“My darling wife…” A Civil War Letter

I have always loved videos that take the lines of many different people and compiled them into one story.

You might have 30 different voices in the video, but they all add up to one shared story.  I have been trying to figure out how to incorporate this idea into into one of my units for over a year.  During our Civil War unit I decided to give it a shot.

To research what life was like during the war for soldiers the students had to find their letters, look for patterns, and then settle on five that exemplified the pattern.  But that never happened.  What then ended up coming to the table with a couple days later were five letters that were simply pretty cool.  Letters that they thought gave them insight into a Civil War soldier’s life.

They came together in groups of 3-6 and looked for patterns.  In each group they had between 15-30 letters.  It was awesome listening to the conversations as they discovered the shared experiences and feelings that soldiers had.  I learned sooo much.  Normally I find letters to meet my lesson’s objective.  I read the letters with a pattern in mind and only look for with letters that fit my predetermined pattern.  Because they went in with no expectations, they found things that I never would have seen.  It really has altered how I will use other sources in the future.  I now realize that even when I wasn’t trying that my questions and the way I used them predetermined their perspective and what they would find.  

The one thing they found that I always missed, was the emotion buried into each of the letters.  They really “met” the soldiers writing the letters and saw the humanity behind them, whereas I had only previously seen the letters as a collection of facts.  I was taken aback, I am not sure how or why it happened.

The video below I picked simply because of the back story.  The group stumbled upon a site that had all the letters of a particular soldier.  Only one girl had come with a letter from the soldier, but at some point the group had all gone back to the site where the letter was found and started reading all of his letters in chronological order.  They fell right into his shoes.  Suddenly half way through the period there was a gasp by all group members.  Everyone’s heads got close to the computer screens as they shouted to re-read a letter because their interpretation must be wrong.  The last letter in the collection was not from the man who wrote love letters home to his wife with descriptions of his battle exploits, but from his commander writing his wife to tell her that her husband had passed.  The man who stopped in the middle of a battle to pick a flower for his love, was not coming home.

The groups compiled one letter made up of lines from all the letters that they found.  All the words they used to build their letter had to come from the primary sources they used. They used complete sentences and often started a sentence with one soldiers words, and ended it with another’s.  The end results were awesome and I saw something that I had never seen before.  Every single group was proud of what they had created.

A Civil War Letter from Moran Mustangs on Vimeo.

We filmed the video in our new room (check it out).  If you do a video like this here are some keys.  Make sure you film close-up.  If they could do it again I would have them go in even closer. Being close is also very important if you don;t have a good mic–fuzzy video is ok, fuzzy audio is never ok.  Use the rule of thirds and don’t put every single head in the middle of the frame.  Make people’s brains readjust and re-focus on each person.  If you only use auto focus (and this is an important one folks) have the kid stand in front of the camera, auto focus, and then place your camera on manual focus.  Place a mark on the ground and have every kid stand on the mark.  I do a line of tape and do “toes on the tape”  which is much better than “stand on the X.” When they are that close 6 inches closer or farther makes a difference.  When the student comes into the camera I clap, and then the student counts to three and talks.  When they are done talking they count to three and walk off after I clap.  That give space on the file to have it fade into the space on the next one.  The clapping creates a spike in your movie editing software that allows you to see when you have to cut the video–we did one continuous shot.  Easier than putting together and editing 50 individual files.  When each kid walks into the frame change the camera angle–one kid on left of frame, next kid on right, one in the middle, etc…easier than having kid stand in different spot.

Ok…next part will sound complicated but it is not 🙂  After video is edited and before music is added, we save it as an MP3–so only a sound file.  We take that sound file and use audacity’s noise removal tool to get rid of the constant air blower things that go non-stop in our rooms.  You find a space in between the words…ahhh  just follow this or youtube it.  Most of that background noise you can easily remove.  Now export the file from Audacity as a WAV file.  Download Levelator, if you don’t know what levelator is and you world with audio and kids be prepared to let me rock your world.  One of the biggest problems recording multiple kids with one mic is that they all speak at different levels.  Levelator will take your kids voices and level them out so that the volume of each is nearly equal.  It can’t work miracles, but it does a pretty great job.  Place the wav file back into the video, place some music in and you are all done 🙂

I let the kids pick there own groups, which in my grade usually end up being male and female.  It was so interesting to hear the final results from both groups.  The girls picked up on how the soldiers were always requesting things from home, missed their loved ones, and the sadness post battle.  The boys talked about battles, being wounded, and lack of supplies.

I do worry about doing this again because I didn’t do anything.  I think it just was given at the perfect time of year when they were ready to dive into something with no help, and it was the time of year when they just started seeing patterns on their own.  I also think because Civil War letters are so easy to find on the web, that every kid was able to find a letter that spoke to them.

“My darling wife…A Civil War Letter”  A neat little assignment that you should consider.

For the social studies teachers, yes there is a major mispronunciation of a city.
She knew it right after she did it. I like leaving stuff like that in there
It’s what happens when 12 year olds get nervous 🙂

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