PBS in the Classroom

A Trip Back In Time to 'Mercy Street'

  • SHARE:
April 28, 2017

Recently, our high school students took a field trip back in time. Although teachers have claimed time-travel before, our students have never before experienced the kind of immersive historical voyage available through PBS’s Mercy Street: A Letter Home. I recently collaborated with two U.S. History teachers to take students on a virtual field trip to Civil War era Alexandria, Virginia.

The Experience -- The 19th Century Comes Alive 

In this 360° video available through PBS Learning Media, a soldier narrates a letter home to his wife while lying in Mercy Street’s Mansion House Hospital. Students can turn in any direction to observe nurses and doctors, costumed in Civil War dress, tend to their patients.

As a library media specialist, I am fascinated by the primary source photographs that overlay the walls of the hospital. Students assume the position of the wounded narrator laying in a hospital bed, and an authentic black and white photo of the young soldier appears above the headboard. This realistic reflection of the narrator reminds students that while they may be viewing historical fiction, this soldier represents the experiences of real soldiers. As the narrator reminisces about life before the war, a primary source photo of a 19th-century American home appears across from the bed. These primary source documents help students to feel how much the soldier longs for home. 

Before the Lesson – Preparing for a Virtual Trip

At least a day before the virtual field trip, students received instructions for downloading the 

Littlstar app onto a smartphone. Although this was not a required step, our hope was that at least half of the students would be able to download the app. If your school is not BYOD, you can still watch the 360° video on a tablet or desktop computer without VR viewers.

Students were also asked to bring headphones with them on the day of the lesson, as we didn’t want the video sound from one group to distract another. Because students could roam the entire library, if one or two pairs of students forgot headphones, they could still find a remote corner of the space to listen to the video quietly.

During the Lesson – Pairing up and Traveling Back

Completing the activity in pairs worked well because one student could monitor their VR viewer-wearing partner. We certainly don’t want students wandering into real objects! After viewing the video, students stayed in pairs to work on the assessment portion of the lesson. 

PBS Learning Media offers support materials to accompany the brief video. As a school librarian, I do not have extensive background knowledge on the Civil War, so I was especially thankful to have some guiding discussion questions.The students were eager to teach me a little bit about the war as it pertained to the video.

Because one of the collaborating teachers had just concluded a Civil War unit, we decided to include a letter-writing assessment to go along with the video activity. Each pair of students selected an important civil war event to discuss. Students also assumed Civil War era fictional characters who could write letters to one another. Most chose to take on the persona of a soldier and a wife, a mother or a grandfather. Students had time to develop their characters together to ensure that their pairs of letters would make sense. Although students received individual grades for their independent writing, the assessment was more engaging because each student wrote to the character assumed by their partner.

We adapted the assessment from another PBS letter-writing activity called “Becoming a Civil War Letter Writing Correspondent.” We were also able to easily adapt the rubric for the final assessment. As the activity suggests, I printed out a number of primary source Civil War envelopes from the Library of Congress digital archives. Some students chose to decorate envelopes to make their letter more authentic-looking.

Reflection – A Cool, Immersive Experience

Mr. Cardiff, one of the collaborating American History teachers, says “the kids really enjoyed the VR experience. I asked them to reflect on the experience the following class period and I got tons of positive feedback. Kids generally felt it was cool to immerse themselves into the story.”  His students continued by saying that they wish the video was longer and that they could explore the primary sources further. In future lessons, I may pair the video with more examples of primary sources through the Library of Congress for students to study further. They could even create their own historical fiction stories or letters based on primary sources, similar to the way that primary sources are used in the film. As an instructor, I liked the video length, as there was enough time for students in each pair to take turns with a shared device and viewer before moving onto the class discussion.

After discussing the video, teachers provided instruction on the assessment, and students collaborated on their character ideas before the end of the class period. Students had one additional class period to write their letters independently, and then they were permitted to edit their letters at home.

Ultimately, educators want to ensure that even fun activities are meaningful and that they connect to educational standards. PBS Learning Media makes this crucial step easy by including national standards as part of the support materials for this lesson. This trip back in time is one of those lessons that truly brings history to life for students, and one that they will keep talking about even after the trip is over.

Explore the entire PBS LearningMedia Mercy Street Collection.


Ms. Kauffman is a high school Library Media Specialist in Western Pennsylvania. After receiving a BS in Secondary Education and a BA in English from Penn State University, Ms. Kauffman completed her MS in Library Science from Clarion University. She is an officer for the Westmoreland County Association of School Librarians, a representative to the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association Advisory Council, and she has presented workshops for both local and national conferences. Ms. Kauffman is a Google for Education Certified Innovator, a Fulbright seminar participant, and a Nearpod PioNear. When she is taking a break from talking about YA books, Ms. Kauffman loves hiking with her dog Max and eating Alumni Swirl ice cream at PSU's Creamery! She can be found on Twitter @MsKKauffman.

Katherine Kauffman

Katherine Kauffman Library Media Specialist

InfoQuotex