The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Helping Teachers Teach History More Effectively

Lesh.jpg“What do historians do?” Bruce Lesh asks the room full of social studies teachers.

The teachers offer answers: Solve problems. Research. Write. Argue.

“In that discussion, we leave out the only thing we do in the classroom,” Lesh points out. In the list of responses, no one says “Memorize information.”

Research shows that students want to mimic, in their social studies classrooms, the things historians do. “They understand that history is about information, but they want to be able to explore that information,” Lesh says. They want context. They want a reason. 

Instead, history education overemphasizes memorization, and memorization “doesn’t lead to achievement or student engagement,” Lesh says.

Teaching Just Facts

If I could take one presentation from the 2018 American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute and ship it around to every Civil War Roundtable in the country—and every school board and every state department of education—it would be Bruce Lesh’s Friday morning talk, “‘It’s not what or how much we teach, but how we teach it that matters’: Confronting the Legacy of History Instruction.”

Lesh is a former social studies teacher who now works in education policy at the state level in Maryland. In 2008, the Organization of American Historians recognized him as the pre-collegiate Teacher of the Year; in 2013 was named Maryland Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year.

Lesh’s brilliant talk struck to the heart of a problem I hear all the time when I’m on the road talking to Civil War groups. So many buffs worry that students today don’t seem to know history very well.

Lesh started with that very point. He shared a news story that lamented a poor level of historical literacy among students. What year do you think that’s from, he asked. While it sounded like something from a contemporary publication, it came from a 1917 report that tested 1500 Texas students to determine their sense of history.

“We’re used to hearing this particular story,” Lesh says, “that students are bad at history…. This is the kind of narrative that’s promoted by people like David McCullough who go before Congress to testify about the lamentable state of historical literacy.”

The narrative is there, he says. We’ve heard it all the time. “It’s become popular to bash teachers,” he adds. “Teachers get the blame.”

The narrative, though, is wrong.

Golden Age of Facts“The good news is that there’s not a single piece of data that shows students knowledge of history is in decline,” says Lesh. The bad news: “Students’ knowledge of history is consistently low.” In other words, it didn’t just suddenly get bad—it’s always been bad.

When he began teaching, he taught the way he had been taught. “And my students looked like they were at a visit to the dentist’s without any Novocain,” he admitted. The problem, he discovered through his own experience and through subsequent research, is that teachers get trapped “in a system that perpetuated a low level of proficiency.”

“We teach history the same way in 2018 that we taught it in 1890,” he says. “And in 1890 there was no electricity. There was no VCR. There was no one-to-one.” The biggest change: “We no longer have students recite by memory speeches.”

Essentially, “the mode of history instruction has not changed.” And if that mode of instruction resulted in poor achievement in 1917, it isn’t going to get any better by 2018. “Assessment and accountability has reinforced this persistent instruction and use of a single source,” he says, referring to the 70-90 percent of teachers who use a textbook as their single source of information in their classrooms.

Lesh lamented the increased culture of testing in schools. He pointed to Virginia’s assessment program, the Standards of Learning—or “SOLs,” as they’re called for short. He invites the teachers in the room to consider that acronym for just a moment. “Is it any wonder?” he asks as everyone gets the joke (which he doesn’t explicitly say, so I will: “Shit Out of Luck”).

Virginia’s SOLs feature 300 statements of “essential content” students need to know. Facts to memorize. As a result, he says, “I see more teachers looking at history as an exercise in trivia—the SOLs reinforce that.”

“Outside this room, people don’t love our discipline,” Lesh warns. He cites research that asked respondents to describe the field of history in one word.

“History is boring!”—that was the single most frequent description, and negative descriptions significantly outweighed positive ones. The other negative responses were simply synonyms for “boring.”

A complicating factor in the field now is that many students can opt to take online courses. The number one course they choose to take online are history courses—an alarming development to Lesh because, he says, it means, “Our practices are not meeting the needs and demands of students.”

So, he asks the teachers in the room, if methodology and student outcomes are the problem, what’s the solution?

Students don’t like being given an answer. They don’t like being given the facts.

They like to have something to figure out.

And isn’t that what historians do? This is when he asks the room full of teachers to explain the main job functions of a historian.

