What is a turning point?
That’s the question Kris White asked the assembled room of teachers in Valley Forge. They’d come to his Teacher Institute workshop to hear him talk about “Teaching Through Turning Points.” As co-editor of ECW’s Turning Points of the American Civil War, part of our “Engaging the Civil War” Series with Southern Illinois University Press, Kris has had turning points on the brain for well over two years. He has a little experience with the topic.
“This isn’t a book talk, though,” he promised the assemblage. “I used to hate professors who would make us buy their books, so I’m not going to do that. But Mackowski in the back might have some.”
“I do,” I chirped up from a corner—although, by that point, I’d already nearly sold out. Turning Points turned out to be a hot commodity.
“Let’s start by coming up with a definition,” Kris suggested. That would give us all a common point to work from. He offers the following: “An event marking a unique or important historical change of course or one on which important developments depend.”
He admits, though, “That’s an awful glossary term.”
After all, what’s an important historical change?
He suggests that one way to examine that criterion is to ask, “What came from it?”
There are any number of milestones through history. Pick a point and dissect it, Kris said. To get students involved, he suggested working in gamification—using the typical elements of game playing to increase student engagement in the learning process.
“Take Gettysburg back to Chancellorsville,” Kris offers as an example. “Go into the war room with the Confederate high command. Debate the pros and cons of the different options available.”
For the Cold War, split the class into two teams: the U.S. and Soviet Union. Pull names out of a hat so that every student gets a person. Students then research their person and explain how he/she would react in specific situations.
“I’ve done this in my own classes,” Kris said. “They would bomb each other within the first class.” He shook his head while the audience laughed. “I had to rethink the options I made available to them right away,” he chuckled.
Does a turning point have to be a military event, Kris asked? No. “People sometimes focus too much on military events,” he said. He lists a number of non-military turning points in the grand flow of history: the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the printing press, the invention of the wheel, the invention of vaccinations.
He pointed to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as an event that brought about major social reforms for workers, for instance.
“But because I’m a military historian, that’s what I focus on because that’s what I like to talk about,” Kris admitted, smiling.
He used the battle of Waterloo and D-Day as two examples. In both cases, he outlined ways you can start with the event and work your way in either direction: How did you get there? Where did it go? By looking at before and after, you can explore the impact of the turn and tie it into the flow of history.
“Work your way to it,” he suggested.
“You can tie the battle of Waterloo to the American Revolution easily,” he suggested. “Revolution in America gets the attention of everyone in Europe wearing a crown.” As a result, how did events in France unfold?
Turning points can be turning points in personal lives, too. “Can one person really change history?” Kris asked. Look no further than right there in Valley Forge for an example: George Washington.
“George Washington is a fantastic leader,” Kris said. “He’s a terrible general.”
You can also tie turning points together. For instance: the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s Crossing—“Both take place in that glorious year of 1776,” said Kris. “But the Declaration means nothing without battlefield victories.”
Similarly, the Emancipation Proclamation meant nothing without battlefield victories. “It’s like trying to impose a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit on Canada—you can’t do that,” Kris explained. “At that point in the way, the Confederacy is essentially a different country.”
He urged teachers to compile a class list of turning points. When he invited the assemblage to do so as an example, only four hands raised for Gettysburg as a turning point. Many more for Vicksburg. None for Tullahoma. “Ever heard of it?” Kris laughed? The Rise of Ulysses S. Grant, the Election of 1864, and Antietam—“tied into the social end of things with the Emancipation Proclamation”—also made the list, as did the Merrimac vs. the Monitor as an example of the Industrial Revolution’s impact on the war, and “improved medical advances.”
“Test preconceived notions,” Kris said.
But, most importantly, “I’m trying to give you ideas that will let you talk about cool things in your classroom that really interest you,” he said.