10 Classroom Activities for the Civil War (History Lesson Plans)
Top 10 FUN and ENGAGING Civil War Classroom Activities!
As a history teacher, incorporating hands-on, engaging activities into your lesson plans can be a GREAT way to bring the American Civil War to life for your students!
A pivotal moment in American history, it's important for students to understand the causes of the Civil War, the major battles, and the impact it had on the country.
In no particular order, here are 10 fun and engaging classroom activities for teaching all about the Civil War that are perfect for any grade level!
#1. Role-Playing Activities
Have your students take on the role or roles of famous historical figures from the Civil War era! From President Lincoln's inaugural address, writing out the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, or in one of his many letter to Union generals on the battlefield (in particular generals George McClellan and Ulysses S. Grant!), the possibilities are nearly endless! You can have students act out the role(s) of historical figures as an entire class, or in small groups. They'll LOVE breaking up the monotony of everyday class by engaging in simulated conversations and debates with their peers.
TIP for this activity: avoid having students struggle to stay in character by providing CLEAR guidelines and instructions for each role (consider providing a script) and prior to having students partake in this activity, ensure that you have a detailed discussion with students about the context and background of the Civil War
#2. Map Drawing Activity
Have your students create a map of the United States, as it was during the Civil War! Depending upon what grade level your teaching, use that as a guide in determining the level of detail students provide on the map. For example, for 4th and 5th graders, simply having them properly label each of the Union states, Confederate states, and Border states may be sufficient (maybe have them label a few of the important locations too like where Washington D.C. is, and/or Gettysburg, PA?). Whereas for say 8th and 9th graders, not only have them label each of the Union, Confederate, and Border states, but also require them to label where some of the war's more significant battles occurred (ie., Battle of Antietam, Battle of Shiloh, Siege of Vicksburg, Battle of Gettysburg, etc.).
TIP for this activity: avoid having students struggle with geography and spatial awareness by providing CLEAR instructions and a template, and also offer them support in the form of a map or atlas.
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#3. Timeline Project Activity
One of my favorite activities for students, especially when teaching them about the Civil War, is having them do a timeline project activity! This type of activity provides students with a GREAT opportunity to view in sequential and chronological order the many important events of the Civil War. I remember as a student myself it was just how dang difficult it was to remember when and in what order all of the major battles occurred, when the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered, when Congress passed the 13th Amendment and then when it was ratified, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, when President Lincoln was assassinated, and so on!
TIP for this activity: minimize student confusion and frustration by ensuring that you ONLY have students complete a timeline project like AFTER going through each of the Civil War lessons. For example, a Civil War timeline project makes an EXCELLENT unit review activity.
#4. Debate Activity
Immerse your students in the midst of the Civil War era by having them engage one another in debate on key issues of the time. The debate topics can range from states' rights, to the drafting of men into service, to how to best preserve the Union and/or whether or not the U.S. Constitution allows individual states to secede, there's numerous possibilities!
TIP for this activity: some students may not be comfortable speaking in front of class or have strong critical thinking skills - help limit the impact of this by providing encouragement, both to the class, but especially to those students that may struggle. On top of that, provide CLEAR guidelines and instructions for the debate(s) by including a set of rules and timeline.
#5. Presentation Activity
This particular type of activity has a TON of possibilities! For younger kiddos, one fun and interactive activity is to have them create a PowerPoint or a Google Docs document that tells the story of a famous Civil War person, such as President Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and/or Robert E. Lee. Students can use primary source documents, such as speeches and letters, to research the person and write a biography. And when it comes to middle school students have them create a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation on a famous Civil War battle, such as the First Battle of Bull Run or the Battle of Antietam. Students can use primary source documents, such as photographs and letters, to research the battle and create a presentation that includes information on the key people and events surrounding that particular battle. And for high school students, a great way to dive deeper into the Civil War is by having them create a presentation that focuses on the daily life of Civil War soldiers, both Union and Confederate. Students can learn about the different uniforms, weapons, and equipment used during the war, as well as the battles and campaigns that took place.
You can also have elementary students do a presentation on the daily life of Civil War soldiers or one of the battles of the Civil War, the suggestions above are just that, suggestions. The only thing that matters is that no matter what you have your students do a presentation on, you have grade-level appropriate expectations. For example, you should expect a deeper level of analysis, critical thinking, and subject matter comprehension for high schoolers doing a presentation on say a historical figure of the Civil War than you should for a middle schooler.
TIP for this activity: some students may struggle from a technical perspective when using PowerPoint or Google Apps and/or when gathering data and information (organizing and synthesizing the data and information they've collected). Help prevent this from occurring by considering pairing up/grouping students who may be weaker in this regard with students who are stronger. I'd also strongly consider providing students with examples, templates, or resources (say on YouTube) on how to create a good, cohesive presentation in PowerPoint/Google Slides.
#6. Game-Based Learning Activity
Another of my favorites (both as a teacher and a student) is playing an interactive, fun, and engaging game in class! From historical strategy games, to ironclad battle simulations, to something as simple as a trivia game (Jeopardy, anyone?!), game-based learning activities are a great way to promote student learning.
