King students immersed in Civil War history

King students immersed in Civil War history

URBANA — The hardships and struggles of the Civil War — as well some of the humor and culture from that time — came alive last week at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Urbana.

Fifth-grade students immersed themselves in Civil War history while teaching their younger classmates and visitors about the war using music and an interactive museum, with information as detailed as what soldiers ate to a look at instruments used at the time.

The concert portion of their demonstration featured a harpist, a brass quintet playing Civil War-era instruments and two original songs created from story lines by King fifth-graders, from last year and this year.

Scott Schwartz and Marten Stromberg wrote the songs after gathering the students' ideas, and otherwise worked with the students to teach them about the Civil War through music and other primary sources. They also accompanied the students on guitar.

Schwartz is director of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois. Stromberg is the curator of rare books and manuscripts for the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the UI.

Some students also performed a scene from the movie "Young Mr. Lincoln." The original script of the 1939 movie belongs to the UI's Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, and the students used photocopies of it when memorizing their lines.

Schwartz and Stromberg also wrote an original song using a storyline created by students, about female spies during the Civil War and several other elements.

"They wanted murder, espionage ... scandal and a dog," Schwartz said. The students sang the song, called "A Woman's Revenge."

The students also learned a traditional contra dance, and several demonstrated it while their classmates sang "Bonnie Blue Flag."

The students also clearly enjoyed an upbeat rendition of "Goober Peas," which referred to peanuts as a food staple of the South during the war. They also sang "John Brown's Body," about abolitionist John Brown, to a tune many would recognize as belonging to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Schwartz and Stromberg also performed the song they wrote with last year's fifth-graders, about an escaped slaving fighting for the Union, and his brother, still a slave, fighting for the Confederacy.

Similarly touching was their performance of "The Minstrel Boy," an Irish song that gained popularity during the Civil War. In the song, the boy goes to war, but those singing are praying for his return.

"And then may he play his harp in peace, in a world such as heaven has intended, for all the bitterness of man must cease, and every battle must be ended," they sang in the song's last chorus.

After the concert, the fifth-graders hosted a living museum.

The museum transformed fifth-grade teacher Matt Mockbee's classroom with buntings, a timeline of Civil War facts, a facade of a plantation house and students giving interactive presentations. Students from different classes worked together to give information about the militaries of the Union and the Confederacy, the roles of women and African-Americans in the Civil War and more.

Mockbee said the fifth-graders' unit on the Civil War got them out of a textbook and interacting with the history they're studying.

"It's a different type of lesson, a different type of teaching," he said, and because it's multifaceted, it accommodates a variety of learning styles and showcases students' talents.

Fifth-grader Betty Nguyen said she liked both making posters full of information for the museum and performing the Civil War songs.

"I think the most important thing I learned was that it was better for the union to stay whole," Nguyen said.

Kehm Shirley said he was nervous about the performance and museum, but enjoyed learning about the Confederacy's Navy and working with his classmates.

"Both fifth-grade classes got to work together as a team," he said.

This is the second year Schwartz and Stromberg have taught students at King about American history and culture through music. They visited the school twice a week for about six weeks to put together the musical program.

They also do one-day music units with King students on geography, Thomas Edison and the science of sound, and World Wars I and II.

Stromberg said learning through music not only engages the students, it helps them understand history as a series of real events. The songs reference historical places and events, as well as difficulties people faced and even humor.

The music connects them to the people of the time period, he said.

"Everyone shares music," he said, and the music allows students to use what they've learned and put it into a creative outlet.

Schwartz agreed, adding that if students are having fun singing, they may better remember related historical topics.

"I can't help but think ... they're getting a better grasp of some of the topics and having fun doing it," he said.

The students are also getting hands-on experience with artifacts from the Civil War, from the instruments a brass quintet from the University of Illinois that accompanied them, to the photocopies of the primary sources they used for their subsequent Civil War museum.

The instruments show the students how technology and music performance has changed since that time.

"It helps engage them, as well," Stromberg said. "It's something different."

Schwartz also helped provide students with primary sources from the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, and Stromberg said one way they could expand the collaboration could be to teach students how to research primary sources, which are increasingly being digitized.

"Again, that's really great for critical thinking," Stromberg said. "It's not just reading something (from) a textbook. They're reading something from someone who lived in the period."

During their collaboration, Schwartz and Stromberg have also brought in wax cylinders and recorded students, to show them how the technology worked and what it would have sounded like to the people who used them.

"I think it's very rewarding to see what they gravitate toward musically," Stromberg said, and interesting to see "what they ask questions about that you wouldn't expect."

They also appreciated working with King's teachers, he said, and Schwartz agreed, also mentioning fifth-grade teacher Sally Thompson and English as a second language teacher Juliana Arazi.

"(And) we love working with the kids," Schwartz said.

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