4 Engaging Ways to Introduce Your Civil War Unit
American novelist Gail Godwin once said, “Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.” One of the most difficult tasks teachers face is getting their students excited about learning. Sometimes engaging students in a new unit can feel like a one-person performance!
I want to help you fall in love with teaching history, so I’m brainstorming exciting ways to introduce your history units.
Below are 4 engaging ways to introduce your Civil War unit. I know you and your students will love them!
Introduce the Unit with a Primary Source
Photograph of Private William Sergent (Union soldier) after the amputation of both arms
If you’re not using primary sources in your classroom, now is the time to start! Primary sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it. Primary sources are an awesome way to help students connect with the past and bring history to life in the classroom!
This primary source is a thought-provoking way to introduce your Civil War Unit. It helps provide a more personal perspective on the war.
How it Works:
- Students study the photograph for a few minutes.
- Next, ask students the following questions. Students may share their answers verbally or write their answers down on a guided worksheet like this one.
- What do you see?
- Describe the man. Who do you think he is?
- Why do you think this photo was taken?
- How does this photo compare to modern times?
- Then students reflect on what this photo tells them about the Civil War.
This is such an easy, low prep way to introduce your Civil War unit. Check out more powerful Civil War primary sources here.
Using a Great Introductory Video
North vs South (Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” Parody) by Mr. Betts’ Class
When I was teaching, videos were one of my favorite teaching tools. They’re fun, engaging, and a nice change of pace for students and teachers.
Mr. Bett’s channel is full of funny, engaging history videos. This one covers the strengths and weaknesses of the North and South during the Civil War.
How it Works:
- First, ask students what they know about the Civil War.
- Next, explain that the war was fought between the Union (the North) and the Confederacy (the South). Show students a map like this one. This video will discuss Northern President Abraham Lincoln and Southern General Robert E. Lee.
- While watching the video, students look for advantages the North and South had during the war. Consider pausing throughout the video so students can take notes.
- After watching the video, discuss Union and Confederate strengths. This will help students understand the circumstances of the war and prepare them to learn more!
Looking for more Civil War videos? Check out my list of Civil War videos for middle school.
Introduce the Unit with a Historical Picture Book
You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Civil War Soldier by Thomas Ratliff
Disclosure: The book link is an Amazon affiliate link. This means that I may earn commissions for purchases made by clicking the link.
When it comes to teaching history, textbooks can often feel dry, and the large amounts of text can be really overwhelming for students. Historical picture books bring history to life and help teachers address difficult concepts in age-appropriate ways.
This non-fiction book would be a great way to introduce your Civil War unit. Ratliff’s book is written as if the reader is a Civil War soldier. It explains what life was like for soldiers on both sides and goes over major battles.
How it Works:
- First, provide students with a venn diagram or let them draw their own. Label the sides “Union Army” and “Confederate Army”.
- Second, students share what they already know about the two armies with a partner.
- Next, read the book. As you read, students fill out the venn diagram. Remind students that they won’t be able to fill in the similarities section until they have read about both sides.
- When the diagram is filled out, ask students what differences surprised them. Were they able to find any similarities?
Click here to check out more of my Civil War picture books for kids!
Introduce the Unit with a Song
Day of Liberty by Carolina Chocolate Drops
This last idea is one your students are sure to love. Songs can be a wonderful way to connect with a historical time period by analyzing melody and lyrics.
“Day of LIberty,” sung by the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a modern cover of a Civil War era song (see the original sheet music here). This song is told from the perspective of enslaved Black Americans during the Civil War and speaks of the hope they had for liberty. Note: The Chocolate Drops, a Black roots-music group, modernized some of the lyrics and combined the song with a poem by Henry Clay Work called “Wake Nicodemus!”.
How it Works:
- Before you listen to the song, ask students to share their favorite song and why they like it with a partner.
- Discuss that songs can be enjoyable to listen to, but they can also teach us about historical time periods and situations. Tell students they will be listening to a song that was written by enslaved Black Americans during the Civil War.
- Use this sound recording analysis worksheet to analyze the song. Pause throughout the video to discuss lyrics and their meanings.
- After analyzing the song, ask students what the song teaches them about the Civil War.
More Resources for Teaching about the Civil War
I hope these ideas will help you introduce your Civil War unit in an engaging way!
If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in my 3-week unit about the Civil War. It is filled with engaging lessons and activities you can use in your classroom today. The lessons cover events before, during, and after the Civil War so that students really get the big picture. Hundreds of teachers have used and loved it. I know you will too!
- Free Civil War Timeline and Lesson Plan
- 7 Civil War Videos for Kids
- Civil War Unit
- Civil War Primary Sources for 5th Grade and Middle School