Using the frame of history is an effective and exciting way to bring about creative writing. W.5.3 allows the students to write narratives that develop real or imagined experiences using descriptive details and effective techniques. The actual Civil War love letter they will listen to is the perfect primary document to get them prepared for their writing. In class they have just learned about the First Battle of Bull Run. Despite the presence of steady violence in the news, television, and social media outlets today, the kids are still horrified at how much pain and suffering occurred as they learn about that first battle July 21, 1861.
This makes the lesson even more impactful. I tell them to sit back and listen to the following letter, as they watch the images on screen (Watching the Sullivan Ballou letter). This is the famous, Sullivan Ballou letter (transcript) as shown in The Civil War. A Film by Ken Burns. Sometimes a youtube copy is available on the internet, sometimes I go back to my "favorites" source and it's been removed (most often cited as a copyright issue with American Documentaries.)
The best bet is to secure a copy of the DVD. The Sullivan Ballou letter is found at 1:31:31 "Honorable Manhood" which closes out Episode 1: The Cause. It is a powerful conclusion to that first episode.
The students have heard a powerful letter read against difficult photographs of war, and with the beautiful Ashokan Farewell playing in the background.
The final words spoken are, "Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the First Battle of Bull Run," leaving the kids surprised, shocked, even upset as they sit in silence. I follow our lesson on the First Battle of Bull Run on the same day because I want them to feel that emotional impact as they begin to write. They are primed to write from the heart and a few want to see the video again.
Although this is a scrapbook page, the main objective is to create a letter that expresses meaningful sentiment (Lots of letter writing.) The boys are instructed to write their letter to a loved one- wife, girlfriend, any family member, as if they are about to go into battle (Writing his letter) The girls are to write a letter from their husband, boyfriend, family member before that person goes into battle (Writing her letter) They write it to themselves.
The letters are a wonderful way to move from the facts of war to the emotion of war. My objective is for the students to write with sentiment from the time period using factual events taking place. I evaluate these letters based on evidence that the student has included both parts.
Once the letters are written they are put into each students' Civil War Scrapbook. I provide various enhancements for them to use that I collect throughout the year. The kids apply all kinds of extras to their letters such as ribbons, bloody handkerchiefs, and envelopes. Whatever they can do to create a page that feels like it's authentic, is perfect (Working on the scrapbook page).
These scrapbooks are a supplement to my 5th graders experience with The Civil War that bring them closer to understanding the human side more than solely reading information from their textbook. I am often discouraged when I have to search for extra informational text because the textbooks themselves do not fully explain historical situations. Creating the scrapbooks with personal, and documented historical facts is an excellent way to learn through an invented primary document.