After developing the job description list, Lesh synthesizes the information:

  • Historians ask questions that frame a problem for them to research.
  • Historians gather and ask questions of a variety of sources.
  • Historians develop, defend, and revise interpretations.
  • Historians argue in their books and through their publications.

“Questions are powerful tools,” he says.

Discipline-Based InstructionA question can help students organize and remember information. It can better facilitate engagement and retention.

Curiosity releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps improve attention and remembering.

For teachers required to teach information—like the SOLs—figure out what the question was that someone asked which then led them to add the “required fact” to the list.

In his research, Lesh has found a recurrent theme from students, who say, “I want to do something in history class.”

Lesh suggests creating a history lab that puts students in a situation where they have to take a disciplinary approach to history instruction. They can do what historians do and, in doing so, learn the material they’re required to learn in a way that boosts achievement and retention.

But, he offers a cautionary note, too. “I don’t sell this as a silver bullet,” he warns. “It’s not going to help you when a kid comes to school hungry. When a kid comes to school once every couple of weeks. But it is a way to get them to eat their vegetables and get them to know what they need to know.”

Play Review – “Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: From Slavery to Modiste”

[used with permission]

In June 2018 I had the opportunity to attend a production of the new stage play Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: From Slavery to Modiste at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego, California. Entering the theater, I was unfamiliar with the details of Keckley’s life though I knew the basic story about her post-Civil War troubles with Mrs. Lincoln. Exiting after the short, one-act play, I had a greater appreciation for this remarkable woman and definitely wanted to dig into the history books to learn more. (Which I did!)

I think one of the benefits to community historical theater is the chance to introduce a friend or family member to history through the entertainment. This time I persuaded my dad to go with me, and we had some great discussions about the past on the way home.

When we entered the theater room and took our seats, we faced a raised platform lined with chairs and a few costume props – old fashion hats, bonnets, shawls, etc. To the right of the stage sat an old sewing machine and table, cleaned and polished, but standing alone. In front of the stage, a dressmaker’s mannequin displayed a dark dress.

Andrea Agosto gave an inspiring performance as Elizabeth Keckley, recounting in first-person Keckley’s life as a slave, how she purchased her freedom, and how she built her dressmaking business with good sense and integrity. The ensemble of actors and actresses interacted with Agosto and portrayed character’s from Keckley’s life, including her master and mistress, dressmaking customers, Frederick Douglass, Mrs. Lincoln, Robert Lincoln, friends, and apprentices.

The script – researched and written by Claudia Thompson – presented “Mrs. Keckley’s story through historical data with contemporary reflection.” Filled with lively, historically-accurate details and moments of wrenching sadness, it gave a solid glimpse into the life of a strong woman who lived in slavery and abuse but found a way to free herself and recreate her life and story. I appreciated the highlights on Keckley’s inspiring work-ethics and how she always tried to help others.

Elizabeth Keckley and her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln during the Civil War years and the break-up of that friendship when Keckley published her book have been the subject of gossip and valid historical discussion. The stage play focused on Keckley’s side of the story: she wanted to write a book to tell her story and help Mrs. Lincoln get financial assistance. Then organized chaos took over the stage as the ensemble characters rose to praise or condemn the book and author; the clamorous chorus silenced Keckley – a poignant reminder how society’s opinions can overshadow truth and intent, creating a dilemma or myth for future historians.

I won’t spoil the ending of the play, but I will say it was a powerful moment, reflecting to the past and sharing Keckley’s religious faith and looking to the future, praising the power to overcome life’s hardships.

[used with permission]

At the end of the production, attendees were encouraged to take printed literature provided by the producer and playwright, including a short historical biography about Keckley, a resource list, and photographs related to her life and legacy. It’s wonderful to see this openness and dedication to historical research! Returning home, I read one of the recommended books – Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley by Jennifer Fleischner – and learned more, delighted to find the accuracy of the stage production.

What’s in the future for this historical play? I’ve been in contact with some of the production team, and happily, several school districts have shown interest and may host a show tour! Interested in more details about sponsoring the show or hosting/attending a production, please reach out to Katherine Harroff ( who is currently coordinating the production and is the Arts Engagement Programs Associate.

