Increasing Student Engagement with the Past and Present through Condolence Letters — Debra Sheffer, Park University
A history professor uses Civil War battle details and condolence letters to strengthen student connections with class content, increase how much they retained from the course, and improve their ability to value history and engage with the past.
My goal in this course is to help students draw connections between war and culture, for them to realize that war is not separate from culture but is an intimate part of culture. The course usually has around 20 to 25 students in a 15-week semester. In the past, students participated in traditional approaches to teaching and learning. In other words, they read books, talked and wrote about what they read, and took a test at the end. They also had to complete a paper connecting their major to the course content. I found that they were not making the connections I hoped, nor did they see the value in knowing these connections.
I restructured parts of the course to create more opportunities for students to engage with one another and also to engage more effectively with the past. We first define and discuss war and culture. They bring their own definitions of war and culture to class that we discuss. We also examine historical examples of the relationship between war and culture, such as the Spartans, Assyrians, and the Romans. We examine these cultural views and relationships in historical documents and in literature, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We then transition into the Civil War, one of the three major wars we cover in the course. We discuss how participants viewed war through their cultural lens. We discuss their views of dying, death, and burial rituals and examine their relationship with death and violence. We closely examine their adherence to the honor culture that existed at the time. Finally, we review and discuss condolence letters, a new assignment I created to engage students in the course content and assess their understanding.
The condolence letters are achieved through scaffolded assignments, ultimately leading up to an in-class workshop in which they hand-write the letter. Students receive feedback at each step in the process. The students became increasingly engaged throughout this process. After completion of the letter, they provide a reflection of the assignment. They reported a high degree of enthusiasm about the assignment.
The changes in the course produced dramatic changes in student work and engagement. Their small group discussions regarding Civil War warfare, the battle they chose, the personae they created, the knowledge of nineteenth century attitudes toward violence and dying, death, and burial were energetic and enthusiastic. Furthermore, they made connections to the past through the course material and saw the larger connections between war and culture.
These activities confirmed my belief that lectures are ineffective. It also made the class more meaningful for me. Rather than present ineffective lecture, I became an assistant in their quest for details – battle information, persona information, nineteenth-century views on war and violence and death and dying. The biggest lesson is that students will become engaged if provided the right opportunity and conditions.
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About the Course
LE300: War and Culture typically draws wide variety of student backgrounds (majors, countries, experiences, skill sets). Regardless of background, students share the same core learning outcomes as goals for the course. These core learning outcomes are:
- Analyze the disciplinary content (history) in its own context and in relationship to the issues, questions, and positions of other disciplines (literature, psychology, sociology).
- Compare and contrast differences and similarities among the disciplines (history, literature, psychology, sociology) in terms of central concerns, values, methodologies, and relationships to public life.
- Synthesize diverse perspectives to achieve an interdisciplinary understanding.
- Analyze the relationships among academic knowledge, professional work, and the responsibilities of local and global citizenship.
- Evaluate multiple perspectives, modes of inquiry and expression, and processes for decision-making in the disciplines.
This particular LE300 topic is heavily based on history, with other disciplines, such as psychology, literature, and sociology, serving in secondary roles. Few of the students are history majors. To many, history is not necessarily a favorite subject, so increasing engagement is a challenge. Previous sections of the course were only partially successful, if at all, in increasing student interest or engagement. The hope is that studying a battle, creating a persona, and writing a condolence letter will increase student interest and engagement.
We begin the course with examination of the relationship between war and culture in a variety of times and cultures. We examine the ancient Assyrians, the Greeks and Romans, and Native Americans, to name a few. We examine their ideas toward violence and war, their application of violence in warfare as based on characteristics of their cultures, and the ways war changes the cultures that apply it. We also examine war from a variety of viewpoints, including civilians and soldiers.
The presence of international students helps the entire class to meet core learning outcome number 4, in particular. They share the views about war and culture from their own cultures. Many of them have had experience or have first-hand knowledge of this intimate relationship. Their valuable contribution runs throughout the course as they provide viewpoints and information that expand those of American students.
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We begin the course with discussions to determine the definitions and meanings of war, violence, and culture. I provide information through videos and brief lectures that show the connections between war and culture. We view videos and read articles that present case studies which illustrate these connections. We then examine the relationship between war and culture in a variety of times and cultures. As stated above, we examine the ancient Assyrians, the Greeks and Romans, and Native Americans and their ideas toward violence and war. From examination of cultures of past times and places, we move to examination of the American culture of the Antebellum Era – both North and South. We examine cultural characteristics, especially attitudes toward death, honor, violence, and war.
We transition to American views toward death, violence, war, and culture. We discuss changing attitudes toward warfare. We discuss changing ideas regarding dying, death, and burial customs. We also discuss changing ideas about violence. The students read an article about the Civil War. They begin the Faust book. We read excerpts from Aries.
