Fifth-graders show off Civil War knowledge

Apr. 30, 2013 @ 07:39 PM

Fifth-grade students throughout Lee County had an audience Tuesday as they did interactive drills and read about the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The project was a collaboration between the public elementary schools and VolunterLee, a program coordinated by Ron Hewett and the United Way of Lee County with the aim of putting volunteers in touch with groups needing their help. This project was beneficial, several organizers said, because it flip-flopped the traditional roles students are used to and made them the readers.

“It boosts children’s confidence so much to have someone to read to and perform for, and it gives them another reason to read and study,” said Carol Chappell, the district’s director of K-5 instruction.

Chappell visited Deep River Elementary for Reading Day — a school where she said the students had previously made wanted posters for the people accused of helping John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s killer. During the event itself, she said, the students held a passionate yet well-informed debate over whether one co-conspirator, Mary Surratt, deserved the death penalty.

At B.T. Bullock Elementary School, Andy Bryan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and other members of the central office staff, gathered with Lee County Board of Education members Lynn Smith and Linda Smith and other community members. In addition to making posters with facts about Lincoln and other key figures in the Civil War, as well as some of the reasons the South seceded and the North wanted to maintain a union, the students picked out quotes and pictures scattered on the floor of the school’s gym and then spoke about them to their classmates and the visitors.

Some documents elicited anger — such as quotes about the treatment of slaves or photos of where Booth shot Lincoln — and others elicited happiness, such as photos of wanted posters or people on a gallows that students said represented justice. Students also got away from purely nonfiction work, writing first-person narratives of Lincoln’s assassination from various perspectives. McRae Owen took on the point-of-view of an actor who saw it from the stage. Mackenzie Roche wrote a series of diary entries imagining that she was a juror in the trial. Luke Davenport pretended to be a painting from Lincoln’s box that took on human qualities, tracking down Booth and killing him in revenge.

Lynn Smith, who said his great-grandfather fought at Gettysburg with a North Carolina regiment and died only a few years before he was born, told the students that although the pictures and quotes they were reacting to are certainly old, they represent relatively recent events in the grand scope of history.

Fifth grade is when students typically take U.S. history for the first time, so organizers said this project made sense and was a great way to tie English class and history class together. B.T. Bullock teacher Christian Chaney said many of his students knew very little about the Civil War coming into class, but now they can talk about it with ease.

“It was pretty much that they were like, “Yeah, they made a different flag, right? My neighbor has it on his truck,’” he said of lessons at the beginning of the year. “But other than that, there wasn’t much. ... I think the experience of preparing for this event really helped them learn a lot more about American history.”

Chappell said every fifth-grade class has copies of Bill O’Reilly’s “Lincoln’s Last Days,” an illustrated children’s version of his book “Killing Lincoln.” She added that she is considering buying the children’s version of another of his books, “Killing Kennedy,” for use in the next school year because November will mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.