I love teaching history, especially U.S. history, and especially the history surrounding the War of Northern Aggression. I was afforded just such a chance today. Knowing that I have a passion for that subject, a teacher with whom I have worked before, asked me if I would like to stand-in for him today. I quickly agreed and was then told, "Oh, by the way, this week's unit is on the Civil War." YAY for me!
Aside from the study guide he wanted the students to receive, the teacher told me, "Feel free to cover anything that you think is important."
So many light bulbs came on today that I almost had to wear sunglasses. As is to be expected, some students just didn't care and paid little attention, but there were many who sat attentively, while I covered the subject matter, and then they had a lot of questions. The first question on their study guide was "What was the cause of the Civil War?" Slavery was certainly an issue that was covered, but the students themselves made it clear that it was not the ONLY issue, so we delved into others. The right to secede drew most of the attention and led to some very lively discussion.
One student challenged the right of the Southern states to secede as being "unconstitutional." I asked him if he could cite that part of the Constitution that prohibits secession. He said he could, but he didn't have a Constitution with him, soooo, I went into my backpack and gave him one of mine. At that point he backed away from his assertion and I went into the Declaration of Independence and its wording about people choosing their own form of government. I also cited a quote from Abraham Lincoln, in which he states the right of any people to break away from a bad government. I could see the wheels turning. I also had a student ask me, "Why do you call it the War of Northern Aggression?" I responded, "Which country invaded the other?" He nodded and said, "Oh yeah, I see your point."
As conversations of this sort often do the course changed somewhat to the slavery/racism issue, as it has been in the news of late. So, I took the opportunity to explain what a racist emblem really is, as regards the use of certain flags and other emblems. I asked them if they knew what the "Stars and Bars" were. They all said they did, that it was the cross flag used by the Confederacy. Good, I had them where I wanted them. No, I explained, what you are describing is the Confederate Battle Flag, the St. Andrew's Cross, NOT the Stars and Bars.
I then stared drawing the progression of flags on the board, starting with the U.S. flag of the period. Then I drew the First National Confederate Flag and after showing the similarities I told them, "THIS is the Stars and Bars and was the flag of the government. The Battle Flag was the flag of the armies in the field." I explained how/why the Battle Flag came to be and then showed them the 2nd and 3rd National Flags for comparison. More light bulbs came on.
I went on to say that when you hear someone calling the Battle Flag a racist emblem and then calling it the Stars and Bars, they should note that if the speaker doesn't even know the correct nomenclature then what else don't they know? The students seemed to understand this point. I asked them to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about what a racist emblem really is. If a group or a person uses an emblem, any emblem, as a means of promoting their hate does that mean that the emblem in question loses its original meaning? Or does it mean that hateful people are just that and can co-op any emblem for their own means?
I then said, "Go on Google and check KKK or Klan rallies and see which flag appears most often." Before any of them had a chance to do so a couple of them piped up, "The U.S. flag?" I just reiterated, "Google it," I then asked, "If the U.S. flag flew over a slave nation for over 80 years, does that make it a racist emblem?" One response was, "Well, yeah, the way some people describe racist emblems, technically it could be." This opened the floor for further discussion and I was pleased at the thought-processes that were being used.
At the end of the day it was obvious that the students were thinking of things in a way that they had not before. I told them that if they had any questions about anything they had learned today that all they had to do was a little research to find more information and either confirm or dispel any new conclusions they may have drawn. The bottom line - "Think, be skeptical, ask questions," don't just regurgitate what others tell you.
I got some very positive feedback from many of the students as they left class today.
I love history!