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Examining Teacher Decision Making in Teaching about the Civil War Era in Middle School Classrooms


This study investigated the influence of teachers' historical perspectives, their beliefs about instructional methods, and the impact of the contextual factors in shaping the enacted curriculum and the instructional methods utilized by three middle school teachers in teaching about the Civil War era. Data gathered included interviews with teacher-participants, administrators, non-participant teachers, field notes from classroom and school-wide observations, and curricular, departmental, and faculty documents. These data were analyzed to understand the factors that influenced teacher decision-making regarding their representations of actors and events in the antebellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and their choice of instructional methods. Analysis of the enacted curriculum indicated significant differences in the three teachers' representations of the antebellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction as a result of their varied perspectives on these historical events. However, the importance of slavery as one cause of the Civil War was evident in all three teachers' accounts of the Civil War. Analysis of the teachers' decisions regarding instructional methods indicated that all three teachers viewed direct instruction as the most appropriate method for teaching history to their students, although this was also informed by the need to conform to the district's pacing guide for 8th grade history and to convey historical content to their students as efficiently as possible. In this way the pacing guide, a subtle yet important influence on all three teachers' practice, demonstrated the significance of high stakes accountability as a context that shaped teachers' curricular and instructional decisions. Main findings include the significance of all three teachers' presentation of the complex nature of Reconstruction as the extension and then denial of rights to African Americans, which served to reinforce the idea that the Civil War was tragic and provided a context to better understand the Civil Rights Movement of the mid twentieth century. Additionally, all three teachers' use of direct instruction resulted in presenting history as factual and inevitable. The absence of contingency, the notion that historical events could have had alternative outcomes, represented the history of the Civil War era as part of a preordained narrative of progress.

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