Teaching history through attention to personal experience and primary sources is not a new idea. As Appleby, Hunt and Jacob point out, "History is always someone's history."3 Levstik and Barton also remind us that "all of us . . . start with our own diverse social histories-the story of who we are as interpreted through the experiences of daily living, family stories, pictures and artifacts."4 Making young children feel that their families are part of history can be the starting point for exciting class projects.
Preparing To Teach
It can all begin with a mysterious trunk. Collect photographs, pictures, old newspapers, postcards and greeting cards, magazine and/or newspaper clippings, school yearbooks, catalogs, family trees (often found in family Bibles), marriage and birth certificates, and anything else small and reminiscent of family life, and place it in an old (preferably battered) trunk or large suitcase. Items for the collection can be obtained free from neighbors and relatives, or by haunting flea markets and antique malls for inexpensive (and anonymous) samples. Wrap some of the items lovingly in fabric or doilies (as great-grandmother might have done).
Place all of the items collected in the trunk or suitcase, and close or lock it tight. Take the trunk to class and display it on a table.
The presence of the trunk will engender some curiosity. What is it? Why is it here? What could be inside? Who is it for? Where did it come from?
Ignoring students' questions at first heightens the suspense and encourages speculation. At some point during the day, "give in" to the mystery of the trunk by postponing any immediate plans and devoting some time to talking about the trunk and its contents. Children should, when possible, be encouraged to handle artifacts/regalia as they talk with each other about them. The suggestion has been made that children should propose descriptive words as they examine the artifacts, and that even very young
children can become engaged in the process of historical inquiry when teachers or aides record their descriptive words and subsequent sentences in language experience stories.5 Another alternative is to allow young children to examine the contents in pairs or small groups and tape record their comments, which can be written on poster paper later.
You might begin the inquiry process with questions such as these:
"What do you think is in the trunk?" (Allow time for numerous responses.)
"Why do you want to know what's in this trunk?" (Accept any answer, then focus students' attention with the next question.)
"Can we learn something from what other people left behind?"
Provide time for a brief discussion on this topic, remembering to ask thoughtful questions rather than provide specific information. Make certain students are exposed to concepts and appreciations such as the following:
Tell the students, "The things in this trunk might have been put there by my grandma, or your great-grandparents. They show what it was like to live in this community a few decades ago, at a time when your parents or your grandparents were growing up. Let's see what's in this trunk!"
Show students the items in the trunk, and talk about how these items can help us learn about life from that time period. Now you are ready to begin the unit of study.
Developing a Unit of Study
The unit begun by this activity might continue for as long as six to nine weeks, making it last for a complete grading period. Use the Family Artifact Report format [Figure 1] to help students begin their study of family artifacts. Send home letters inviting families to allow their children to bring objects and memorabilia to school for display and discussion.
Periodically reorganizing the displayed materials according to the social studies curriculum standards can bring new interpretations and perspectives and provide a greater depth of understanding.6 For example, perspectives on the eighth strand of the standards, 8Science, Technology, and Society, can be gained through an exploration of how science and technology rendered certain artifacts obsolete, or replaced them with more current inventions.
Make maps to depict the geographic origins of articles brought to class. Display the items, reports, and maps in the classroom. Help students create and reinforce social studies meaning by organizing these displays in various ways that reflect several relevant social studies standards. For example, to fulfill an early grades performance expectation for dealing with the third strand of the standard, 3People, Places, and Environments, students might pinpoint the geographic location of specific objects on a large world map hanging in the classroom. Use colored pins to mark the location, then attach yarn or string to the pin and print the student's name on a small piece of paper at the other end of the yarn or string. Staple or tape the identifying piece of paper to the bulletin board or wall beside the world map.
Time lines can be added to the display to help students develop understandings relevant to 2Time, Continuity, and Change, the second strand of the NCSS curriculum standards. Have students work in groups to create time lines to represent world, national, and/or local events happening at the time each artifact was originally used or became a part of the family's possessions. Group artifacts from the same time period along the time line. (On a bulletin board use different colors of paper to divide the line into time periods. Place a display table in front of the board and cover it with pieces of matching colored paper. Display artifacts from each time period on that portion of the table covered with the appropriate colored paper). Arrange with a librarian to bring students to the public library, where the library staff can help students examine and copy photos and/or articles from LIFE or LOOK magazines depicting similar artifacts, to help students interpret facts about their family memorabilia in context.
Have students photograph or illustrate their family artifact, and include this visual as a part of the report. As a culminating project, assemble all photos, drawings, and reports into a class book and have it bound, or provide time for students to develop a class HyperCardª or HyperStudioª stack depicting collected artifacts. Language and communication skills can be integrated into the social studies by using the book or stack as a springboard for writing activities for the remainder of the year. Students could, for example, be invited to personify the artifact and tell the artifact's "life story," predict what may happen to it as it is passed on to future generations, or describe what the artifact has observed and experienced while being a part of the classroom environment.
