A HyFlex journey through the Civil War Reconstruction
By OLu research partner, Brad Ermeling
Peter Lark has taught US history for 19 years, long enough to witness changes and additions to the latest chapter of our nation’s story. Throughout his career, Peter has consistently grappled with the challenge of covering this full breadth of expanding content while also constructing rich and memorable learning opportunities where students can discover, apply and transfer ideas about history to their everyday lives.
Peter views US History as a critical course for learning not only the storyline and content of our nation’s journey but also for helping students understand how actions and events of the past influence beliefs and issues we face today. It also helps them learn that people will hold diverse opinions about life and politics. These opinions, while different from their own, may be supported by equally good reason and rationale.
This year at Orange Lutheran, Peter is teaching his first HyFlex US history class. A HyFlex course blends face-to-face (f2f) learning with a flexible learning session (FLS) that is technology enhanced and primarily self-directed. It allows students to set the pace for a portion of their learning while still providing opportunities for face-to-face collaboration and guaranteeing access to individual or small group assistance from their teacher within the school day. Teachers can also use flex sessions to reduce class size and optimize facilitation of group work by bringing in one group or a smaller set of groups. Peter has been working to leverage the unique design of HyFlex to foster what he describes as a “US History Lab.” One insightful example is a recent lesson he planned on the Civil War Reconstruction.
More than a Series of Battles
When students first think of the Civil War they often think of generals and soldiers, guns and military strategy. They think of images so often captured in popular films or TV series about the North and South with men dressed in blue and grey uniforms, officers on horses, cannons and bayonets. Peter’s goal in teaching the Civil War, and particularly the reconstruction period following the war is to help students look beyond the military battles and victories and grapple with the deeper issues framing the period. Key questions Peter wants student to ponder include
- What caused this war between North and South?
- What was resolved and accomplished at the war’s conclusion?
- What complexities did the nation face in bringing the South back into the Union?
- What does this teach us about our government, society, and culture?
- How do the outcomes of this war still affect our contemporary lives and government?
- How do the failures of this reconstruction period linger on in the lives of African Americans today?
Part I: The US History Lab
To aid comprehension of these profound historical themes, Peter constructed a two-part lesson that guided students through the emotional journey and complex challenges of this critical period. Using the unique structure of his HyFlex class, he designed the first day as a US History Lab where students worked in teams of three to four and traveled through a series of stations focused on the reconstruction era. He divided the flex session into half (approximately 35 minutes each) and assigned a few teams to each half of the period. Click here to view a one minute introduction to the flex session and the station exercise Peter designed.
Students then spent seven to eight minutes in each of the stations described below.
Station 1: Setting the Stage: Who was Roger Taney? (7-8 minutes)
Station format: Students review a news clipping from the recent statue removal of Roger Taney and provide a written description of Taney’s decision about Dred Scott.
Reflection Questions: Who was Roger Taney? What did he decide in the famous Dred Scott Decision (1858)? When did the Civil War begin?
Station 2: The Civil War: What was won? (7-8 min)
Station format: Students watch a short documentary video describing the historical significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Reflection Questions: What was won as an outcome of the Civil War? Watch the clip, review the images and think as a group. With your group, think about and rank the most important outcomes of the war? Why did you rank each this way?
Station 3: What did war leave behind? (7-8 min)
Station format: Students review assorted images: Newspaper headlines on Lincoln’s death, pictures of people with amputated limbs, burned path through Georgia, and bent rails on train tracks.
Reflection Questions: What was left behind by the war? Use the images to aid your thinking about what the war left behind. What was left behind in the North? What was left behind in the South?
Station 4: You’re free! What’s your next move? (7-8 min)
Station format: Students study contrasting images of a freed slave with a jubilant expression juxtaposed to the image of freed slave with a despondent expression.
Reflection Questions: The war is over and you are now a freed-slave. What would you choose to do next? How would you go about doing that?
Click below to watch two example student groups contemplating the images and reflection questions at Station 4 (You’re free! What’s your next move?”).
Group #1: “I think it would be scary.”
Group #2: “Slavery under a new name.”
Unlike his traditional class, the flex session enabled Peter to focus his attention on just three groups of students at a time (half of the class) and doubled the amount of energy and attention he could invest with each group as they progressed through the stations. In the clip from Group #1, for example, Peter was able to monitor the distribution of talk among team members and strategically draw out important insights from one girl in the group who had been quietly listening but not contributing much to the discussion. Similarly, in the clip from Group #2, he was able to listen-in during a pivotal moment, reinforce the group’s emerging insights about the South “reinventing slavery,” and build some anticipation for key terms and ideas they would discuss in the subsequent class period.
One of the goals of small group work is to help “make students’ thinking visible” so the teacher can better understand, probe, and nudge forward student thinking as they wrestle aloud with important questions. Peter believes these types of exchanges are critical opportunities for helping students make memorable connections with the content. Combining the HyFlex format with the station design increased the probability of those exchanges and removed the pressure Peter normally faces in managing the entire class while also circulating to facilitate deeper thinking. The result was deeper reflective discussions among groups at each station which prepared students for deeper analysis and study in the subsequent class period.
