The Civil War Research Unit

Unit Plan: 6th-8th Grade
by Rosanne Zajko (Ancillae Assumpta Academy, Pa)

Description of Goals, Concepts, Time and Methods

Rationale and Concepts

All American citizens should study the Civil War.  It is our heritage.  As historian Shelby Foote explains, “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War.  I believe that firmly.  It defined us…the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to be being what we became:  good things and bad things.  And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century.  It was the crossroads of our being…”

An in-depth study of the Civil War has the following benefits for our students:

Contributes to the students knowledge base of American history

  • Reinforces the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution
  • Illustrates that historical events do not occur in a vacuum.  The reality of the Civil War was lived by people who left written testaments of their experiences
  • Builds a foundation for understanding the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s
  • Exposes the cruelty of slavery
  • Memorializes the personal sacrifices of American citizens
  • Builds the realization that war is the most dramatic, unwanted, and inhumane means by which we attempt to solve our differences.



The goals of this unit are:

  • To briefly explain the causes leading to the Civil War
  • To illustrate the sacrifices made by Americans
  • To explain the effects of the war on civilians and soldiers
  • To highlight various first hand experiences of those affected by the Civil War by accessing primary source material
  • To allow 7th grade students to construct knowledge and work collaboratively
  • To prepare 7th grade students for the class trip to Gettysburg
  • To provide supplemental lessons to the Social Studies and Language Arts curricula
  • To integrate Web 2.0 skills with the curriculum


Cognitive Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Compare and contrast the political ideologies of North and South
  • Compare and contrast the industrial North and the agrarian South
  • Define state’s rights and secession and why the South supported it
  • Evaluate the effects of the Battles of Bull Run and Gettysburg on the outcome of the war
  • List how the Civil War created new social and economic roles for women
  • Summarize the contributions of Black Americans to the Civil War
  • Evaluate how the lack of medical advantages and gains in weapons technology contributed increased death rates
  • Define the characteristics of historical fiction


Skills Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Evaluate historical accounts, diaries and literature to determine bias, accuracy and point of view
  • Incorporate primary source material into research
  • Write journals portraying someone affected by the Civil War
  • Use maps to label and identify Confederate and Union states and battle locations
  • Compare motives for fighting and the daily life experiences of soldiers
  • Use historical fiction to understand and compare actual historical events
  • Use the library, databases and the Internet to locate sources related to the Civil War and incorporate information from research into presentations.
  • Use Web 2.0 technology to post opinions and to collaboratively contribute to group knowledge
  • Summarize reasons for battlefield preservation


Affective Objectives:

Students will be able to:

  • Share personal reactions to what they have learned
  • Identify and comprehend feelings experienced by Northerners and Southerners
  • Feel compassion for participants in the Civil War regardless of their loyalty



This unit was developed by the teacher-librarian to support the Social Studies and Language Arts curricula.  It focuses on topics that are not covered in-depth by the Social Studies curriculum.  The Social Studies curriculum presents the historic, political, economic and geographic lessons leading up to and including the Civil War and its’ aftermath.  This unit allows students to spend more time with the people themselves who lived during this time…people who are not usually included in the history text books.  It examines the “daily way of life” experienced by our fellow Americans during this monumental event in the development of our nation.

Because this is an interdisciplinary unit, this unit does not address the topics taught in Social Studies but instead provides for in-depth research by students.  The research provides the background knowledge necessary to understand Bull Run, a historical novel set during the Civil War, which will be read as part of the unit.  The research is integrated with the lessons in Social Studies and also provides preparation for the class trip to Gettysburg.  Therefore, the unit is detailed in selected topics and for a specific purpose and for that reason the lesson plans are titled “Bull Run / Gettysburg prep”.  We concluded from our experiences with former class trips that the students needed to make a personal (affective) connection with this historical event, in addition to the cognitive knowledge learned from Social Studies, in order to appreciate and understand Gettysburg.  The additional research opportunities provided by this unit, as evidenced by student feedback, accomplished that purpose. 

The amount of time to teach this unit would depend on how the lessons are taught.  Students were scheduled once a week for Library class, and on occasion, additional time was given by Language Arts teachers.  Taking calendar interruptions and schedule changes into account, the unit can be taught as a whole in 16 to 21 days for classes that meet every day, but in our case, because we had classes only once a week, the unit was extended over many weeks.  This is standard for Library classes. 