Cheers to Claudia Thompson, the production team, and the cast for bringing Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley’s story to the stage and offering another chance to introduce theater attendees and classrooms to historical discussions about Women’s History, Black History, and Civil War Studies

The Trust’s Teacher Institute: Where’s “Waldo”

I’m not normally one for taking selfies, but I got to spend time with a lot of cool people and see a lot of cool stuff at the American Battlefield Trust’s Teacher Institute in Philadelphia this week, so I want to share some of those meetings and interactions. Everyone heads home today–although I’ll have more dispatches to share once I have the time to get my notes written up!–but I thought this would be a fun way to close out the conference. It feels a little like “Where’s Waldo” to pop up in photo to photo, though.

I’ll start with a pair of my ECW colleagues and good friends, Dan Davis and Phill Greenwalt as the three of us shared lunch at City Tavern:

Here’s the owner of City Tavern, the multiple-Emmy Award winning host of A Taste of History, celebrity Chef Walter Staib. Chef was a gracious host who provided a great historic atmosphere and a delicious lunch, including the best chicken pot pie I’ve ever eaten in my life!

On Saturday night, one of the Civil War community’s greatest military historians, Carol Reardon, presented the keynote address. Carol is so down-to-earth and friendly.

Phill Greenwalt took a selfie with the Baron von Steuben statue at Valley Forge, so I felt like I had to, too. There’s a new tour stop, parking area, and small plaza (complete with pergola and benches) to help visitors enjoy the spot and appreciate von Steuben’s immense contributions to the Continental Army.Finally, I took a selfie with some of the folks on my bus on Saturday. It was such a treat exploring Philadelphia with a busload of teachers (who are usually the ones chaperoning the busloads of students!). I was so amazed by the enthusiasm they have for their profession and for the kids they teach.

Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part two)

Maine at War blogger Brian Swartz stands at Lookout Point on Lookout Mountain. With either his wife, Susan, or their son, Christopher, in tow, Swartz has visited many Civil War battlefields east of the Mississippi River. (Photo courtesy of Chris Swartz)

Part two of a four-part series

I’m talking this week with Brian Swartz, a former writer and editor for Maine’s Bangor Daily News. While with the paper, he started a regular column and blog called Maine at War. He belongs to Richardson’s Civil War Round Table in Searsport, Maine and for the past two years has chaired the Bangor Historical Society committee that organized Drums on the Penobscot: A Civil War Experience.

Yesterday, Brian explained the origins of his work, and we began to get into the particulars of how he pulls his material together.

Chris Mackowski: You talk about old newspapers. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at old editions and I just find them to be fascinating sources of soldier letters, particularly—and as sources they’re often overlooked. I’ve gone through old editions of the Bangor Whig & Courier and found gold nugget after gold nugget.

Brian Swartz: I will agree with you there. Obviously, you and I have researched some familiar pages. I find that I ignore the reports from the battlefield and the general press accounts. They’re inflated and inaccurate. But when you read the soldier accounts. . . . The soldier either sent the letter directly to the paper or a proud mother or father asked the paper to publish a letter. The nuggets that are dropped in, a paragraph at a time in these pages, take you so incredibly close to the war.

I am wrapping up research I’m doing for book two of my “Maine at War” book series. I just wrapped up Brandy Station, and that included a visit about a week and a half ago to Fleetwood Hill for the first time since the Civil War Trust [now American Battlefield Trust] had acquired it and knocked down that house that was on top of it. In my research, I found a letter published in a paper written from a trooper in the 1st Maine Cavalry. He participated in that charge up and over Fleetwood Hill, and his observations about what the regiment did afterwards—it was almost like riding alongside him on a horse. It was incredible, and it was in a newspaper.

Chris: Do you have particular papers that you prefer over others?

Brian: Yes. The Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, the Portland Daily Press, the Maine Farmer, which was out of Augusta, dedicated to agriculture in Maine and had a four-page issue every week that often had excellent material like letters and reports and such from people that were involved in the war, as well as some astute political observations. There was the Eastport Sentinel Downeast. And when I have time, I go to research the Lewiston newspapers from the period.

I should mention one more paper: the Republican Journal in Belfast was a pro-Democrat, anti-Lincoln administration newspaper, and it gives delightful insight into the other side of the coin.

Chris: You also mentioned that you spend a fair amount of time in the state archives. I know they’ve got a really neat collection of stuff. Are there any particular treasures there you appreciate?

Brian: In researching the 5th Maine Infantry, I came across the commanding officer’s report of the regiment’s participation in the Chancellorsville campaign, particularly in their effort to get past the Confederate defenses on Marye’s Heights at the battle of Second Fredericksburg. And then they went out and fought the battle of Salem Church. It was very well written and very detailed. I cannot remember that officer’s name, but it comes across that it really bothered him that his regiment was so shot to pieces.

There are so many treasures. The one that I found recently that I just finished writing up: Freeman McGilvery was promoted to major in late 1862 or early 1863, and that opened up the captaincy of the 6th Maine Battery, which he had raised. The lobbying that went back and forth in the letters to the state house in Augusta is very interesting, almost to the point of being hilarious in the commentary between the men and some of the officers.

Then of course there are Sarah Sampson’s and Isabella Fog’s letters, who were both women from Maine that became volunteer nurses. Whenever volunteer nurses arrived, they usually dedicated themselves for the rest of the war serving as nurses. Both them wrote letters that are on file in the state archives.

Chris: One of the things I think is really neat about your blog is that you do have a lot of that civilian aspect—the home front, the contributions of Mainers in Maine during the war—which I think is an aspect of the war that tends to get overlooked in favor of the mud and blood and battlefield stuff. What do you think it was like to be in Maine, so far away from the front lines during that time?

Brian: If you had a direct connection with the military, like a son, husband, cousin, uncle, father, etc., who was going to war, it was difficult, especially depending on where you lived.

In the larger cities, there seemed to be more of a support network for women who saw their household income threatened because the man who was providing the money went to war. Thirteen dollars a month [a private’s pay] isn’t going to cover much. If you go out into the outlying towns, it became more serious, in the sense that now if a family has lost a father and son that went off to war, now mom is home, usually with younger children. How is she going to till the fields, chop the firewood, cook, and raise the kids? It was tough.

The lack of communications really made that loneliness more acute. The military was good at getting the mail to and from the soldiers and, in many families, the women wrote frequently. Say there was an elderly father left behind, or a middle-aged father: he would write to his boy that went off to war. Friends would write to soldiers.

But the press accounts about battles would come back before any news about casualty lists, and that would lead to a lot of fear. I sensed that particularly in the pages of the newspapers. People just worried.

There were many others who didn’t care that the war was going on. Some merchants did well, especially manufacturers of wartime goods and people who owned steamers and sailing ships that the war department would lease or rent—however they paid for that.

There was an aspect where it was almost like Vietnam, which was also concurrent to my growing up. For those who had a connection to the war, the war was going on. For the rest of us who had no family over there, it was just a story on the evening news, and I sensed that the Civil War could have been that way in Maine, again particularly in the larger towns and cities. If you had a physical connection to the war, it was happening. If you did not, it was just a press account in the newspaper, or maybe a story told at the general store or something.


Brian’s blog successfully captures the soldier’s-eye view of Maine at war, on the home front and on the front lines. “I really appreciate what the man at the regimental level did,” he says in tomorrow’s segment. We’ll explore that further, and we’ll talk about the things Brian has learned from those men by spending so much time reading their accounts.

Civil War Medical History at Ellwood

Check out this exciting opportunity at Ellwood on the Wilderness battlefield by our friends at the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield this weekend.

