Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Material Culture Minute No. 3 (#TMCM): They're Only Buttons, Right?

This week's episode of The Material Culture Minute features some objects from George Washington's Mount Vernon.  

Remember, all TMCM episodes are available by selecting the link on the blog and are free to use with a Creative Commons Attribution license in your classroom, if you would like.  Also, be sure to check out TMCM #3 Resources link at the bottom of this post for a transcript, links to accompanying resources, and class discussion questions.  This is primarily a resource for use in my classroom next year, but you are welcome to use it to increase object-based history inquiry in your room as well.


TMCM #3 Resources

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Big Summer Plans: The Mount Vernon Lifeguard Research Fellowship

Can the clothing of master and enslaved serve as a microcosm of 18th century thoughts on race, place, and social position?

What can clothes teach us about life and perception on a Virginia plantation?

How did slave-owners use clothing to reinforce their position?

How did the enslaved use clothing to navigate beyond their position?

Those are the big questions I’ll be asking this summer as I live and work on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.  A few weeks ago, I got the good news that I was chosen as a Lifeguard Teaching Fellow for 2017-2018 and will get to spend three weeks in Alexandria researching and creating lesson plans for use by teachers through the education wing of Mount Vernon.

       Screenshot from Mount Vernon website

This will be my second time at Mount Vernon.  I was accepted into a week-long George Washington Teacher Institute in 2016, where I was able to explore Washington as I think he preferred to be known: an innovative farmer/entrepreneur.  The week featured talks by Ed Lengel, author of “First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Build His-and the Nation’s-Prosperity,” and other guest speakers.  In addition to content-rich talks by scholars on Washington, Mount Vernon, and 18th century commerce, the participating teachers were given open access to the estate, toured the house, distillery, mill, upper and lower gardens, and Pioneer Farm with interpreters and historians, and collaborated with each other on ways to bring Washington’s personal world into our classrooms.

I learned about the Mount Vernon Lifeguard Fellowship during the first couple days of the GWTI in summer 2016 and immediately began thinking of areas related to Washington that I’ve had a long-standing interest in.  I spoke with the library staff about a few ideas and was given suggestions for books to help narrow my focus.

My proposed project is “Clothing as Culture: Material Culture and Race at Mount Vernon” and will explore how the clothing of the Washington family and the enslaved defined social standing, reinforced 18th century ideas of racial superiority, and how the enslaved used clothing to navigate society on and off the estate.  Through production and purchase accounts made by the Washington family, archaeology evidence from the house for families, and surviving clothes and cloth, I hope to create a course of study for teaching object- and place-based history to students at the middle and high school levels.

I've created an online research journal at and will be writing about new information I discover, links to resources, and how living and working at Mount Vernon is shaping my research.  I'll be cross posting some of those entries here at Live American History.  Though primarily created for my use in collecting and curating content for my lesson(s), I hope the MV Fellow blog will serve as a resource you can use to add more object- and place-based history education, and more George Washington, in your classroom.

Glad to have you along for the trip,


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Material Culture Minute No. 2 (#TMCM): What can We Learn from a Rail Spike?

One theme we explore in 7th and 8th grade American History is movement.  Whether trekking across the Appalachian Mountains before the Revolution, steaming up and down the Mississippi, or navigating the dangers and adventure of the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, American history is a history of a moving people.  

The expansion of American railroading is a topic of great interest to me, mainly because of how it affected popular culture, material culture, politics, race relations, and the landscape.  The second installment of "The Material Culture Minute" explores an object deeply tied (I will not apologize for that pun) to railroad history, a rail spike.

Below are two videos I've shown in class when discussing American rail culture.  Both are the famous song about John Henry, the steel-driving man, but done in two completely different ways.  The first is by George Pegram and is done in his traditional old-time way.  The second is from the great bluesman, Mississippi Fred McDowell.  I like students to listen to both and hypothesize why two different cultures embrace John Henry as an integral part of their folk music.   

Remember, all TMCM episodes are available by selecting the link on the blog and are free to use with a Creative Commons Attribution license in your classroom, if you would like.  Also, be sure to check out the TMCM #2 Resources for a transcript, links to accompanying resources, and class discussion questions.  This is primarily a resource for use in my classroom next year, but you are welcome to use it to increase object-based history inquiry in your room as well.

Thanks and keep driving,

Monday, April 24, 2017

It's Alive! Challenging Students to Create their own Breakout Game

During the final week of March, I lost my mind.

