Part of the beauty of teaching is that you get to do things over again. A successful lesson can be repeated the next year; a failed lesson can be revised for greater success the next time around. I've always loved that challenge. In the last few years, I've felt inspired to help my students to see history from the point of view of real people. It's easy to make people excited about the lives of people like Jane Addams or George Washington, but I want them to see a fuller kind of history in the lives of the rest of us.
To that end, I use a collection of historical letters that are available online at the Gilder Lehrman Institute. My students read them and we talk about the ways that the letters reflect the experiences of real people in history. I like them to see that history isn't a series of distant events or might-have-beens, but rather real events that happened to real people. And the documents are intended to serve as an inspiration to let their imaginations take flight. After we read them, I ask the class to imagine themselves as a figure in history and then write a letter to loved ones reflecting on their experience with a moment in time.
This afternoon I read the letters my current U.S. History class wrote as they imagined themselves caught up in the Civil War. I've done this assignment before but this year's class really excelled. I read letters by imaginary nurses in field hospitals, average soldiers struggling with the horror of battles like Shiloh or Gettysburg, and wives left home to tend the farms and raise children. And in the work of my students I see imagination, a real knowledge, and a growing understanding of what the Civil War really meant to Americans who lived through the experience.
We'll do a similar assignment when we study World War I and I can't wait to see what they will be inspired to write. Their work makes me excited to do what I do, an inspiration of its very own.