As a history teacher my job is often to have students visualize the past. I try to do this with many different strategies from storytelling to project based learning to good ole fashioned reading, but one of the most powerful tools is to have them look at artifacts and primary sources.
In the digital age, we at times have gotten away from physical objects since we can just "find a picture of it on the internet." But the use of artifacts is a powerful tool for humans in learning. Just think about when you tour a museum or historical site and there are signs everywhere saying "Please don't touch". And this is because, We Love To Touch!
For example, here is a photo I took several years ago during a trip to Washington DC of the Martin Luther King Memorial. I had visited DC many years before this memorial was built, but on this recent trip I was able to run over the the MLK memorial just as the sun was setting.
My first impression of the memorial was how approachable it was. I walked down the path the the statue and then stood at the base of Dr. King himself. Now, as I stood their and gazed upon him I was filled with emotion and a sense of contentedness
You can imagine what the next thing I did was... reach out and touch it. The marble was the same as any other marble I have touched before, but something human inside us all wants to reach out and feel it.
It is this desire to make a physical connection with an object that can help you liven up your social studies lessons.
Now I'm not talking about bringing monuments to your classroom or even going on field trips, but about having your students analyze and inquire about physical objects from the past. These objects are called artifacts.
Real life objects
Here is a blog post from History Tech about 3 Ways to Use Artifacts Your Classroom.
I'm assuming most of you probably don't have a great great great grandfather who has passed down his Civil War musket to you so where do you go to find these items? First off remember this, if the “real” version is not available then replicas work.
If the real thing is not available, the teacher must move down the continuum from the concrete to a replica… However, each move down the continuum causes the loss of some sensory information that could be helpful in comprehension
So, then where do I go to find these... Hello ebay! With a little thought and creativity you can bring some objects and artifacts to help bring the sense of realness to many social studies lessons.
This doesn't just work at the elementary levels but the kids in my AP World History classes found it just as rewarding. With my sophomores some of the best uses of artifacts have been
Here are some screen shots of a recent search on ebay for some of items like these.
Take a look at these two images of Confederate currency below. As you can see there is a signifigant cost difference between the real and the copy. Also, though there is a difference in the IMPACT that it has on the audience. Remember, the farther you go from authentic, the less connected with the object we become.
Now in most cases, teachers will not have access to real artifacts so relying on replicas is fine. Plus, having students handle precious artifacts may not be the best due to their high chance of accident with the PBJ covered fingers.
Besides just scouring the ebay and other sites for artifacts and primary sources you can find kits out there as well. Some of the best ones that I have used and trained on are the Primary Source kits from Teacher Created Materials. These kits contain photo cards and primary sources. These sources are often documents, maps, posters, letters, etc. Plus there is a teacher guide and CD which has many more primary sources along with background information and tons of teaching ideas and strategies.
Below are just a few of the the titles they offer.
At Rocklin high school we have used the Holocaust kit as the foundation of our Holocaust Museum which is a gallery walk / museum lesson for World History. This is one of the most powerful and memorable lessons for our students. As you can seen in the photo below, students walk around the room looking at photos, documents to complete the Museum Quest which has questions they must find as well as comment on other primary sources which they were touched by.
Let me know if you have any questions about this lesson or any other ways in which to use documents and artifacts in your classes.