Classes were starting to get stuck in a routine.  Now, I'm not opposed to routine, but I do get bored easily.  We were nearing the end of our American Revolution unit and I wanted students to do something that would let them practice using what they had learned and give me an opportunity to assess their understanding of our learning targets.
"Plan a Breakout game!  It's the perfect way to practice and assess."  That's what the angel on my shoulder told me as I pondered what to do.  
Turns out that angel was a little wicked, because it only told me half the story.  Asking students to plan a BreakoutEDU game is an incredible way for them to review material and for me to see what they do and do not know.  It's also a logistical nightmare!  

This post was written for a couple of reasons: 
  1. To share how I structured this activity
  2. To seek suggestions for improvement
How I structured the activity

I started by determining a goal and what items were essential for me to assess student understanding.

As a class, we discussed what was expected and brainstormed ideas for our story and how students would incorporate what they had learned into the game.  Students were then divided into small groups and tasked with creating a story and rough outline of how their game would work.  We met together the next day and each group shared its ideas before we voted as a class on which game we would like to build on.

We decided to use the stock BreakoutEDU materials for maximum playability and discussed what we would need to do to complete our game in three days.  I asked for volunteers to form teams to address those needs before students then began working in self-appointed groups.  Some students moved to teams once their tasks were done or if they felt they would be more successful.

On the third day, we came back together as a class and mapped out the game on the board.  Seeing it visually helped students figure out which items were used, if all clues led somewhere else, and if the game sounded achievable and like something they would want to play.

I asked each team to nominate one person to represent them during the final phase of game creation, the set-up instructions.

One way I excited the students about this activity was mentioning that I would like to submit these games for inclusion either on the BreakoutEDU site or in the sandbox.  I gave the new team a blank game template from BreakoutEDU and tasked them with "making the instructions" for our game.  

We played the games on Monday and, well, see for yourself.

What went well?

  • Using the stock BreakoutEDU materials makes the game playable by anyone with a basic kit.  The limited materials also encouraged students to create additional puzzles and clues.
  • Discussing expectations as a class kept students focused on the end goal.
  • It was encouraging listening to students brainstorming as a class.  It provided an opportunity for me to hear what they knew, what excited them, and actually seemed to encourage less vocal students to participate.
  • Overall, students chose well in the creation of the set-up instructions teams.
  • Using the template provided by BreakoutEDU helped ensure the game came together.
  • Three days seemed like a good amount of time to complete this activity. (Most) students didn't lose interest and they weren't rushed.

What needs improvement?

  • Some students pouted for three days because their suggestions weren't chosen.  I know there's always some hurt feelings, etc. with middle school students, but still, it was annoying.
  • Most self-appointed teams stayed on task, with some students even moving to another team in order to keep from getting distracted.  However, a few teams were distracted and distracting.
  • Although many of the quiet students spoke up during brainstorming, it was the loudest students that drove the direction of the product.
  • Some students tried turning all responsibility over to the students who are perceived as "the smart kids".  How can I increase students' self-efficacy? 
  • I was too involved in mapping out the game on the white board.  I tried turning over almost complete control to the students, but still had to lead the discussion to complete the game map.
  • Students struggled writing explanations for how to set up the game they created!
I challenged my History Lab! honors students (featured in the video above) and had to alter gameplay due to not having five Breakout kits.  I asked History Lab! what they thought about the games.  They said:

  • Some clues didn't connect well
  • Required content knowledge they didn't have
  • Fun to play when the game clues all worked
I think there's a lot of benefit to using BreakoutEDU in the classroom and allowing students to make their own games.  Hopefully, we'll try this again next year with a better plan and it will run smoothly.  

Have any of you led students through designing their own Breakout games?  What process did you use?


"Design Your Own Breakout Game" Student handout

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Material Culture Minute No.1 (#TMCM) Mystery Sphere from Fort Davidson

Last week I shared a project I've started working on called, "The Material Culture Minute".  TMCM will be a series of short videos focusing on one or two historical objects.  I plan on using these videos in class next year to introduce more material culture study into every unit.  

The plan is to introduce a new video every Monday on the blog and they will be cataloged on the TMCM page (link is in the menu on the right side of the blog).  Although these will be created for use with my classes, I am sharing them through a Creative Commons Attribution license for other teachers to use in their classrooms as well.

Make sure to click here for the video transcript, links to resources, and class discussion questions to accompany the video.

Here's to teaching history through objects,

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Introducing: "The Material Culture Minute"

A few weeks ago, during a week-long blogging challenge, I was reminded of how much I love teaching with objects and place.  I use material culture in my history classroom quite a bit, but I want to incorporate it better into my entire curriculum, instead of just hit or miss within different units.

