Washington, D.C., offers numerous opportunities to get out of the classroom and experience history, particularly when studying the Civil War. While Ford’s Theatre receives a large amount of attention, many other sites with engaging stories can be found around the city—in neighborhoods and places easily accessible to students that they may pass by on a daily basis.  

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How to Use Washington, D.C., as a Classroom

With numerous museums and sites of historical importance in D.C. (and so many of them are FREE!), it’s no surprise that millions of visitors come here every year, including tens of thousands of teenagers on school-organized trips. Many of these students have put in time to prepare for these trips, managing everything from fundraising to taking classes in history and civics. This investment of time and money helps these students realize, “Hey! This trip is a BIG DEAL! I better get something out of it!” 

Sadly though, thousands of students right here in D.C. do not have this same opportunity, or, at least, are unaware that such opportunities exist. Sure, local teachers organize field trips to various places, but they usually do so to the same museums that students have visited before. Though students pass by places with rich histories and monuments with fascinating stories daily they may pay little attention to them. They don’t consider the relevancy and deep stories of these places and, like most of us in our own hometowns, they can be focused on other things.

When I began teaching U.S. History in D.C., I did not want my students to fall into these same routines, so I sought out places that were:

  1. Relevant to my course, and
  2. Off the beaten path.

My school is around the corner from Ft. Stevens, site of the only Civil War battle in D.C. and right in the neighborhood where many of my students live.  I saw an easy and relevant way to get outside the classroom. Around the same time I discovered teacher programs offered by Ford’s Theatre  that included hosting students at the theatre and at Lincoln’s Cottage.

Alex's Wilkins’s students from the Paul Public Charter School on a field trip to Fort Stevens, Washington, DC.

The best part, though? How easy the folks at Ford’s and Lincoln’s Cottage made these field trips. They took care of transportation, scheduling, guides and tickets. They even arranged for a ranger from the National Park Service to meet my students at Ft. Stevens.

But then came the most critical part: preparing my students for the visit. Sure, they would learn a lot by visiting these places, but to truly make it worthwhile my students needed to understand their value.

While providing students with a general history of the Civil War, I developed lessons with particular emphasis on the places we would visit: the Battle of Ft. Stevens, the Emancipation Proclamation (composed in large part at Lincoln’s Cottage), Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s and the assassination’s aftermath.  My students were not going in as blank slates on their trip. Indeed, they would be ready to ask questions, to make connections, to truly reflect on the history that is in their backyard. Better yet, these places they regularly pass by could spark their curiosity in finding out what other history surrounds them. 

While I focused on preparing my students for our visit, the staff at Ford’s was busy preparing for us as well. I shared my pre-visit classroom plans with them and what students would be doing afterwards. The Ford’s folks took this and ran with it. When we were on site, they asked my students questions based on what they had studied in class, which helped them make connections with what they were seeing and experiencing. The Ford’s team asked reflective questions, transforming these places from rooms where historic things happened into actual living classrooms. Students could discuss what they were learning and ask questions while seeing history first-hand. While these visits included vast amounts of content, the Ford’s team demonstrated how history is so much more than dates and names, and did so in a way that is difficult to do in a traditional classroom. 

Photo by Gary Erskine.
Photo by Gary Erskine.

The coolest thing about Ford’s involvement in our classroom unit, beyond taking care of trip logistics, beyond making it an engaging educational experience, is that the experience really opened students’ eyes to the broader history that surrounds us in D.C. Since I began taking my students on this trip, students will tell me about other historical monuments or markers that they come across in their everyday routines— things that had always been there but they had never noticed for one reason or another. Thanks in large part to my fellow educators at Lincoln’s Cottage and at Ford’s Theatre my students understand that history is not simply something to read or watch videos about or discuss, but something they can actually experience; that the past is still alive.

Alex Wilkins teaches U.S. History and AP U.S. History at Paul Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. He previously taught in North Carolina and has a B.A. in History from Washington and Lee University and a M.A.T. from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.