Depending on the amount of time available, if this unit cannot be taught as a whole, teachers can select specific lesson plans or portions of the lesson plans most pertinent to their curriculum and customize them to meet their needs.



Although a variety of methods are used in this unit, the central method of instruction is student construction of knowledge and collaborative learning rather than lecturing by the teacher.  The lessons are designed to interest different learning styles.

After an introduction to the topic in Library class, students are grouped by topic into “research centers”.  This is the core activity of the unit.  With guidance from the teacher-librarian and the Language Arts teachers, the three sections of students explore one particular topic in-depth and become well-versed in that topic.  They share this knowledge with other sections through jigsawing after research, the use of Web 2.0 blogs and the creation of a wiki.  The Web 2.0 tools and the constructionist approach promote the use of HOTS, higher order thinking skills. 

Our students participate in the National History Day competition, and are familiar with the use of primary and secondary sources.  They know how and where to locate these sources, how to analyze them for bias and point of view and how to interpret them.  However, because they are middle school students and just beginning this method of historical education and investigation, they will need more guidance from the teacher than high school students.  Because of our students’ familiarity with primary sources, there are no lessons in this unit to specifically address this skill but it will be reviewed in context.

This unit also integrates picture books into the curriculum, to introduce or highlight a topic or to provide another point of view.  Even though our students are middle school students, they still enjoy being read to.  The use of picture books in the curriculum is well-documented.  Only a few of the books that are used have been listed in the lesson plan materials.  The teacher may use the book as a read-aloud or may provide time in class for students to select a picture book and read it for the class time designated as sustained silent reading.  Students may also select Civil War fiction, as well-as non-fiction, to read during this time.  Students in Language Arts are also required to select historical fiction with a Civil War settting, which will be read in addition to Bull Run. 

Teacher created materials are included in the lesson plans.


Blogs and Wiki

A blog was used to continue discussion outside the classroom and between three different sections.  The blog is still active and is used for questions pertinent to the current curriculum in 8th grade.  It is possible to view the postings and comments on the blog

In order to view the original postings and comments, please access the archives link on the lower right hand side of the page.  The postings began in February 2007 and continued through May 2007.  The postings are included in this submission to show how postings extend the material learned in class.  The postings were germane to the research that students did in class and possibly may not be the same questions posed when the unit is taught again.  The blog is flexible; new questions may be posed depending upon the information researched.  The student comments in the archives reflect the student’s responses to the postings.

Although the students occasionally jigsaw to share information, they worked collaboratively to post their research on an invitation-only wiki space.  The structure was determined by the teacher-librarian and was built around the “centers” research conducted by the students.  The students used the information from the wiki to create individual web pages in Language Arts.  The web pages also include a personal reflection from the class trip to Gettysburg.
The first page of the wiki is included in this submission to give an overview of the site. 


Materials Used

A Materials Used page with bibliographic information is included in this unit.  The sources are divided into primary, secondary and tertiary.  The primary and secondary sources are used by the teacher for the lesson.  The tertiary sources list some of the picture books that are used specifically in this unit, as well as titles that were used when the lesson was taught. 

The materials used by the students include the reference and non-fiction titles and the subscription databases in the Meyers Library collection and they are not noted on the Materials Used list.  A link to these titles and databases is included in the lesson plan.  Pre-selected websites may also be used, but with the wealth of information in our print and database sources, the use of web sites is minimal.


Library is a graded subject for our students.  There are three types of assessments for this unit:

1. Formalized assessment using rubrics
2. Informal observations during class and activities
3. Minor assessment for blogs and the wiki.  These are assessed for both content and for meeting the due dates.  The scale for the minor assessment is Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Improvement Needed and Unsatisfactory.

Rubrics are included with the appropriate lesson plan.  Some rubrics are teacher created; some were created using a rubric generator.


Three sets of standards were used in the creation of this unit and are included at the end of the lesson plans.  The standards used were:

1. Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
2. The International Reading Association / National Council of Teachers of English Standards for the English Language
3. The refreshed (draft) ISTE National Educational Technology Standards for Students

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