At a Glance


James A. Percoco walks through his own experiences learning to teach with historical places. By keeping your eyes open in your local community, and adopting and adapting the techniques of other educators, you can engage your students with the history of your area. Take care to walk your students (and yourself) through public, popular memory of a historical place before visiting, and guide students into seeing not just the constructed drama of history, but the often-less-comfortable reality of it.

Local History and Student Historians

Local History and Student Historians Gettysburg and Public Memory

Video Transcription

  • Local History and Student Historians
  • Gettysburg and Public Memory

  • 4:17
  • 4:30
  • In the last couple years I've been fortunate to do quite a bit of work with teacher training programs and getting teachers—young teachers, new teachers—to utilize the world around them as a place to teach, using historic sites, cemeteries, monuments, museums, as places where history not only transpired but where it continues to evolve in the dynamics of historical interpretation.

    It's been great because here teaching on the doorstep of the nation's capital which is literally the laboratory of democracy, there are a lot of places I can send students to. For example, Ford's Theatre, Arlington House, Gunston Hall, Mount Vernon. But all teachers should be encouraged to look right outside their own schoolroom door to find places around them that can be used within a historical context for the students that are in that school building.

    The last 35 years I think there has been a huge push in pedagogy to get students to learn whatever subject they're studying through a real hands-on applicable approach as opposed to didactic straight information being given and taken in. So that I don't think is so unusual any more. What I think one has to do is one has to decide, for themselves, what places around them they can tap into. And what I use as a term is keeping a keen eye open to looking at things.

    And I'm like any other teacher, I take ideas from other people that I've seen and learning how they do it and then applying it in my classes. For example, for the last 20 years I've been taking students to Gettysburg. The way I do Gettysburg today versus the way I did it in the early 90s is very, very different and that was a result of maturation on my part in terms of reading more and more about Gettysburg, getting into the material, visiting several times, but the real break came when I actually got to go as part of a symposium on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the 20th Maine who arguably is one of the heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg, and I actually got to follow along with one of the battlefield guides, a guy by the name of Gary Cross.

    And Gary had a binder with him and at different places he was reading different accounts of what happened, and I said, this is genius. This is great stuff. And so I began to adapt that. And then as time went on, it got to the point where, you know, I don't have to be the one that's doing this, I can make my students do this.

    So now, when we do the Gettysburg field trip, which is an annual rite of passage in October, we do it where I do some of the presentations and then students are responsible for being what I call teenage historians, where they tell the narrative. Because that gets them engaged, that gets them immersed in the experience, and it allows me to step back, watch, and allow my students to take charge.

  • Well, typically before we go to Gettysburg we spend three or four days prepping up for the trip. We watch clips from the movie Gettysburg because what I've gravitated to is towards this idea of public memory and how we choose to remember things or what things we choose not to remember and why. And so, a lot of my own individual reading has been in the area of public memory, Civil War and public memory, Gettysburg and public memory. And one of the things that happened was when the movie Gettysburg came out in 1993, there was a tremendous interest increase. The Ken Burns series came out in 1990, there was an increase in that.

    So I began to use those tools from both the film Gettysburg, using different clips from the movie to illustrate like, okay, this is what happened here, this is where we're going, they get an overview of the battle. Because it's an elective class the assumption is that they've got some background, so they come to the class knowing that the battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal battle in the Civil War; maybe the turning point of the war in and of itself. But then I expand that and we talk about different characters and individuals who are there like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. And we play around with the idea of he's deified; he's made the hero of Gettysburg. Well, you know there were a lot of people like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain there over the course of those three days that were doing a lot of things, and he just happened to get a really good press agent in Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels and then that turned into a movie. So, we look at—I show clips, we do that beforehand. We look at the clip from the Ken Burns series "The Universe of Battle" on the battle of Gettysburg and then we go. And I give handouts so that students can understand things about the different monuments that are on the battlefield that we can talk about and trying to weave in vignettes and then make their stories that they're going to tell part of the broader picture.

    You stand there in the angle where Pickett's charge apexed and you can see it, you can see the field in front of you, you can see the vista, you can put yourself in your mind's imagination and look across that line as a Union soldier, or if we're on the Confederate side of the battlefield looking at that from the Confederate perspective. What that allows to happen is that allows synthesis to build on the part of the students and to see that wow, this really, really did take place. Being at a place gives the event a sense of immediacy. But I think you have to be careful, because I think you have to make sure that you don't romanticize these things. I think, you know, you go to Gettysburg today, you go to Antietam today, any of the Civil War battlefields, any battlefield and it's not the same, okay. You are not looking at heaps of dead men and dead horses, you don't have the smell, you don't have the smoke.

    So there is a risk that when you go there that you might romanticize it, or you might come away thinking, oh, this is a great experience and in truth it's awful carnage. But I think that's us imposing on history what we want it to be. But the site—a historic house museum, a historic site, a cemetery—they are tangible real places from the past that you can touch, you can tap into, and you can use to both teach as well as to learn. I think they're valuable because they take your teaching as well as the student learning to the next level, but I think, as I said you've got to be cogniscant of the potential risks that you can have when you try to do something like Gettysburg, third day, Pickett's charge, because you're not going to see reality—what you're going to see and what's going to be in your head is your memory. And as I said earlier you impose that on the place as you visit it.