Civil War Readalouds

For Older/upper elementary students

Before reading

Assemble resources that highlight aspects of a Civil War study that is appropriate for your students and applicable to your local curriculum and the state or national standards you have adopted. This pathfinder wiki, created by a middle school librarian in Pennsylvania, includes many links to sites for topics such as battles, medicine, women, and food.  Of particular interest might be the links to primary sources, especially images, and a magazine cover project using Big Huge Labs, reviewed here at TeachersFirst.

To help set the stage for an in-depth look at the battle that was the turning point for the Civil War, show students some present day photos of Gettysburg, found here.  Encourage them to keep those tranquil, peacetime images in their head;  as your lessons unfold over the next few sessions, have them imagine how the scenes transformed into something very different during the first three days of July, 1863. Compare them to similar images taken in 1863, from the Library of Congress collection.

The Gettysburg National Military Park is an excellent resource for a study of the battle that was the turning point for the Civil War.  The park employs an education specialist who oversees school tours and field trips and professional development for local teachers.  She maintains the Gettysburg School Bus blog with posts that sometimes include lesson plans from teachers.  This one, from an eighth grade teacher, may help you narrow your focus about what to teach and plan some enduring themes for your students.  A blank pdf for your “bulls eye” planning can be found here.

A basic summary of what took place at Gettysburg is available from the Visitors Center there, or at this Civil War Trust site.

For background knowledge specifics about troop movements and battle strategies this animation is available from the U.S. Army and has been reviewed by TeachersFirst, along with this one from History Animated.

Think about doing a close reading of Lincoln's famous speech at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.  Lesson plans and resources for the Gettysburg Address can be found here.  (See the book list below for two video interpretations of the Address that students can analyze and compare.)

During/  After reading

In addition to literature, other art forms such as photography, music, and poetry can be used with older students to teach content in engaging ways or assess what has been learned.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”  Today's students live in a visual world and are keenly aware of the power of images.  The Library of Congress maintains an extensive collection of photographs from this period in history, and it has recently aligned many of its materials with the Common Core.  An overview from the Teachers section provides links to pages with ideas for enhancing language arts activities with these primary sources and using them to build critical thinking skills.   This lesson plan for grades 4-8 features photographs of children in the Civil War era, and looks at the War through a child's eyes.  An analysis tool is provided for students to use when looking closely at the images.  Students can create captions for images or write longer pieces in which they imagine what happened one minute or one hour after the photo was taken.

Ken Burns, award-winning creator of The Civil War and other documentaries, partnered with PBS and the Library of Congress to provide lesson plans for using primary source images in grades 6-12.  Especially helpful is the “Telling Details” section.  Students can hover over photographs and read accompanying facts and explanations for portions of the archival photos.

Two lesson plans here and here at the Gettysburg School Bus blog {review pending] explain how one middle-school teacher uses photographs as primary sources in a study of the Civil War.

Examine samples of poems and songs of the troops on both sides as another window into the realities and emotions of this war and how the soldiers and their families coped.  Many are listed here, and the lyrics and music files are included. Project the words or provide students with copies of the words to a chosen song.  In small groups or with partners, have students see if they can determine what specific events, topics, or realities the words refer to.  Play the midi file for the song (by clicking the graphic next to the word “Music” at the top of the song page) so students get a sense of the rhythm.

Recommended books 

Clinton, Catherine.  When Harriet met Sojourner.  ISBN: 978-0-06-050425-0.    Lexile: NC 1030
In this picture book biography, Clinton profiles the work of two of America's most celebrated black women—Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.  She alternates between the activities of the two and highlights the ways in which the women were the same and yet different.  The story culminates in a discussion of what it must have been like for these two women to meet when their paths crossed in Boston in October of 1864. 

Fleischman, Paul.  Bull Run.  ISBN:  9780060214463.  Lexile: 810
As he did in Seedfolks , Paul Fleischman tells the story of the first battle of the Civil War using a number of voices.  Sixteen characters are heard from multiple times throughout the book—men, women, northerners, southerners, soldiers, and civilians.  Each selection is relatively short, which lends itself to Reader’s Theater.  Each character is symbolized with a small woodcut graphic.  Consult this children’s literature blog for a useful character table for taking notes during the reading and avoiding confusion.    Students will come to appreciate the complexity of the issues and realities of the day when they hear multiple points of view. 