Using Family Artifacts: Classroom Examples
In the accounts which follow, two of the three teachers begin their family artifact lessons by reading a related book. Each teacher uses a variety of assignments and activities appropriate to her students' grade and ability levels, and each has students engage in writing activities to express what they have learned. All teachers planned their exploration of family artifacts by first giving thoughtful consideration to social studies goals and learner outcomes.
Cindy Stiver, a new teacher, used the activity described here with her second grade class. Her objective was to get the children to think about the importance of learning about their family history.
Cindy's grandmother had given her an old cedar chest, which she used for linen storage. Before beginning the unit, Cindy emptied her cedar chest and filled it with as much family memorabilia as she could find: a beaver coat from the 1950s, postcards, an autographed softball and trophies, her own wedding cake topper, her first stuffed animal, her baby album and first pair of baby shoes, an article of clothing brought from Vietnam by her father, wedding pictures of various family members, graduation invitations and cards, a college sweatshirt, her own high school and college diplomas, a family Bible, and school yearbooks. Then, with the help of her husband, Cindy took the chest and a rocking chair to her classroom over the weekend.
When her students arrived, they were welcomed by an elderly-looking lady with an apron, gray hair, and old glasses. The students had lots of questions: Who are you (some didn't recognize their teacher)? Who are you supposed to be? Why are you dressed like that? What is that trunk for? Cindy told them only that she was "Grandma Stiver for the day," and that they would have all their questions answered later.
"They crowded around the chest and sat in the rocking chair," she remembers. Cindy asked the students to gather around her and the cedar chest. "I started off by reading a silly book called I Unpacked My Grandmother's Trunk.7 Some of the things in the trunk [in the story] were a bear, a dinosaur, a snowman . . . I asked if all of the twenty-six things listed in the book could be packed in a trunk." The children all laughed and said, "No!" Cindy asked them what things could be packed in a trunk. A discussion ensued, and Cindy asked the second graders what the word "history" means. The dominant response was, "Stuff that happened a long time ago." Cindy told students they could learn a great deal about their own family's history by looking through old pictures, newspaper clippings, and family Bibles.
"I slowly opened the chest," she says. "No one could see in it. One at a time, each child came up and peeked in." Each was allowed to choose one item to show the rest of the class. As each student selected an item to show his or her classmates, they tried to predict something about Grandma Stiver, and explain why they thought "Grandma" had decided to keep that particular item for a long time. "By the things that I packed," Cindy says, "they could tell that I was married and the date I married. They learned that I loved to play softball, and my team won lots of championships. They discovered who my friends were in high school and college. They also decided I had traveled all over the U.S. and to three other countries."
When the students had examined all of the items in Grandma Stiver's trunk, they concluded that if the pictures had been dated and had the names of the people pictured on the backs, it would be easier to find out more information about the special people in Grandma Stiver's life. They also decided that through examining objects saved by family members, they could find out what jobs and hobbies these family members had valued in the past. In this way, Cindy's second graders were forming important ideas about historical documentation and data gathering.
Everyone spent about fifteen minutes rummaging in the trunk and trying out interesting items, then Cindy gave them a homework assignment: for a family project, students were to bring in a "trunk" of their own, made from a shoebox or other small box, with at least ten items in it related to their family's history. "I sent a letter home to parents explaining that we were studying family history, and that we would like them to become involved."
Students and parents had one week to work on their "trunks" before bringing them to class. The students brought collections in shoe boxes, picnic baskets, paper bags, and large cardboard boxes. "The kids were so excited to tell the stories behind their goodies," Cindy says, "and they were eager to hear the other kids talk, too." All students wrote about the contents of their "trunks" in class; these descriptions became part of their display. Jon's trunk, for example, contained:
Sara's trunk contained:
The "Grandma's Attic Trunk" activity got the children thinking about and interested in their own family history. "Their excitement was one of the best parts of this little unit," Cindy explains. "I will do this worthwhile activity again!"
Susan Livensparger is a veteran teacher in an urban school. The objective of her family artifact project was to encourage students to explore the "treasures" that exist in their own homes and memories (performance expectations involving the first strand of the social studies standards, 1 Culture, are especially appropriate here). Susan introduced her second graders to the concept of family heirlooms by reading the book Song and Dance Man,8 which tells the story of a grandpa's days as a vaudeville dancer. When the children in the book visit their grandpa, they can always count on his taking them up to the attic, where he digs in an old suitcase containing his old top hat and cane used for dancing. These and other items saved from his vaudeville days, are his "treasures."
After reading Song and Dance Man, Susan displayed an old suitcase containing some of her own family treasures. She says, "I had brought one of my own family heirlooms to school-an old silver soup ladle. After reading the book, I sat with the children around me as I usually do and, holding the silver ladle lovingly to my chest, I said, "This is my treasure...." I paused to make sure I had everyone's attention. Then, "This silver spoon was given to me by my mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother. This is my treasure because it has been in my family for a long, long time. My great-grandmother used this silver spoon to dip homemade soup out of a big pot. It's called a 'ladle,' and it's made out of real silver." I held the ladle toward the children, saying, "My treasure is very, very old. I love it and want to take very good care of it to make sure it lasts a long, long time."
