By Matthew Tungate
Abraham Lincoln was a native Kentuckian, as Sue Breeding teaches her 8th-grade social studies students at Monticello Middle School (Monticello Independent). That he was an attorney, became president, freed the slaves and was assassinated are among the other highlights of his life Breeding shares with her students.
He was not, in any way or under any circumstances, a vampire hunter.
“I’m always saying, ‘Don’t learn history from Hollywood. They’re out to make money. The movies are fine for fun, but go to the primary sources to learn history,’” Breeding says, laughing and shaking her head.
She also encourages her students to visit historical sites, of which Kentucky has plenty.
“It just comes alive. It puts you there how it would have been 100 years ago or 200 years ago. You can’t get that from just reading,” Breeding said.
Breeding and about 30 other teachers visited several sites important to the history of emancipation in July as part of a tour organized by the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) following the Kentucky History Education Conference in Frankfort.
Tim Talbott, KHS teacher professional coordinator, said this was the first tour to follow a conference, and he thought emancipation was a natural topic.
“There’s no better way to learn about history than to actually go to the place where it happened,” he said. “What I want them to do is see that things that did happen in Kentucky were very important to not only our state’s history but national history.”
The teachers first stopped at White Hall, the Madison County home of emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay. Next they went to Berea, where they saw a monument of city founder and abolitionist John G. Fee, who also founded Berea College, and a performance by Kentucky Chautauqua performer Obadiah Ewing-Roush as Fee.
Finally, they went to Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park in Jessamine County, where they watched a performance by Hasan Davis as A.A. Burleigh, a runaway slave who enlisted in the Union Army at Camp Nelson. He later graduated from Berea College and became a minister in California.
Talbott provided the teacher with a folder of several primary source documents about slavery and emancipation in Kentucky, including information on each site they visited. The documents included the population of slaves in each county in 1860; the address that Gov. Beriah Magoffin gave to the General Assembly in 1859 that includes strong comments in support of slavery; and the state Constitution of 1850 that firmly entrenched slavery in Kentucky.
“Working with primary sources has the ability to provide evidence of the past and develop critical-thinking skills in students,” Talbott said.
Talbott asked Ewing-Roush which primary sources he used to research the role. Ewing-Roush cited Fee’s autobiography as his greatest resource.
“Primary source documents – that’s the way to go,” Ewing-Roush said.
Chris McCoy, a Metcalfe County school district long-term substitute, said he used mostly secondary sources when he taught 5th-grade social studies two years ago.
“You can tell by the test scores of the kids that all we had was secondary sources,” he said.
McCoy said using primary sources lets students see the way something was made or written in that time. They have to decipher it and put it in their own words.
“That puts them where they have to work a little harder on it,” he said. “If it’s a primary document, by the time they break it down to our English language today, they have more knowledge of it and they feel better about it.”
Pat Rockas, who teaches U.S. History, Advanced Placement U.S. History and World Civilizations at Mercer County High School, grew up in Harrodsburg and tries to use as much local information as she can.
“Pulling things in for my students about Kentucky is very good because some of them grow up with a negative attitude about the state,” she said.
Rockas has a lot of primary sources, including a newspaper picture of John Brown being taken to hang. She asks students to put the photo in a timeline of Civil War-related events and explain how it contributed to the start of the war. This coming school year she is reviewing the Civil War diary of Lizzie Hardin from Harrodsburg to pick out parts for her class to read.
So Rockas will be able to ask them, “When you read that Kentucky was a Northern state or a border state, you don’t talk about Bowling Green, where there was a Southern capital or the fact that there was so much anti-Northern feeling in Harrodsburg. It was a split state. So what would you have felt if you were in that situation?”
Rockas said all of her colleagues at her school share primary sources. A lot of them are on the Internet, she said. She mentioned the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Library of Congress specifically as good locations for primary source documents.
Breeding said she encourages her students to talk to older people in their families and learn history from someone who lived through it. She shares reproductions of newspapers from historical events.
“I want them to connect to history and to love history,” Breeding said. “But they don’t realize it’s not just about George Washington, it’s about my great-great-great-grandfather that I tell them was in Virginia and did not want to be drafted in the Civil War so he brought his family to Kentucky to escape. And I said, ‘That’s why I’m your teacher today. One thing leads to another. You can find stories in your family. Talk to those relatives and learn your history.’”
MORE INFO …
Tim Talbott, firstname.lastname@example.org, (502) 564-1792, ext. 4428