“Reading is not walking on words, but grasping the soul of them.”
- Paulo Friere
Paulo Friere’s quote emphasizes how we, as readers, can be transformed by literature.
We “grasp the soul” of an author’s story and allow ourselves to become a part of a world unknown to us. In our transformation, we feel, we react, we consider and reconsider, and ultimately learn how others live. Using fiction and descriptive non - fiction literature in the classroom to complement the chronologies of an historical study provides our students with a variety of perspectives to gain a more comprehensive understanding of a given time period. The wealth of available children’s and young adult literature enables teachers to extend any historical study and to have our students “grasp the soul” of how others have lived.
Toward this end, “His Story, Her Story” is a nine-week literature project, designed to complement a Civil War social studies unit. At Conte West Hills Magnet School, the Civil War is taught in sixth grade as part of our American History curriculum. Conte West Hills Magnet School is a kindergarten through eighth grade program in New Haven; our school population is representative of all thirteen New Haven neighborhoods. One of our magnet “draws” for over thirty years has been an integrated curriculum: all of our teachers teach social studies and integrate their grade-level content with other disciplines wherever possible. The study of American history begins in fourth grade with Native Americans across the country. Fifth grade students study American colonialism and continue with the American Revolution and our early government. In sixth grade, our students learn about the nineteenth century in America: Westward Expansion, the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution. During these three units, students read a variety of literature to complement their understanding of life during those eras. Sixth-graders meet for literature instruction and for social studies instruction on a daily basis; each class is forty-five minutes in length. The Civil War is taught during the second marking period, from November through mid-January. Although my primary responsibility, as a staff developer, is assisting all teachers with the development and implementation of their curriculums, I will teach this literature unit every day in one sixth-grade literature class during the second marking period.
The American Civil War produced some of the darkest years in our nation’s history. It has been called the greatest crisis in America’s life. The rights of individual states were determined. Constitutional government was put to its severest test. Areas of our country were left in ruins as cities were burned, farmlands pillaged, rural land destroyed, and roads obliterated. The institution of slavery was forever eradicated. The death toll of the war was over seven hundred thousand; its casualties exceeded our nation’s loss in all of its other wars combined, from the American Revolution to Desert Storm. Our country was divided in two. Brother fought brother. Son fought father. The brutality and horror of these dark years suggest reasons why we have not fought a war on our own soil since the Civil War.
The war itself lasted four long years; the effects of it are still being felt today. As Americans, it is incumbent upon us to know and understand the history of this time. In so doing, we can preserve the ideals of our Constitution and work together towards freedom and justice for all. As teachers, it is critical that we provide our students with a solid foundation for their growing historical understanding. The degree to which we successfully do this is the degree to which our citizens of the future can overcome the horrors of the past.