TIP for this activity: depending on the game and level of technical awareness needed to play, some students may struggle. It's also entirely possible (likely) that some students may not be as engaged during gameplay. In these instances, I recommend going over step-by-step instructions with your class prior to gameplay beginning on how to play the game (a quick demonstration may be perfect).
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#7. Analyzing Primary Sources
Another classroom activity is to have your students analyze primary sources from the Civil War time period. The Library of Congress has a wealth of primary source documents, including letters, photographs, and political cartoons, that can be used to give students a sense of what life was like during the Civil War. Primary sources can also be used to discuss more in-depth the causes of the war and the differing perspectives of those living in the northern and southern states, what daily life for soldiers was like, etc., etc.
TIP for this activity: With this type of activity it's not uncommon for some students to feel overwhelmed, not really know how or where to get started with their research (especially if doing this activity individually). In addition to providing concise and clear instructions when assigning this activity to students, provide them with some suggestions on how to get started (ie., resources/websites they should check out that'll help facilitate their research/analysis).
#8. Video Analysis Activity
A student favorite is whenever they get to spend class watching a video, especially one that has some action and excitement! As a teacher, I'm always on the lookout for videos on YouTube or scenes in movies that I know will grip my students attention and teach them about a specific event in history - it's like the Holy Grail! Bayonet Charge at Little Round Top, anyone? Have your students watch a video pertaining to some aspect of the Civil War and have them analyze it. Two great ways to do this are either by providing them with instruction to write a summary of the video (including key figures in the video, what was all going on in the video, etc.), or by having a classroom discussion about the video afterwards.
TIP for this activity: Similar to some of the other types of activities included in this list, some students may struggle with critical thinking skills and abilities or may not be engaged with the video. Help minimize this by providing clear expectations on why you're showing the video to class, your expectations of their analysis on the video, consider providing them with a set of questions prior to viewing the video, and/or offer support in the form of of discussion questions prior to watching the video.
#9. Problem Solving Activity
Another great way to engage students is with some sort of a problem solving activity. You may elect to have your students do an activity like individually, in pairs, or as group work. Irrespective of manner, have your students answer relatively difficult (and grade level appropriate) questions about the causes of the war, the major battles, and/or the impact of the war on the nation. This is a great way to encourage and grow your students critical thinking skills and abilities. And if you have your students do this in pairs or in small groups, it'll also help grow their communication skills too!
Take for example 5th grade students, a excellent introduction to the Civil War is through the use of political cartoons. These cartoons, created during the Civil War era, can be used to discuss the causes of the war and the different perspectives of the northern and southern states. The Civil War also offers an opportunity to teach about the end of slavery in America and President Lincoln's role in it. Another great example is to use the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and other primary sources to discuss the role of African American Union soldiers and the impact of the war on African Americans!
TIP for this activity: Again, some students may struggle when it comes to their critical thinking skills and abilities. Prevent this by providing clear expectations about the activity and offer suggestions and ways for students to approach/get started with the problem solving activity.
#10. Field Trips!
Incorporating field trips to local Civil War battlefields or museums can also be a great way to bring the history to life for students! During these trips, students can see firsthand the battlefields, artifacts and other historical sites that they have been learning about in class. It can also be a great way to give them a sense of the scale and scope of the war. It's important to note, field trips can be virtual too! There's numerous online resources for virtual field trips when it comes to the Civil War. One of my favorite websites when it comes to the Civil War (and Revolutionary War) is www.battlefields.org. They happen to have a series of virtual field trips you can have your students embark on! Here's the link to them! https://www.battlefields.org/visit/virtual-tours
TIP for this activity: In-person field trips can be resource intensive and often have to be conducive to certain time frames and other constraints. Thus, obviously, taking a class (or classes) on a field trip isn't always possible. That said, explore the internet for virtual field trips that you can have your students go on either individually or as a class! A quick Google Search will yield some pretty good results!
BONUS Activity Idea #1!
Consider creating a classroom museum that showcases artifacts, documents and other primary sources from the Civil War era. This can be a great way to give students a sense of what life was like during the war and can be an awesome way to review the key events and people of the war with your students!
BONUS Activity Idea #2!
Have students create a mural depicting a famous battle of the Civil War. This can be a great way to review the key events and people of the war, and it also allows students to be creative and express themselves!
To sum it all up, there are many ways to bring the American Civil War to life for your students!
As a history teacher, whether you're teaching 4th or 5th graders, or maybe on up to 8th graders and beyond! There are a variety of activities and lesson plans that can be used to introduce the causes of the war, the major battles, and the impact of the war on the nation. The Library of Congress, battlefields, and other historical sites are great places to find primary source documents and artifacts that can be used to enhance your Civil War unit. The use of primary sources, such as letters, photographs, and political cartoons, can give students a sense of what life was like during the war and help them understand the differing perspectives of the northern and southern states. Additionally, incorporating technology into your lessons, such as using Google Slides, Google Docs and Google Classroom can be a great way to engage students and make learning about the Civil War more interactive and fun.
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I hope this article has provided you with some value. Thank you for reading!
-Jillian (a.k.a. the "Lesson Plan Guru")
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