Teach History with Me: 5 Ideas for Teaching the Civil War

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Teach History With Me Blog Series from The Pensive Sloth for Teaching 5th and 6th Grade History

Get your upper elementary students excited about history!  Here are five ideas for teaching your 5th through 8th grade students about the Civil War.

1.  A Nation Divided--Help students understand the causes behind the war by comparing how the north and south developed very different economies and ways of life.  I like to have students make a giant division sign in their social studies notebooks and describe northern was of life in the top bubble and southern ways of life in the bottom bubble.
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2.  "Bull Run" Read-Aloud--To squeeze in a little literature, I read the novel "Bull Run" by Paul Fleischman aloud to the class.  It is written from the perspective of different characters in the north and the south, and the reader has to piece together the story as each character tells their part, all leading up to the battle at Bull Run.  I'll be honest, it's a challenging book, which is why I do it as a read-aloud.  To help students (and me) remember who the characters are, we make a chart of who's who to refer to as we read.
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3.  Goober Peas Song--Exposing students to music from different eras can be lots of fun.  The son, Goober Peas, is a traditional folk song that Confederate soldiers would sing.  It gives students a glimpse of what life was like for soldiers during this time period.  Limited food supply, being away from family, boredom, and lots of sitting around waiting for battles.  Play the song, give students copies of the lyrics, and discuss what can be inferred about a soldier's life during the Civil War.  A quick Google search brings up several YouTube videos for students to enjoy. They always grumble and giggle at first, but the song has a catchy chorus and after introducing it, I hear the chorus all year long!

4.  Underground Railroad Interactive Journey--If you haven't seen Scholastic's interactive journey on the Underground Railroad, you must!  Students explore the life of slaves on plantations and travel the treacherous journey towards freedom in the north.  There are wonderful photos, descriptions, and a few audio clips to engage students along the way.  When they finish, I have them write a diary entry as a slave who escaped to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

5.  Make a Civil War Museum Exhibit PBL--I like to end the Civil War unit with a hands-on project.  Students choose a topic related to the Civil War, do some research, and construct a museum exhibit.  Then, invite students from other classrooms to come to 'The Museum" and interact.  Students love having an audience, and knowing that someone other than the teacher will be interacting with their work can be a powerful motivator.  I've included a freebie with a list of possible topics and guiding questions below.  Click the image for a PDF of this handout.

Hey upper elementary and middle school social studies teachers, looking for more ideas to make history fun?  I'm starting a blog series called Teach History with Me.  Here's the first post on World War I and the Christmas Truce.  More posts coming soon!

 --The Pensive Sloth



  1. Hey...I look forward to the upcoming blog! I loved the Civil War ideas. My students had a great time with the goober peas song and activity that I did with them. I teach 7th and 8th Grade US History and am always looking for new activities. Thanks for what you are doing!

    1. We also used the Underground Railroad activity and they wrote awesome narratives on slaves who escaped! We will be starting the Civil War exhibits next week!