Educators, particularly high school teachers, are vital to “growing” new Civil War buffs and scholars, and ensuring that interest in the period remains strong. One school district in southern Ohio is lucky to have Paul LaRue teaching students about the war, as well as other topics. LaRue has won many awards since he started teaching in 1985, including the VFW’s Ohio Teacher of the Year and Time Warner’s National Teacher of the Year. At a time when educators face increasing emphasis on time management and standardized testing, LaRue has found ways to get kids out of the classroom and involve them in hands-on projects, often focusing on the Civil War.
Are teens interested in the war?
Many of them are. I teach a class called research history. Our projects focus on local Civil War history that we can research. I find that when students are able to connect local aspects of the war— family connections, local ties—it becomes real to them.
Have many students never visited the Eastern battlefields?
Most have not visited any battlefields. Ohio, in fact, has many significant Civil War sites. For example, I’ve taken students to visit the grave of Joshua Dunbar, father of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Joshua, who served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, is buried in the Dayton National Cemetery on the grounds of the National Soldiers Home. I’ve also brought students to both Camp Chase and Johnson’s Island Confederate prison cemeteries.
Our Captain John Bell project—Bell served in the 44th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and drowned in the Kanawha River in 1861—gave my students an opportunity to use ground-penetrating radar to locate Bell’s metallic burial case in a local cemetery. My students have researched, ordered and installed 70 headstones for mostly Civil War veterans—many of them African Americans—whose graves had been unmarked in five cemeteries in southern Ohio. We have also focused on often-overlooked stories of veterans, such as the Irish immigrants who served in the Union Army, helped build railroads and founded our local Catholic church.
You do not have to live in Gettysburg to experience Civil War history. Every community has interesting history, if you do the research.
Do you recommend websites and online videos?
The Internet is a “mixed bag of cats.” There is good content, but unfortunately there is also an equal amount of online junk. I preview sites, just as I preview videos. I have also been fortunate to help create digital content for the National Park Service’s “Teaching With Historic Places” series and the Civil War Trust and History’s education website. My students have put much of our original research online, making it available to a much wider audience (see wchcs.org/high-school/research-history-class-projects).
What do you see as the future of the Internet in Civil War education?
Online content will continue to grow and reach a wider audience. For example, I recently developed a lesson for ePals that is used around the world. My students’ research on Ohioans who served in the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Infantry regiments is highlighted as a model for classrooms interested in similar projects.
Do students still have to memorize dates and names, the way we used to learn history?
To expect students to memorize a large volume of data is not practical. I’m more interested in my students applying or interpreting the data, using critical thinking skills. My grandmother was a schoolteacher, and when I was growing up she used to quiz me on Ohio’s 88 counties and county seats. The good news is that I eventually memorized them; the bad news is that it is not terribly useful data.
I’m fortunate to have a lot of flexibility in the way I teach my classes. Because I incorporate a lot of project-based learning, I feel that my students internalize the lessons learned. My students may not remember a lot of facts and figures about the war—but I do think they’ll remember the experience of installing a 230-pound headstone in a cemetery for an African-American Civil War veteran.
Do you show films like Glory or Gettysburg in classes?
In 1996 I would show Glory or Gettysburg. Today I rarely show more than a 10-minute clip. It’s hard to justify four or five class periods to show an entire movie. This last spring, however, I did show the assault on Fort Wagner from Glory. Sometimes visuals show conditions better than I can describe them.
Talk about the legislative efforts your students have tackled.
I want my students to be good citizens as well as knowledgeable about the Civil War. These types of projects do both. Research and lobbying empowers my students and allows them to take ownership of the information they uncover. My students have advocated for September 22 to be designated as Ohio’s official Emancipation Day, for example (Governor Bob Taft signed our legislation into law in 2006). Currently the students are working with the Ohio Legislature and the governor’s office to recognize the approximately 500 African Americans from Ohio who enlisted in the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Infantry. For me, to see a student testify at the Statehouse is the best of both history and government.
What’s the best thing you can teach kids about the war?
The Civil War is the defining event of the 19th century. As we continue the Sesquicentennial, students still see its importance and relevance today. I like to see students find personal connections to the war—a family member who served, letters or photos, a cemetery, etc.
After they graduate, do your students maintain an interest in the war?
I think the students leave my class with an appreciation of the Civil War. But I’m not going to flatter myself that all of them will maintain an interest in it.
For example, this past spring during final exam week I had my seniors go to our local cemetery and put out flags (more than 1,400) on veterans’ graves for Memorial Day. Some of the students grasped the significance of the veterans and their sacrifices as they placed those flags; others just liked being outside on a warm, sunny spring day. Everybody benefited, but how much? Hard to say.
Of all the awards you’ve received, which do you most cherish?
The accomplishment that I think I cherish the most is getting my students from rural southern Ohio involved in Civil War research. I have one of the last great jobs in America: teaching high school history in a rural Midwestern school district.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.