The teacher will then show the students the three different styles of newsletters offered by the “newsletter wizard”, how to change the writing style and font size, and how to add pictures, illustrations, and colors.  This should be a quick, but fun demonstration that sparks the students’ interest, brings together what they have been doing in the unit, and gives them a goal and direction for their work over the next few days.

Following the demonstration the students begin working on their individual pieces.  For the next three days students will be writing and editing their work using the lessons from the past week along with library and classroom resources.  The teacher’s role as the guide in this learning process will be more evident then ever.  The teacher assists students by reading their articles and giving feedback and suggestions when needed.  Depending on computer availability, students will take turns using the classroom computers and the library computers.  What doesn’t get finished in class must be done for homework.  Each group’s newspaper should be finished within four days.

Once each group’s newspaper is finished, the students will receive one copy of each of the four newspapers.  Then the next two days will be spent on presentations.  Each group will use the computer projection monitor (if available) to present their paper to the class.  This does not mean that each student reads their individual article, but rather gives a brief summary of their article and what they got out of the process.

Following the group presentations a test will be given.  Everything that will be on the test will be in the four newspapers.  The test will be broken down into five different sections each worth 20%.  One section will be on the two novels, another will be on the four different battles, a third will cover the important people, the fourth will be on the political cartoons, and the final section will on the emotional aspects of the war.  None of the questions will be multiple choice, but rather short answer and essay.  The idea is not find out if the students know who wrote the book Cold Mountain, but rather if they can describe how society had changed during the 1860’s.  Likewise, the question on the political cartoons will be to explain the satire of three out of five cartoons presented in the test (obviously a student cannot choose their own cartoon).  Since the questions are not of the multiple choice type and are not asking for specific facts as much as generalizations, the students will be allowed to use the four newspapers during the test.  A sort of open “newspaper” test.  The rationale behind this is that never in life outside of school are we not allowed to look up the answers or have something to refer to when writing essays.  How can a whole unit that is revolved around fostering a deeper understanding of material end with a test that promotes rote memorization?  It can’t.  Allowing students to use their newspapers during the test eliminates the students’ need to memorize and replaces it with learning how to synthesize information and use deductive and inductive reasoning skills (Woolfolk, 1998).

Furthermore, in an effort to reduce student anxiety the test will only constitute 20% of their grade for the unit.  The other 80% will be divided into four sections, again each worth an equal 20%. They are 1) the individual piece, 2) the group newspaper, 3) the group presentation, and 4) how an individual worked with the other students in the group.  Therefore working well with others counts as much towards their grade as does the test.  The reading worksheets, the journals, and the outcome sentences are not graded; they are for the student to use as reflections and guides for later assignments.  With the exception of the test, all the assessments will be graded on a four-point rubric.  The individual piece, the group newspaper, and the group presentation, will be assessed on the quality of the finished product, organization, and overall impression.  Working well with others will be assessed on cooperation and thoughtfulness.  The four-point rubric will translate as follows: a 4 means the assignment was thoroughly fulfilled and equals an A; a 3 means the assignment was adequately fulfilled and equals a B; a 2 translates to the assignment only being partially fulfilled and is a C; and 1 means the assignment is incomplete.  All students who show up in class regularly and keep doing the best they can will receive a passing grade of at least a C.  This assessment process will be made perfectly clear in the unit syllabus and will be gone over the first day of the unit.  There is no point in surprising students.  By reviewing the assessment process before the unit begins, the students have a clear understanding of what they need to do to receive the grade they want.

There are a number of advantages to using what I call a “newspaper unit”.  First of all, a variety of aspects concerning a particular subject can be addressed.  For example, in this unit on the Civil War, specific battles, events, important people, social issues, and emotional issues were all considered.  This was achieved by using a plethora of reading material including textbooks, trade books, letters, music lyrics, and art.  This was further enhanced by using a variety of teaching strategies including cooperative learning, writing to learn strategies (response journals, outcome sentences, and the articles themselves), talking to learn strategies (discussion groups and pair/share), and reading to learn strategies (K-W-L, DR-TA, and concept guides).  By combining the reading and writing material with various teaching strategies a conscious effort has been made to meet the varying learning styles of all students.

Secondly, the newspaper unit gives the teacher an opportunity to provide students with both male and female perspectives of the war.  The letter to the editor, the “Dear Abbey” letter, the biographical piece, and the novel The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, gives students the chance to view the Civil War through the eyes of a women.

Finally, designing a curriculum unit around the production of a newspaper gives the students an audience other than the teacher and therefore motivates the students to proofread and edit on their own.  The idea is that students will become more conscious of their mistakes when they know other people will read their work (Vacca & Vacca, 1999).  This is a great way for students to acquire the mechanics of writing skills they need.  Students learn about form and organization because they truly want to produce quality work rather than through the fear of receiving a poor grade.

This Civil War newspaper unit makes learning fun.  Students get to use technology, and work together towards a common goal in cooperative groups that resemble real-life learning situations.  The emphasis of the unit is on cooperation rather than competition, and when all is said and done, the students have something they can actually walk away with, their newspaper.  Furthermore, the unit is fair.  By using different teaching and learning strategies with a variety of reading and writing material, the unit addresses a number of different learning styles over a wide range of abilities.  To quote Dr. Barry Raebeck (1998), high school English teacher and education professor, “If it is not fun and fair part of the time, it probably is not good, and definitely will not last” (p. xxv).



Feathers, K.M. (1993). Focusing on meaning. In K.M. Feathers,Infotext, reading and learning (pp. 66-83).  The Pippin Publishing Corporation.

Harmin, M. (1994). Inspiring active learning: A handbook for teachers. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Raebeck, B. (1998). Transforming middle schools: A guide to whole school change (2nd ed.). Lancaster: Technomic Publishing Company.

Slavin, R.E. (1995). Cooperative learning (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Spiegel, D.L. (1998).  Reader response approaches and the growth of readers. Language arts, 76, 41-48.

Stevens, P.W., & Richards, A. (1992). Changing schools through experiential education. Charleston, WV: Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 345929).

Vacca, J.L., & Vacca, R.T. (1999). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (6th ed.). New York: Longman.

Woolfolk, A.E. (1998). Education psychology (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Adam Waxler is a middle school social studies teacher, teacher mentor, and the author of eTeach: A Teacher Resource for Learning the Strategies of Master Teachers. Adam is also the editor and publisher of The Teaching Teacher’s Newsletter. For more information about his ebook or to sign up for your free monthly newsletter log onto: