Teaching the Civil War Vol. 3: It’s Nice Having Students Who Care

While I do not want to jinx anything, the first half of this twelve week-long course that I am teaching could not have gone any better. The students I have genuinely seem to be interested in the material, and I can tell because they ask questions throughout. Having taught CCD, either as a substitute or regular teacher for nearly six years, it really is not as hard as you think to be able to tell if a student cares. As you may gather, not many cared about the religious themed material I used to teach, and it got so boring that in the end, I stopped using the book all together, and instructed my students at the time to not even bother bringing there’s to class, a big no-no for an after-school Catholic program. That was my first taste of teaching, and I guess you can say that it was not a horror story as others might tell you. After all, it was a volunteer job, and I have a personal motto that states very simply, “I don’t do what I don’t want to do.” In other words, unless it is for my paying job (which thankfully involves hockey and no complaints), if I am volunteering and am being forced to do something that I don’t like or think is wrong, I’m just not going to do it. I learned a lot in those six years, such as what teaching methods will and will not work, and I must say it has helped me along the way.

Let’s get real here: not one student I ever taught over there ever really cared about religion. I have also been down that road, and still am, to a degree, so I related to them. That is why I decided to change everything around in my last year. I taught lessons on exorcisms and mysteries of our religion, such as the Shroud of Turin and the Holy Grail, which I, along with my students, actually found interesting, mainly because it was something different. Then when January came around, I tried a five-week lesson called “Religion and the Civil War”, which was really my only way to tie in and teach my favorite subject. I figured, “Well, the generals were religious. Bingo, now its relevant!” The students also enjoyed this, at least that’s what they told me to my face. When that was done, I asked what else they wanted to learn about that religion figured into in some way, and they said the Holocaust. So that’s what we learned for the next three weeks. This was the only time I ever really felt a connection, and actual brainwaves being put to work.

At this school, with the Civil War elective, the students are completely the opposite. Again, I don’t want to jinx anything, but they are well-behaved and actually want to learn, which as any teacher will say, makes things go a lot smoother. I have several students who have been to battlefields and forts, a few that have read books on the subject, and even one who has seen Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Just by the questions they are asking, I can tell that they really want to learn more. As of last week, we have finished the major battles and campaigns through Antietam, and this Wednesday comes a lesson on Fredericksburg. Because classes are only 40 minutes, and my lessons are designed to run that long, I was upset that at first, because I did not think I would be able to show any of the scenes from G & G, which pretty much go right along with what I teach about the battle. Then I thought for a moment: this is a private school, we can do things differently here. So I asked the principal for permission to keep the students after class for an hour (this class is the last one of the day, so it works out), if they get a permission slip signed by a parent, and show all the scenes involving the battle of Fredericksburg. She said yes, and I handed them out two weeks ago. Last week, 10 out of the 12 students brought them in with “Yes” circled, and the other two say they are bringing them in this week. So, I guess they really do care if they are willing to stay in school for an extra hour. I also said they could bring in snacks, and one of the parents even volunteered to have her son bring in stuff for the entire class.

One more thing before I wrap it up, and that is during week one, when I was showing them pictures of some of the generals, they were really taken aback by the extreme (and sometimes comical) facial hair that some of them had. As a joke, I said that if anyone could grow a beard by the end of the trimester, they would get extra credit points on their next quiz. Immediately, two of them tried to explain that the peach fuzz they had on their lip was a beard, which did not sell me, but three weeks later, a student walked in with an enormous fake beard on. It was really quite funny to see, so yes, he got some bonus points on that week’s quiz.

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