Click here to watch Peter wrap up the station work and build a bridge of anticipation for the upcoming f2f lesson.
Part II: Bringing it All Together
During the next regular class period following this flex lesson, Peter organized the classroom into groups based on notes they recorded in their station work. He strategically distributed students with classmates that were on different teams during the previous lesson so they might gain new insights and perspectives. He reframed and reintroduced the key questions from each station and facilitated a whole group discussion interspersed with opportunities for small group sharing and exchanges. Before and after reintroducing each question he elaborated on key events and themes from the period to deepen their understanding and insight and to aid students in making connections to the present day.
Click here to watch a video clip from Day 2 where Peter guides the class through a deeper analysis of the questions from Station 1: Roger Taney and the Dred Scott decision.
Using this same approach, Peter continued working through the key themes and ideas for each of the four stations. He wrapped up the exercise by asking students to ponder one additional question. “If you were an African American living at this time, what would you hope for?” Students talked about equality, mobility to get out of the South, more diversity within communities, and more help from the government. Peter pointed out that the government, up until this point, had applied a very strict interpretation of the constitution and had not played an active role as a change agent in society. The Civil War changed that, he explained, resulting in new funding and initiatives such as the transcontinental railroad, the homestead act which opened up the Western Territory for settlement, and the establishment of many state universities.
Finally, Peter transitioned from this discussion to a more detailed explanation of the key terms and historical milestones of the era, elaborating on the political, social, and economic factors Americans faced as they struggled to reunify the nation.
Observations of students during station work and throughout the f2f lesson on Day 2 revealed a significant level of reflection, introspection, and empathy for the challenges Americans, and specifically African Americans, faced during this time period. The excerpts from two students interviewed below provide additional evidence of that introspection and insight. Both students (Avery Seagren and Kyle Hill) were members of Group 2 featured in the previous video clip.
I: As you traveled through the stations during that first lesson, what were some of your thoughts, feelings, and reactions?
A: I thought it was interesting the way we went about it. I like that we got to hear other people’s opinions…I thought it was nice to have the small groups…just to condense it…you feel like there is more discussion going on between you and the teacher.
K: I found the Roger Taney article very interesting…I saw how a guy was just following the trends of that time and technically making the right decisions became a villain for that one thing he did. He was not at the forefront of racism…but because of that one trial, he became this figure that people had painted to be a huge racist.
I: As you worked through the station about “What was won?” what were some of your impressions?
A: I think there were split opinions…back then…I think it was fantastic…especially the 13th Amendment. It was interesting to think about the Emancipation Proclamation. I didn’t know it was only the rebelling states’ slaves that were freed…
K: Out of all the war and violence what was born was the hope that all types of people might be treated equally without the fear of being targeted by bigotry and racism…the end of the Civil War is a start of a new beginning…what was won was hope that everyone might dwell together in unity.
I: What else did you realize about the time period and circumstances as you also reflected on “What was lost?” And “You’re free. What’s your next move?”
A: Definitely there was a lot more lost in the South than the North. It was interesting to learn that one of the Northern tactics was burning everything in their wake when they were sweeping through the South…it was sad to see all the destruction, because that was their economy.
K: I’m sure most of the slaves were excited to be free, but I’m sure many were also feeling pessimistic about leaving the plantation where they had shelter, food, and clothing. Now they are thrown into a world that doesn’t see them on the level of the rest of society. So what are they going to do? How are they going to survive? I’m sure some of them still felt enslaved…I think fear was a huge thing.
I: How does this lesson about the Civil War Reconstruction relate to the way you think about life in America today?
A: I think all of the violence over racism today…I feel like we should have learned from history. I definitely reflects the same pattern.
K: During the [second] class period, Mr. Lark talked about how the churches were segregated. I think it’s interesting how that has translated over time…kept that same thing with one race being predominant in a church. I think we have that time period to blame. There is still a separation of races.
I: One of the things you learned in these lessons was that the Civil War Reconstruction Era was a time period that was focused on change. What can we learn from this time period about how change happens in society?
A: Mr. Lark had said that change sometimes takes people dying, a generation that has a certain opinion to go away…I definitely agree with that. People just are so firm in their belief that they aren’t open to another opinion…those people are the ones blocking progress.
K: Well…it takes forever. I think that’s something Mr. Lark was also making clear…that change doesn’t happen in a few years. It takes…decades.
As Peter reflected on the lesson, he shared his own observations of students’ journey through the lesson content. He was gratified to see how students connected with the emotions of the period, how they stepped out of their own world view to consider the complexities from multiple perspectives. He was excited to see their level of reflection on the questions he posed as they made connections between the challenges of the Reconstruction era and the pressing issues in society today. A week later, after looking at their essay responses on a Civil War test, he was thrilled to see the highest class average he has ever experienced in this course.
Peter also reflected on his new “Lab” experiment with the HyFlex model and the opportunity this afforded for more focused interaction with a smaller number of students. He is looking forward to adapting that design for future units throughout the year as he continues to balance presentation of key facts and content with rich and memorable learning opportunities for discovery and application.