When Andrew Druart stepped on his first Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., at the age of 10, the feeling overwhelmed him.
But it was a feeling that did more than just get him interested in the Civil War: It sparked a passion for a new pastime. Learning about the Civil War and becoming an advocate for battlefield preservation are now things Andrew spends his summer vacations, weekends, and after-school hours on. In fact, he's teaching others about this through his website, The Civil War for Kids, and Facebook page.
"When you are in school, you just hear about it, but when you are there, you actually get to feel what it's like," Andrew, now 13, told me in a phone interview.
The website is packed with useful information about the Civil War and battlefield preservation, photos, "cool facts," and even tips for parents to help their children learn about the Civil War. (Andrew's father helps out with the website.)
Known by some park rangers as the Chief Kidstorian, Andrew is one of many kids who have taken their passion and turned it into a kind of self-directed learning opportunity.
The website has become a place where he practices, not only doing research, but writing, web design, and interacting professionally with others.
Self-directed learning, or that which "emerges from the students' own curiosity-fueled exploration" as described recently in this piece from the publication Wired, has a lot of proponents and, according to the story, research to back it up. With school days already so structured and jam-packed with certain need-to-know facts, could after school or summer time be the best place to encourage it?
The ideas here bring to mind this popular TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson, which if you haven't watched, you should. In it, Robinson challenges the way we educate children in the United States, saying that rather than using a system designed to fulfill the needs of the industrial revolution, we should instead focus on fostering their own creativity and passion.
To be sure, there are lots of examples of educators who find ways to step out of the regular routine and find inventive ways to spark a passion in students and fuel their creativity. In fact, returning to the Civil War for a moment, check out this Education Week story about how some educators today are using the Civil War and primary sources to get students excited about history and give them room to be creative. In one example, middle school students in Manassas, Va, filmed a series of short videos at a local battlefield. The students were involved in all aspects of filmmaking: researching the war, writing scripts, making props and costumes, acting, directing, and editing.
I'm sure there are many more examples of students and schools out there doing these kinds of things and I'd love to hear them. If you've got a website or a story to share, post in the comments section below.
Top image: Andrew Druart visits a battlefield to fuel his passion for Civil War history. Photo reprinted with permission from The Civil War for Kids website. Bottom image: Re-enactors demonstrate Pickett's Charge during activities in July that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Matt Rourke/AP-File