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Battle of Gettysburg Anniversary Brings Opportunity to Learn

It was 150 years ago this week that the Battle of Gettysburg took place. Makes for a great teachable moment, to be sure. I can imagine many history educators are lamenting that it comes when most schools are closed for the summer.

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Of course, a lot of young people and their families have surely made the trip to Gettysburg, Pa., this week, to view historic re-enactments, listen to lectures, take a battlefield tour, maybe climb Little Round Top. And plenty more are hearing about the anniversary and get curious enough to check out a website, battlefield app, or simply read a book or newspaper article about the battle.

Just today, I got in the mail my copy of Hallowed Ground, the magazine of the Civil War Trust. Sure enough, the issue is devoted to Gettysburg.

"Every high school history textbook in American tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg—the bloodiest battle of the Civil War and, arguably, the turning point of the conflict," writes Civil War Trust's Jim Lighthizer in a column. "Few events in the history of our nation have received the measure of academic study and public interest that Gettysburg has enjoyed."

The issue also features an article by high school history teacher and author James Percoco. I spoke with Jim about two years ago when I helped to assemble an Education Week special package on the Civil War sesquicentennial. (The package included a story on how history educators are increasingly turning to primary sources to breathe new life into studying the war, and the special challenges of teaching a conflict that continues to spark sharp political and cultural debates.)

Percoco's essay is a reflection on teaching and learning with battlefields.

"When I first came to Gettysburg at age 10, I had no inkling that during a 32-year career teaching high school history, I would lead thousands of students on their own Gettysburg pilgrimages," he writes. "I found at Gettysburg the power to convey a story about an an epic moment in American history, but also to craft my personal connection between my students, a place, and historical memory."

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In the article, Percoco describes the evolution of his approach to teaching about the conflict, and the battleground itself. And he shares some advice for other educators looking to employ a historic site in their instruction.

"Immerse yourself in the place," he writes. "Make this a continual learning process on your part by reading widely on the subject and integrating the inspirational techniques of others you encounter. Be willing to turn over the teaching process to your students and make them the historians. My Gettysburg story did not appear over night, but as I made my own personal odyssey, I came to understand not only the battle, but also my own philosophy as an educator."

Photo credits:

Top: This combination image shows, top, a painting by Edwin Forbes of the view from the summit of Little Round Top, July 3, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pa., and bottom, two re-enactors viewing the sunrise during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on June 28 at Bushey Farm in Gettysburg. --AP Photos

Bottom: A combination image shows, top, a photo made available by the Library of Congress of Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," on Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, and bottom, re-enactors demonstrating a cavalry battle near spectators during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. More than 200,000 people, including 20,000 re-enactors, are expected to visit the small Pennsylvania town for events through the Fourth of July weekend. --AP Photos

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