Greenwood, Barbara.  The Last Safe House.  ISBN:  1-55074-509-3.  Lexile: 850.
With chapter titles such as “Midnight Guest,” “Outsiders,” and “Slave Catcher,” students will know they are about to listen to a suspenseful story.  Eliza is a runaway slave from a Virginia plantation who has made her way to the last safe house on her journey—the Reid family’s home in Ontario.  Greenwood provides a mix of fact and fiction while weaving a tale of friendship between Eliza and Johanna Reid.  Each fictional chapter is followed by a section with additional related information and hands-on activities.  Students will learn about plantation life, the abolitionist movement, and the role that Canadians played in harboring runaways.   The glossary, bibliography, and index are useful features.

Hunt, Irene.  Across Five Aprils.  ISBN: 9780425102411. Lexile: 1100
A Newbery Honor book, Across Five Aprils puts a face on the turbulence and anguish so many families experienced.  The Creightons are a southern Illinois family whose older sons have gone off to fight—some for the Union, some for the Confederacy.  Only nine when war breaks out, Jethro Creighton is forced to grow up early and help manage the family farm.  

Lincoln, Abraham.  The Gettysburg Address (with illustrations by Michael McCurdy).  ISBN: 0-395-69824-3.  Lexile: 1340
Read both the foreword (by a history professor) and the afterword from the illustrator when sharing this book with students.  Read the text and then watch this video interpretation.   Compare this video version with “The Great Task” video at this site. Discuss visuals in each and how they enhance or extend Lincoln's text.  Interested or accelerated students might do something similar with another famous speech.

McMullan, Margaret.  How I Found the Strong.  ISBN:  9780618350087.  Lexile: 860
Shanks is a scrawny eleven year old who would like nothing more than to join the Confederate Army like his father and brother.  Instead he must stay at home and cope with the war’s realities when the violence draws close to home.   As more and more time passes, Shanks begins to question the reasons for the war and eventually convinces his father that Buck, the family's slave, must be set free.  This is a useful title for discussing the reasons to go to war, and the notion that war has both intended and unintended consequences.

Philbrick, Rodman.  The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg.  ISBN:  978-0-439-66818-7.  Lexile: 950
Homer, a twelve year old orphan,  runs away from the mean uncle who is his guardian and makes his way south in search of his older brother Harold, a Union Army soldier.  Luckily, Homer has a gift as a storyteller, and his ability to stretch the truth and outwit and outrun an assortment of characters makes for a humorous read.  Students will enjoy hearing about Homer's misadventures with the likes of slave catchers, a traveling medicine show, and a spy balloon.  Though the tone of the book is primarily comical, Philbrick places Homer squarely in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg when he is reunited with his brother and the tone becomes more serious as readers are reminded of the horrors of war. This is a Newbery Honor book.

Polacco, Patricia.  Pink and Say.  ISBN: 9780399226717.  Lexile:  590
In this moving (and true) story about one of her ancestors, Polacco tells about the bond that developed between two teenage Union soldiers—one white, one black.  Sheldon Curtis lies close to death in enemy territory when he’s found by Pinkus Aylee.  “Pink” carries him back to what’s left of his home in Georgia and his mother nurses Sheldon (“Say”) back to health.  Their presence there puts Moe Moe Bay in danger, though, and she is killed by raiding Confederates.  The boys are taken to Andersonville prison and only Say survives. Polacco's tribute to the young man who rescued her great great grandfather is full of imagery involving hands.  Discuss with students the significance of Say's pride in having touched Abraham Lincoln's hand, and the illustrations that show the boys' hands clutched in friendship.

Turner, Ann.  Abe Lincoln Remembers.  ISBN: 0-06-027577-4.   Lexile: 790
Consider this book if you need to make Lincoln's presidency and his address at Gettysburg more accessible to students who struggle.  It is intended to explore what Lincoln must have thought and felt at the time and although it isn't a biography, it is grounded in facts.


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