“Prime! Ready! Aim! Fire!” Mr. P walks three students through the process of loading Civil War-style muskets. In the classroom this is just a drill, with imaginary gunpowder and bullets. However, these students are about to go outside to fire the guns for real (just blanks – no bullets involved), complete with replica soldier’s uniforms and waist pouches containing their gunpowder and tools. This is just one of many ways this teacher makes history come alive for the students in this combined US History/ American Literature course.
I spend my prep block grading papers and writing lesson plans as the teachers in front of me dress students up in Civil War uniforms, sample hard-tack (the hard biscuits that were the main part of soldier’s rations), and share reflections on what life was like for the boys and men who fought to preserve the Union. These teachers use the lives and experiences of people, rather than the memorization of dates and important battles, to make history into a tangible narrative that captivates and engages these students who are often so immersed in the technological noise of our century that thinking critically of days past, in which there were no cell phones or reality TV, can be a daunting challenge.
I hope to engage my students in this way, making education into a series of memorable experiences rather than a list of forgettable events. However, lacking access to Civil War paraphernalia and the resolution to bring bayonets into the classroom, I’ll have to figure out my own style. A final word of advice: “always behave as if it is loaded.”
-Alison E. Putnam