Teaching with Artifacts

I am a museum geek. I grew up going to museums in Chicago, part of our annual trip to see my grandparents. That, plus my love of American history, led me to the museum field and teaching with artifacts. Nothing can bring history to life like the things left behind.

Don’t believe me?

Check out the German U-boat, the U505, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Or examine the pike at the Kansas Museum of History, one of the actual pikes John Brown purchased and shipped to Harper’s Ferry to start a slave insurrection. Looking at the pike you can’t help but ask yourself

Who used it? What happened to that person? Why did he buy pikes and not rifles? Why did the revolt fail?

This is why I love artifacts. You automatically start asking questions and looking for answers. This is why I am so excited about the state’s new History, Government, and Social Studies standards. They encourage teachers to use objects, and other primary sources from the past, to engage students in learning history.
I will be writing more about teaching with primary sources and materials available to teachers from the Kansas Historical Society.

For now, here are two activities that you can use with young students to help them cross over from “reading” history to “doing” history.

Introduction to Reading Historical Documents

1. Ask students to bring in a document or photograph from home to share with the class. This item should be something that is from the past, something they saved. It could be a photograph of when they were babies, a birthday card, their birth certificate, a newspaper article, an award certificate, etc.
2. During your turn in class, present your document providing the following information:

a. What type of document is this?
b. What is the date of the document?
c. Who created the document?
d. How does the document relate to you?

3. Consider, for your document and the documents of your classmates, responses to the following questions:

a. What does the existence of this document say about whoever created it?
b. What does the existence of this document say about whoever saved it?
c. What does the existence of this document say about American life in this era?

4. Is there a comparable item from 100 years ago? If so, how is it the same or different?

a. What does that say about American life 100 years ago?

Introduction to Analyzing Objects

1. Analyze objects in your classroom, such as a desk, chair, table, computer, etc.
2. Describe or draw the object. What is it made of?
3. How is it made? Is it made by hand? In a factory? Is it the only one of its kind or are there many?
4. How is it used?
5. Who uses it?
6. What does this object say about schooling in the United States today?

About mmadden2013

I am director of education for the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka, Kansas, and teach Public Museum Education at the University of Kansas.

1 thought on “Teaching with Artifacts

  1. Mary, This post is proof of serendipity! I have been playing with an artifact project for a new class I’m teaching and have sent emails to museums and colleagues with little success. I will be ‘liberating’ this idea for my 7th grade history class this year. My idea can still work (start with an object they’ve never seen before-a sexton for example-and have them work through what it might be and its possible use) but coming up with objects is more labor intensive than I thought it would be. Your idea gives them the power and lets them be the expert. Thanks.

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