With Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address fast approaching, many of us teach our students about our sixteenth president this time of year. From an elaborate Civil War simulation to a quick poetry writing activity, here are four classroom-tested ideas to use in teaching about America’s great liberator.
Arguably the most famous speech in American history, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. In less than three minutes, Lincoln used his passionate rhetoric to reframe the narrative of the Civil War. With support, older elementary students feel like sophisticated historians as they unpack this powerful speech.
I introduced the Gettysburg Address by reading Michael McCurdy’s beautifully illustrated version of the speech. The foreword is particularly useful in explaining the historical context for the speech, and the large woodcut prints drew my students into the feeling of the words.
Then, we analyzed the speech, line by line, while my students wrote their own modern “translation” of what Lincoln’s words meant to them. Download this double-column template for your students to use in analyzing the Gettysburg Address. For additional resources about the Gettysburg Address, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has a comprehensive teaching guide.
Children enjoy thinking like a detective as they discover history using primary sources. Guiding students through an inquiry-based analysis of historical artifacts is a balancing act — we need to let students speculate about the significance of an artifact, and also share tidbits of context at the appropriate time. In an ideal artifact exploration, the students feel as though they “discovered” the meaning of the artifact themselves, although we obviously provide a helping hand.
If you can’t get to a history museum with Civil War or Lincoln artifacts, not to worry. You can do an artifact exploration online! With a virtual field trip to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the “Under His Hat” activity, your students can explore dozens of Lincoln artifacts. Also, be sure to check out their "Artifacts of the Month" YouTube channel. Older students with a background in Lincoln’s politics can analyze this collection of political cartoons. I projected the cartoons on my interactive whiteboard and kept the captions hidden as we discussed each cartoon at length.
The New York Historical Society has an amazing collection of Civil War artifacts. My students marveled at the only extant Civil War draft-wheel during a guided inquiry-based field trip. If you can't make it to the museum, they have an excellent online exhibit, New York Divided.
Invite your students to join the ranks of poets who have memorialized Lincoln with words. You may want to first share examples of poems about Lincoln with your students before they begin writing.
The anthology Lives: Poems About Famous Americans includes the accessible poem "Abe" by Alice Schertle that compares Lincoln’s childhood with his presidency.
A structured poem is sometimes less intimidating for budding poets than free verse. Acrostic poems allow students to share a lot of content knowledge in one poem. My students preferred clerihew poems — four-line biographical rhyming poems that are generally witty and off-beat. Clerihew poems follow an a-a-b-b rhyme scheme, but are otherwise unconstrained — in fact, the form is known for its unbalanced meter and irregular line lengths.
Aaron's clerihew poem about Abraham Lincoln.
Colin's acrostic poem about Abraham Lincoln. (Colin also drew the portrait at the top of this page!)
For students to fully understand the significance of Lincoln’s role in American history, they need to grasp the causes and concepts behind the American Civil War. History becomes even more meaningful when students act out historical scenes together. As active participants in historical simulations, students internalize the struggles of historical figures and build their history-empathy. (For more ideas about dramatic play and historic reenactments in the classroom, check out my blog post "Bringing History to Life With Dramatic Play: Reenacting Ellis Island.")
Tim Bailey takes a lot of the work out of planning classroom simulations with his book Easy Simulations: Civil War. He has scripted five intensive scenarios for a full week of Civil War immersion. (Download a sample scenario from Bailey’s book.) My students thoroughly embraced their roles as Union and Confederate soldiers — they even took it out to the playground at recess time, where other students asked to join!
I paired the simulations with a daily read-aloud from the action-packed biography Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy by Seymour Reit. The book immersed my students in period language while they sat on the edges of their seats listening to Emma’s exploits as a spy.
A "sentry" staunchly guards Fort Monroe during recess.
Looking for more ideas to teach your students about Abraham Lincoln? Scholastic has compiled a rich collection of resources, lesson plans, and activities for you. Some of my favorites include:
How do you teach your students about Abraham Lincoln? Do you have a favorite book or resource? Share your ideas in the comments section below . . .