Civil War Medical History at Ellwood
(Note: This event is in conjunction with our dinner at the Generals Quarters on June 15. There are a few tickets left so hurry and make your reservation if you have not already done so! You may RSVP on our website below.)
Saturday, June 16, 2018 
10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Sunday, June 17, 2018
10:00 AM – 3:00 PM
Special presentation at 1:00 P.M.Saturday, June 16.
(Please bring a lawn chair!)
Guided Walking Tours on Saturday, June 16, at 11:30 A.M. and 2:30 P.M.
Civil War Medical History Event at Ellwood Manor!
Please join us on Saturday and Sunday, June 16 – 17, 2018, for demonstrations by Living Historians regarding medical practices during the American Civil War.  Medicine and surgery methods are a captivating – and often misunderstood – aspect of the Civil War. Living Historians representing the 2nd Corps Hospital Unit (CSA) will be on site all day Saturday, and until 3:00 PM on Sunday, to talk with visitors about various facets of the Civil War medical and hospital procedures and address some of the common misconceptions of the care and treatment of Civil War soldiers.
Special programs will also be offered on Saturday, June 16.  Join us at 1:00 P.M. for a presentation discussing the wounding of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Civil War Medicine in general, and Ellwood as a Confederate Convalescent Hospital following the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863.  Jackson was the most famous of the thousands of wounded Confederate soldiers treated at the Wilderness Tavern and Ellwood hospital complex during and immediately after the fighting at Chancellorsville. After the vast majority of the casualties were evacuated to points further south days after the battle ended, those so badly injured that they might not survive the trip remained at Ellwood for up to several months. Please bring a comfortable lawn chair and a bottle of water to ensure your comfort at the presentation.
Guided walking tours to the Wilderness Tavern hospital site and the Wilderness Crossroads will also be offered on Saturday at 11:30 A.M. and approximately 2:30 P.M., following the 1:00 P.M. program. General Jackson’s left arm was amputated near the tavern after his wounding at Chancellorsville. The tour takes approximately an hour and fifteen minutes and begins at the small fence just behind the house.  It is approximately 1.5 miles in length over unpaved terrain. Visitors will see parts of historic road traces of the Orange Turnpike, Germanna Plank Road, and the Ellwood Carriage Road, as well as crossing over the Wilderness Run on a solid wooden footbridge.  Sturdy walking shoes and appropriate hiking clothes are recommended, as well as using sunscreen, insect repellent, and bringing along a bottle of water.
Friends of Wilderness Battlefield will be available to assist visitors with possible ancestral connections with the Battle of the Wilderness or to Ellwood, in the Heritage Program Tent on the grounds.
The historic structure Ellwood will be open from 10:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M. and FoWB interpreters will be available to talk with visitors and answer questions.
All programs are free and open to the public.
Ellwood Manor is a circa 1790 house within Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  The cemetery contains the grave of Confederate General  “Stonewall” Jackson’s amputated arm from the Battle of Chancellorsville, and the house was a Federal headquarters during the Battle of the Wilderness.  Ellwood Manor is owned by the National Park Service. Friends of Wilderness Battlefield is pleased to steward the property in partnership with the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. For more information or directions, please visit us at the following link:

Gazette665’s Third Annual Civil War Conference Report

Interest in the American Civil War continues to grow and flourish in Southern California, evidenced by Gazette665’s annual conference. Last Saturday (June 2, 2018) over eighty people gathered for this event, hosted at the Temecula Conference Center. 

The 2018 speakers were David T. Dixon, Bruce Smith, Daniel T. Davis (ECW member), Heather St. Clair, Nick Smith, and Sarah Kay Bierle (ECW member). They spoke on a variety of topics related to the conference theme, 1863: Battling For Freedom. Battles, leadership, politics, riots, women and battlefield medicine, and USCT were some of the historical niches explored throughout the day.

Speakers (left to right): Bierle, Dixon, Davis, N. Smith, B. Smith, St. Clair

This year Gazette665 partnered with several groups – Temecula Valley Historical Society, On-Site Living History, Baily-Denton Historic Photographers, and Union Balloon Corps Living History – to present historical displays and invite further conversation.

The event started early in the morning with coffee and conversation on the patio. Opening remarks launched the morning sessions which featured three presentation. Lunch hour offered the guests a catered meal from Panera Bread and the opportunity to have longer discussions with the speakers and display presenters. The conference shop remains ever-popular, and Emerging Civil War books are always a big hit! The afternoon sessions featured three more lectures, and the event concluded with closing remarks and a special announcement.

Daniel T. Davis (from ECW) shares about George A. Custer at Gettysburg

If you’re thinking about attending this annual event in 2019, there’s good news for you! The date has been set: June 1, 2019. The theme will be 1864: Fighting To Survive.

Gazette665 is a private company dedicated to encouraging history education through through quality publications and classy events. As of June 2018, the company has published 3 books and over 565 blog posts. Currently, Gazette665 is preparing to publish more books, developing more historical presentations, and planning new events for the Southern California communities.