Stepping (in)to a Bygone Era: A Creative Teacher Immerses Students in Civil War Culture  10/12/2015

"You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

On any given day of the week, a visitor to campus might discover science students walking along the Bai Yuka shore sampling water quality, or young artists perched on the Central Circle sketching campus buildings. Our faculty is infinitely creative when it comes to helping students engage with their environment and learn experientially. Some teachers take this one step further by cultivating emotional intelligence, specifically empathy. As psychologist and emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman puts it, without empathy a person is "emotionally tone deaf".

Ms. Molly Goolman, a history teacher who is now in her second year at Saint James, wanted to help her fifth form U.S. History students learn about the Civil War in a personal way, and from the perspective of those whose voices are not often recorded in history books.

“It’s important to understand what life was like for not only the soldiers, but for the women, children and grandparents who were left at home,” she said. “What were women doing when the men were at war? How did families manage? How did they keep up morale?”
The innovative historian introduced her classes to the struggles of the period endured by those who remained at home, including starvation, cold, disease and boredom. Many families sought solace by writing letters to loved ones, and by engaging in traditional community activities such as line dancing.
So, Ms. Goolman had her students do both: every class member wrote a letter from the perspective of a Civil War era ​citizen; and, each student learned how to perform the Virginia Reel. Last week, her fifth formers put their studies to practice, performing the Virginia Reel, a popular dance from the 1830’s (mostly in the South), in the Coors parking lot. “Dances such as the Virginia Reel gave families something to look forward to, and helped provide a sense of unity that was comforting,” she noted.
She cheered her students on as they performed the dance with the help of Mr. Lachut and Mr. Gurol. ​The students seemed equally enthusiastic about the opportunity to dance as a way to understand Civil War life. “It was cool to experience what the culture was like,” said Lexa Slaugh ‘17 (shown, above). “Learning the Virginia Reel helped make the subject fun and interesting for us. And, dancing was an activity that helped families take a break from their worries while their fathers were at war.”
(To see Ms. Goolman’s students performing the Virginia Reel, don’t miss the video and photos.)
The students also earned a lesson in empathy. Each penned a personal letter from the perspective of someone who was left at home—someone from either side of the Mason Dixon line. The teacher shared these excerpts:

June 5, 1862
Dear Dadda,

I really hope that you are okay in Antietam. We are still here in Charleston. Jimmy just finished cleaning up the debris and destruction from Fort Sumter. Thought the battle only lasted two days, the Fort was left in ruins. It is sad that this battle so close to home was the start to this big war. Now this war has taken you from us, Papa.

....Are you scared of the war? Mama reads me the news sometimes and it sounds bad. I hear that a lot of people die during battles....I wish I were older, Papa. Everyone in the house is working now and helping you soldiers. Jimmy goes out to the factories and helps produce the guns for you guys. Mama also sometimes goes to the factory with Jimmy. If we need money to buy food and clothes, then she will work for a week straight and be able to help us...

We miss you a lot,
Tucker Almany ’17 (portraying Carl Fred James, a young boy in Charleston, SC)

January 16, 1863

Dear Christopher,

I miss you so much. Our kids miss you as well. I know you are fighting for the Union because you want our country to be united again and I have all the faith you will succeed….I work with other army wives and help make uniforms for the army. It is a nice distraction from worrying about you all the time.

I am also a nurse. This is a difficult job for me to have because every time I see a wounded soldier I think about how that could be you….Most women here are nurses for their husbands, which is understandable. They also have nothing else to do.

Just last month they started to draft young men again and as you know Kayden is getting to that age. He turns 18 next month and I am terrified for what comes next....

Now that President Lincoln has signed the Emancipation Proclamation we are united as a country. It also means that there is no turning back and making compromises with the Confederates. A lot of young men have been drafted into the army.

It’s a sad and miserable life to live in this time, especially for us women. All we have to hold on to is our faith and our hope. We see our men die every day right before our eyes and we still have to push on. We have no time to grieve because there is always someone else who needs our aid. Life still has to go on...

Your Wife,
Kayla Brown ’17 (portraying a Union wife and mother)
Just as Ms. Goolman’s students were able immerse themselves in the steps of the Virginia Reel, putting aside, at least for a moment, their concerns about the next class, or an upcoming test in order to experience the joy of movement (as their Civil War counterparts once did), their letters hint at an ability to cultivate empathy for their brethren who endured the many hardships of wartime.

In an article for Education Week, titled, “The Power of Movement in Teaching and Learning,” author and college professor, Susan Griss summarized this well: “By letting students experience the curriculum through their bodies, we help them make deeper emotional, interpersonal, and kinesthetic connections to academic subjects.”


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