To help accomplish this, I'm creating a series of short videos called, "The Material Culture Minute".  This series will follow a simple format: present an object, or a couple of objects, and ask students to think critically about the object(s).  Each video will be around a minute long and will include resources for discussing the object(s) with a focus on sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and close-reading.

This series will be used in my room throughout the upcoming year as bell-ringers, exit tickets, and incorporated into units.  As videos are finished they will be posted on "The Material Culture Minute" page (the link is in the blog menu to the right) and are shared under a creative commons license for use in your classroom.

My plan is to release one every Monday, with the first one next Monday, April 24 (over a Civil War cannon ball).  However, it's standardized testing season and the end of the school year, so that schedule may not be fixed.

Here are some other recent posts related to object- and place-based education:
"Why I Teach History with Place"
"The Power of Place"
"How to Start Teaching with Objects in Only 5 Minutes"
"Engineering a Flood Prevention System for Cahokia"
"Historical EDC (Everyday Carry)" 

Again, these are created to help me incorporate object-based inquiry into my classroom, but I hope other teachers find them useful.  If you do try the video series with your classes, please let me know your experience.

Trying new things together,

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Spreading Misinformation: Revisiting Fake News

The other day on Twitter, this post caught my eye.

You can read the Washington Post article here.* At the beginning of second semester, I welcomed students back with an activity on fake news (I wrote this blog post about it).  One of the elements of that activity involved a story about George Washington's body being stolen from the tomb at Mount Vernon and carried through the wilds of Virginia at the start of the Civil War.

We just finished the American Revolution and will cover government, including the Washington and Adams administrations and the election of 1800, before the year's out.  The Washington Post article got me thinking about how I could bookend second semester with GW and fake news.  Bonus points if I could figure out a way to incorporate my favorite 18th century figure, Jefferson, "doing whatever the hell it is [he] does in Monticello"!  

My goal for this lesson is to allow students to build on the skills of identifying fake news learned in January, compare primary sources, and apply the methods of creating fake news to another historical figure; and what better figure to spread rumors about than Jefferson? 

I like to think of Washington as the man who embodied popular ideas of virtue and Jefferson as the man who promoted the ideas of virtue.  I love TJ and the kids know it.  They've read his words, virtually visited Monticello, sourced objects from his life, and used Monticello as a model for designing new public buildings (in History Lab!).  I figure that they've been exposed to his words and ideas enough to make some relatively believable propaganda.  Plus, I think know they'll take some weird enjoyment from crushing the reputation of one of my historical heroes.   

"And Another Thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment"** Lesson Plan
  1. Review fake news and discuss how it can be spotted.
  2. Have students read the Washington Post article, reading closely for specific items in the text, ex. what the fake news implied, what methods were used to make it believable, who was responsible, and how it affected Washington.  Students should share out their answers.
  3. Hand out an excerpt from one of the "spurious" letters (the entire book from the Evans Early American Imprint Collection) and an excerpt of one of Washington's actual letters (I like this example from the Papers of George Washington).  Do not tell students which letter is fake.
  4. Students will read the two letters, hypothesizing which letter is the fake, and why they believe that before sharing in a class discussion.
  5. Unmask the fake letter to great celebration or dismay.
  6. Introduce the letter from Washington to Mathew Carey, 27 October 1788.  Read through it with students, pausing to highlight methods making the spurious letters believable.  Ask students if they believe writing believable fake news is a simple or complicated thing and why.
  7. Hand out the "A True Relation of A Most Unfortunate Incident Involving Mr. Jefferson" template and inform students they are going to practice crafting a fake news element about Thomas Jefferson.
  8. Students will spend some time reviewing the 1800 election, events in Jefferson's life, and reading samples of his writing.  Remind them to keep those methods of making a story believable in mind as they review.
  9. Assign students the task of adopting a persona to unmask some scandalous news about Jefferson and writing a fake letter/letters as Jefferson to be included in this expose. Use the "A True Relation..." template as a guide.
  10. We will probably do a gallery walk and post our fake news somewhere with real letters from Jefferson mixed in.  We can even ask other students to guess which letters from Jefferson are real and which are fake.
I'll introduce this lesson after students have explored the election of 1800 and the campaign tactics utilized throughout.  I have a few weeks before I try this out and, as a work in progress, I would love to hear your ideas for improvements and extensions.


*The Post article deals with the publication of seven spurious letters assembled together and released in a book in London in 1777.  These seven letters, purportedly written by GW to Lund Washington back at Mount Vernon, cast doubt on the General's faith in the American cause and their ability to defeat the British.

**Shout out to "Cabinet Battle #1" from Hamilton.