By Karen Park Koenig
It was so much fun! I got shot in the leg and died of massive blood loss!" With these words my daughter's friend, a 5th grader in the Appleton, Wis., public schools, completed her happily breathless description of the Civil War battle reenactment she had participated in that day.
Each spring since the early 1990s, 5th graders in Appleton have, as part of their social studies curriculum, participated in a daylong American Civil War reenactment which culminates in a 30-minute battle sequence. Though not common, Civil War reenactments do take place in elementary schools throughout the country, although most feature modified battles (one school used ping pong balls) or allow children to watch a reenactment without actually participating in the mock killing. In Appleton, the children dress realistically and participate fully in mock warfare. While the teachers are present during the entire exercise, the reenactment is supervised and facilitated by "professional" adult Civil War reenactors who bring with them actual battle plans from Civil War battles waged on land far from this upper-midwestern soil. Teachers separate the children into Union and Confederate armies and distribute the appropriate blue or gray uniforms which are then worn by the children throughout the daylong event. Each child is also issued a large, black, wooden facsimile rifle?and when the battle begins, the children aim at their friends and classmates, and shoot to kill. The child soldiers are also given cards which describe their "fate" on the battlefield. These include survival, grave injury, or grave injury followed by death.
Why is the Appleton school district teaching war in this way? What are the pedagogical priorities here? How did such an exercise become part of the social studies curriculum for children as young as 10? What sort of follow-up is offered so that the children can contextualize their experiences with mock battle and death? After speaking with parents informally about these issues for several weeks, I decided that our concerns needed to be taken to the district administration. During a two-hour meeting which took place in the summer of 2008, I presented some of the following pedagogical and ethical questions and concerns to the Assistant Superintendent in charge of social studies curriculum: First, what are the children learning about war during this exercise, and why are they learning it? Without exception, when they are asked, the students themselves describe the battle as "fun." It is obvious that unless the purpose of the Civil War reenactment is to teach the students that war is fun, the reenactment would seem to be a failure on that basis alone. The administrator assured me that the pedagogical goal was not to teach that war is fun, but could not articulate in positive terms what the goal was. In fact she told me, "I don't think we've ever talked about it."
Many of the district's school websites proudly display photographs of the 5th graders participating in the Civil War reenactment battle. These photos show children holding rifles up to their eyes and squinting down the barrels, with their friends and classmates in their sights. They also, perhaps most disturbingly, show children lying scattered in the grass both "dead" and "dying." When these photos are juxtaposed with some of the many extant photographs of actual Civil War battlefields it becomes clear that what the children are being asked, even required, to do by their teachers is to enact violence, death, and horror as they place their own friends in the crosshairs, and then lie down motionless in a grassy field to "die." Parents also participate in the battle reenactment. Many choose to attend the battle as spectators, cheering one side or another as the casualties mount. They are also asked to compose letters ahead of time to their children on the "front," which the children open and read while "encamped." In these ways the schools invite and encourage parents to participate in the mock agony and even the deaths of their own 10- and 11-year-old sons and daughters. And yet all of this curricular engagement with violence, on the part of students, teachers, parents, and community members, takes place without any clear pedagogical intent; it is both presented to and received by the community as part of a "fun" outdoor field-day-type experience.