Over at Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory, Kevin highlights the attempts of middle school teacher Robert Riedel to simulate the Civil War. Mr. Riedel uses a controlled water balloon fight as an activity to simulate the lines of battle, confusion, and disorientation a soldier of the Civil War might experience. Kevin has an issue with this activity. An educator himself, he says that “there is absolutely no excuse for this activity,” that it is “disrespectful…to the men on both sides,” and that the activity “does nothing more than to trivialize violence.” According to Kevin, teachers should use modern veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars to illustrate the fear and confusion soldiers experience in war in addition to the diaries and letters that soldiers left behind. Needless to say, Mr. Riedel’s Civil War activity is receiving criticism on Levin, but I wonder if that criticism is a bit too harsh.
First and foremost, the number one question should be, “what did the students learn?” To say this activity is a failure is premature, especially true without assessing the student knowledge before and after the activity. If the intent was to simulate the disorientation and/or chaos a Civil War soldier might experience in battle, I do not necessarily see a problem with this activity. Even using primary sources we, as historians, can never fully experience a Civil War battle much less teach that experience. This is mainly because “experience,” is a uniquely emotional phenomenon that will change person to person (soldier to soldier). Having participated in numerous Civil War reenactments, I have shot in a line of fire and been shot at. It can be a bit nerve racking but nothing compared to the immense fear of the Battle of Petersburg. To add to the dilemma, teachers have no way of bringing in an actual soldier from the Civil War (except of course diaries). Kevin’s suggestion of bringing in a Iraq War Veteran, to me, does not represent the correct schema of 19th century warfare. These soldiers are use to newer technology that increases firepower yes, but also the sanitary conditions of life in the field. In short, as pointed out, today’s soldiers do not give us an accurate depiction of the Civil War soldier or Civil War battle.
In the short bit of information we have on Mr. Riedel’s activity, it seems that the students had fun, but somewhat controlled fun. Apparently the students marched in lines of battle and assaulted an objective facing overwhelming firepower from a fortified position. This does give them a small, if somewhat humorously fun, soldierly experience. I cannot suggest this gives them the full Civil War battle experience, but these are eighth graders after all. The press release is limited in demonstrating how developed Mr. Riedel’s lesson is. I cannot tell if there were any book ends to the lesson. Is there an activity, after the balloon fight, where the students are brought back to reality? Did the students have to write down their internal experiences and emotions, then compare those feelings to letters from soldiers? I do not know. I think from the limited amount of information we have about this activity, it is premature to be overly critical.
Finally I want to draw attention to the fact that Mr. Riedel teaches eighth graders in the public school system. It is easy to criticize from behind the podium of the ivory tower of the University. It is also easy to criticize from the classrooms provided by the country’s wealthy elite. Keep in mind that in public school, you are dealing with numerous kids of numerous backgrounds with diverse learning abilities. In that type of environment, all bets are off when it comes to making a student understand and enjoy history. The letters of old, dead people, are often not the most exhilarating subjects for a kid. Teachers are often competing for attention. One student may think more about sports, or the common eighth grade male that thinks more about the growing bosom of the girl sitting next to him. If it takes a water balloon fight to get a kid to become interested in history, so be it.
Video below: Fast Forward to 2:45.