N.C. teacher helps fifth-graders make history

(CBS News) WALNUT COVE, N.C. - In most schools, getting kids to care about Civil War history is a losing battle, but at London Elementary in Walnut Cove, N.C., they're winning the war - by reliving it.

Fifth-grade teacher Eric Marshall
Fifth-grade teacher Eric Marshall CBS News

For three full school days every spring, the fifth graders walk out of their classrooms and into one of the most elaborate grade-school history lessons in America.

Teacher Eric Marshall - Lieutenant Marshall for these three days - came up with this idea to make sure his Civil War lessons stuck. In lieu of stale lectures and pop quizzes, he now offers bad food and mock musket ball wounds. No detail is left to chance, and every kid plays a role.

Kloe Tucker is his second in command.

Asked why her teacher cares so much about his students learning, she said, "I have to be honest: He is very attached to his students."

She's got that right. Why else would he build this - much of it at his own expense?

Kloe Tucker
Kloe Tucker CBS News

"I love working with children," he said.

Eric used to work in the jewelry business but quit that successful career, in part, to free history from the binds of boredom.

Asked if it worked, Kloe said, "Yes, it worked."

Zev Flinchum is a Union sergeant.

"Because you're carrying the guns around, you're carrying canteens, haversacks, you've got the uniform," he says, explaining how he gets into character and pointing out the correct way Civil War soldiers would salute.

Zev Flinchum
Zev Flinchum CBS News

That's the level of detail these kids are learning - and Eric is confident it will pay off.

"It produces a love of history, an appreciation of history, and to me, that is big and it needs to be done," he said.

More than anything, Eric wants his students to know the sacrifices of their ancestors. At one point, he has them re-enact a portion of Gettysburg. Like all good lessons, the kids just think it's fun - until the end.

"Now turn around and look at the battlefield," Eric told his students.

"It hit me," Kloe said. "If it was real, I'd see my best friend fall on the ground and not get back up."

Most history teachers work a lifetime hoping for a fraction of that connection.

And with that, Eric Marshall chalked up another small victory in his never-ending battle to inspire.

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  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.