Having gained her students' attention, Susan shared other family treasures from the old suitcase: an egg beater, ice tongs, and her own baby picture. The students were very curious about her family heirlooms, reaching out to touch them, and trying out the ice tongs and egg beater. As Susan shared the story behind her silver soup ladle and passed around her other treasures, students began to share their own family stories involving "treasures." But Susan also wanted her students to learn respect for treasures from the past, especially those in museum exhibits. They discussed this point, then Susan explained their homework assignment: "I made the assignment to bring a treasure [from home] and two pictures that represent their history. They had so much to say I could hardly get them down the hall to lunch!"
After lunch, Susan used the contents of her trunk to arrange an exhibit on her desk for students to view during the afternoon. The children left school in a spirit of excitement, and returned the next day with a variety of "treasures." Students were instructed to write one description of each treasure they brought, using the familiar Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How questions for structure.
"We are going to make a museum to show off our treasures," Susan told the children. The exhibits were set up on their desks, including baby pictures and recent pictures, family/personal treasures, such as stuffed toys or baseball cards, and the descriptions each student wrote. Students talked again about how not touching museum treasures would help them remain intact for others to enjoy. To Susan's surprise and great pleasure, the children suggested they be allowed to represent their exhibits on videotape. She got out the camcorder and taped them, then they invited another class in to view their exhibits.
Susan's students learned that heirlooms have personal appeal and are associated with emotional attachment, leading them to think about how people think and feel differently about cultural representations such as family heirlooms. They were exposed to the diversity of treasures, or heirlooms, present in their own classroom and, when their classmates from another class visited, they learned of even more diversity (and that beauty is often in the eye of the beholder). The students who visited the "museum" were inspired to do their own "treasure" project, and talked of their visit so much that Susan's students were asked to leave their museum exhibits in place for one more day so that even more classes would be able to view the exciting and fascinating "family history museum" in Mrs. Livensparger's room.
Toni's Time Capsule
Toni Whitney recalled that her high school graduating class from the 1960s had made personal time capsules to share at their tenth year reunion. She decided to use her time capsule to get her sixth graders interested in recent history, and to help them develop understandings associated with 2Time, Continuity, and Change, the second strand of the social studies standards.
Over the weekend, Toni buried a time capsule in the schoolyard, and made a treasure map leading to the site. On Monday she put students into small groups and gave each group a copy of the treasure map. Then Toni directed each group to a different starting point from which they followed the treasure map instructions to seven locations before reaching the time capsule buried in a waterproof container.
Once the capsule was found, it was opened and the students were given time to examine the objects. A large group discussion followed to determine the decade from which the items came and how they might have affected the lives of the people. Students then discussed the purpose of a time capsule and brainstormed what they could put into a time capsule to represent the present decade. Next students made books showing what they would like to include in their time capsule and wrote an explanation of how it represented them or their family. An alternative method of presentation might be to use shoe boxes and have students create their own time capsules using actual objects. Still another alternative would be for the class to make one time capsule to be opened at a later date.
Items that Toni's students decided to put in their "time capsule" books included: clothing, shoes, pictures of hairstyles, pictures of famous people, photographs of special events, models of popular automobiles, games, lists of important events, books or newspapers, job descriptions, toys, recipes, music, medicine, architectural designs and different types of useful appliances (an Amish student included a drawing of an apple peeler) and current technology.
Sharing her high school time capsule from the 1960s helped Toni's students learn more about what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and to see what their parents may have experienced. They also realized that no matter how unimportant they might think they are, everyone is a part of history.
Family Artifact Report
Name (or description) of the historical article found:
Who owned the article?
What historical period is the article from (example: the 1920s)?
What do you know about the life and times of the person who owned this article?
Which well-known people also lived during this time period?
What famous events occurred during the same period?
What other interesting or significant information can you provide about this article and/or the time period in which it was used?
1. J. Brophy. and J. Alleman, Powerful Social Studies Teaching for Elementary Students (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1995); L. Levstik. & K. Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997).
2. K. C. Barton, "History-It Can be Elementary: An Overview of Elementary Students' Understanding of History," Social Education 61, 1 (1997): 16.
3. See J. Appleby, L. Hunt and M. Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1994).
4. See K. Barton and L. Levstik, "'Back When God was Around and Everything': Elementary Children's Chronological Thinking," American Educational Research Journal 33, 2 (1996): 419-454.
5. D.G. Hennings, G. Hennings and S. F. Bannich, Today's Elementary Social Studies (New York: Harper & Row, 2nd. Edition, 1989.
6. See National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994).
7. Susan R. Hoguet, I Unpacked My Grandmother's Trunk (New York: Dutton Children's Books, 1983).
8. Karen Ackerman, Song and Dance Man (New York: Knopf, 1988).
M. Gail Hickey is Associate Professor of Education at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, Indiana. A former classroom teacher, she currently chairs the NCSS Early Childhood/Elementary Special Interest Group.