In the redesign of this course, I created a new assignment to engage students with the course content – the condolence letter. Students work in pairs or in groups of three or four. They choose a battle and study it together for a number of days. As they study the battle, they create a persona for themselves, including the details of their participation in the war and their own battlefield or hospital deaths. They translate this information into a condolence letter to their personas’ families. In examining actual condolence letters and participant attitudes toward dying, death, burial, and honor, they recognize a list of elements necessary to a condolence letter. They realize that condolence letters became a genre. In addition to the elements of the condolence letter, they must identify their persona and the elements of that identity. Other essential knowledge includes details of the battle they chose, characteristics of Civil War warfare, and participant attitudes toward war, battle, death, honor, and violence. All these aspects contribute to a successful condolence letter.
In preparation for this assignment, we use Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War and Philippe Aries’ Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present. The first attempt at this implementation revealed that the students had insufficient preparation on the war itself and details of battle. In the spring of 2017, I included materials to remedy this lack of preparation – Louis P. Masur’s The American Civil War: A Concise History. This brief history provided a general overview of the war. From that reading, students selected a battle to research in preparation for the remainder of the assignment.
To an extent, students follow traditional methods in preparation for the condolence letter assignment. They read the Faust book and excerpts from Aries, and we discuss in class. The students also read online and print versions of condolence letters from the war. We analyze these in small groups and as a class together. One or two quizzes increase student contact with the information they need for the rest of the assignment.
In addition to the condolence letter, students prepare a document containing other elements of the assignment. These elements include the details of their persona – name, home, unit, on which side they fought, why they enlisted, details of the battle they selected, and how they died.
We spend several weeks on this assignment. The activities and assignments support the learning outcomes of the course. After completion of the activities, assignment, and letter, students complete a reflection assignment on the condolence letter.
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The condolence letters are achieved through scaffolded assignments, ultimately leading up to an in-class workshop in which they hand-write the letter. We begin, however, with reading about condolence letters in Faust. We examine several condolence letters in small groups and as a class, identifying the elements and characteristics of these letters. Students receive feedback at each step. For example, they submit their battle selection, its details, and their persona. I developed a rubric [pdf] for evaluating the battle selection and persona creation, and they receive this feedback before they write the condolence letter.
Another step is to examine condolence letters. We have a quiz to test their knowledge of the contents and characteristics of condolences letters. They re-engage with peers to revise their own deaths and personas before they write the letter. They write an in-class response, detailing differences in dying, death, and burial practices and rituals of the Civil War Era. In addition, they reflect on how those practices and rituals changed as a result of the war, leading to the characteristics of those practices and rituals today. They present their persona, death, and condolence letter details to the class, which they have found most engaging. The points awarded for the presentation are mostly completion points. The goal is to get them to engage in a presentation, to provide critique for classmates, and to see what their classmates have done with the assignments.
The students become increasingly engaged throughout this process. After completion of the letter, they provide a reflection on the assignment. In previous iterations of the course, they reported a high degree of enthusiasm about the assignment.
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The first time I moved the class toward the condolence letter assignment, I did not include enough course materials that provided the students with enough information about the war and battles to help them write an effective condolence letter. We had studied violence, war, death, and culture, but we had not studied the war itself enough to tie it all together for the students. In the third offering of this course, I included more examination of the war and battles to prepare the students for the rest of the activities and assignments. The students gained a better understanding of the war, completed a more detailed study of the war and a battle, and a persona with an identity and a story. A better understanding of the war and one of its battles better prepared the student for these activities. The first time, it was apparent that the students did not know enough about the war to create a persona or describe the details of a battle.
Another reflection is that more study of the war and a battle made the activities and assignments even more meaningful for the students. They shared on course evaluations that the condolence letter was their favorite part of the course. I gathered informal student reflections on the assignments in the second offering of the course, but when I offer the course again, I plan to make student reflections a course assignment, collect those, and evaluate them to determine the success or need for revision of the activities and assignments of the course. In the informal reflections after the Civil War unit, they reflected that the condolence letter helped them make better connections between war and culture than just reading and discussion would have. During the Civil War unit, student enthusiasm and engagement were evident. With increased knowledge about the war, I expect the levels of enthusiasm and engagement will rise even further. These higher levels of enthusiasm and engagement will help students meet the goals of the course as outlined in the core learning outcomes.
In addition to increased levels of student enthusiasm and engagement, I found myself more enthusiastic and engaged. I am not a lecturer, nor do I believe in lecture or the effectiveness of lecture. The activities and assignments in the Civil War unit replaced almost all lecture with activities in which we all participated. I provided brief explanations or presentations of different aspects, but I did not lecture, and the students responded better than they had in previous offerings of the course in which these new activities and assignments were absent. Not only did we all enjoy the course and its content more, but it made for better learning and effectively demonstrated students completing the goals outlined in the core learning outcomes.
I will continue to refine these activities and assignments in future offerings of this course. I will also try to apply the same approach to the other units in the course, which cover World War I and the Vietnam War.
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