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Teaching History Through Objects

I have, on occasion, been known to squeal with excitement when I come across a item or concept that can serve as the focal point for teaching about a historical time period. I admit and embrace my history nerdiness! For example, I find the history of the Pledge of Allegiance to be fascinating. It was created as part of a larger patriotic program that schools could use to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in America. But it was more than that. It's creation, and subsequent use in schools, was also an attempt to define what being an "American" meant. In a time of economic unrest, rapid social change, increased immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, increased urbanization and more, the new Pledge of Allegiance was meant to be one way to provide American children with some grounding in what it meant to be a good citizen. The creator of the Pledge, Francis Bellamy, was also racist and anti-Semitic. Talking to students about the political, economic, and social situation in the U.S. at the time helps them understand more about the original purpose of the Pledge and can lead to fascinating conversations about how the purpose of it has evolved over time.

For the 2020-2021 school year, I'm especially excited to get to spend time each week with my friend Tiffany Ard, as we explore world history through art and artifacts. We've based the class on the premise that we and our students are aliens visiting Earth and trying to learn what we can from the art and artifacts that we come across. Our goal, as aliens, is to eventually compile a group of items that we can take back to our home planet that explain what humans do and what is important to them. To me, this is the perfect way to teach using objects. Whether we are looking at a royal scepter from an ancient African kingdom, a metal bell used in Chinese ritual, or a tapestry from northern Europe, we can learn about the culture from the materials used, the animals or people included (or excluded), and even how and where the item was found. It also gives us a great opportunity to talk about why we know so much about some cultures and so little about others.

Learning about history and culture is so much more than facts and figures. My experience has been that when a student can approach history from a perspective they can relate to, it becomes so much easier to help them go deeper. That is where they get hooked on wanting to know more, and to understand why. Building those connections are one of the many reasons I love teaching things like history and current events.

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