I never really liked history in school. All I really remember is my 7th grade teacher giving us a packet of worksheets to fill in as we read a chapter in the book or my high school US history teacher holding classes in the bleachers so that he could practice with his baseball team on the field during the spring season. I’m not kidding. We filled in our worksheets from the bleachers, chasing after them (reluctantly) from time to time when the wind blew them away! When I started teaching American history to my 5th graders, I wanted things to be different. I wanted learning history to be fun…and hopefully memorable.
The week before Christmas is when I whip out one of my favorite history lessons–World War I and the Christmas Truce.
- DAY 1–CAUSES OF THE WAR
- We spend the first day learning about the events leading up to the war. Of course there is the Archduke Ferdinand moment, but that was but one part. There is so much more! We discuss and act out the role of different countries as they seek to control lands in Africa (imperialism). Every country wants to be wealthier, right? Of course they do, and Africa had lots of natural resources! We share our thoughts about why countries become allies and enemies and discuss why countries want to compete with each other to have the best weapons and strongest armies (militarism). Then we discuss immigration and the different cultures that were coming to American soil during the early 20th century, each with their own beliefs and loyalties (nationalism), and how and why America decided to join the war. By the end of the lesson students have a conceptual understanding of what led to the war.
- DAY 2–TRENCH WARFARE
- After reviewing what led to the war, it is time to dig in deep and discuss trench warfare! We discuss the sacrifices the soldiers made and what life was like for them in the trenches. What new weapons made the war so deadly and the chances of survival for those that fought–would they get trench foot? Trench fever? Or killed or injured by the weapons of that time? What was medical care like? The YouTube video above does a great job of explaining trench warfare. Please preview to make sure it is appropriate for your students.
- DAY 3–“CHRISTMAS IN THE TRENCHES” BOOK
- Time to hear from a soldier! I read the book “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. It’s a fabulous story! A grandfather tells about Christmas night during the war, when enemy soldiers put down their weapons and ventured into no-man’s land to celebrate together. The kids are always in awe at this idea. If you order this book from Amazon.com it comes with a CD that includes the song “Silent Night” in German. The kids LOVE it!
- DAY 4–“BELLEAU WOOD” SONG/POEM BY GARTH BROOKS
- This is where students really have to make connections and pull it all together. I give the kids a printed copy of the song “Belleau Wood” by Garth Brooks. NOTE–The word ‘hell’ is used towards the end. I edited this out, both in the paper copy I give students and the audio version I play. Know your audience. It is used very appropriately in my opinion, but I err on the side of caution with language in 5th grade. Back to the lesson…The song presents one soldier’s account of the Christmas truce. I always get chills when listening. I play the song once and they follow along. We stop and discuss the content of the song as it relates to WWI, then talk about the poetic elements–speaker, change in tone, word choice, etc.
- DAY 5–ASSESSMENT
- I do give an integrated assessment over the whole thing–a few poetry questions on the song, a pencil and paper quiz and essay on the content, some activities with the new vocabulary and so on. Gotta get a few grades and check for mastery!
PS–I’m working on a packet of resources to go with this lesson. It’s not quite finished. Hopefully over the Christmas break I can fit it into my busy napping schedule!
For more Teach History with Me posts, check out these posts on The Civil War and MLK and the Civil Rights Movement
–The Pensive Sloth