Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Few Ideas on Teaching Mount Vernon Material Culture

The date for the beginning of my Mount Vernon Lifeguard Fellowship is approaching quickly.  As it does, I'm reading and writing more about Washington's world, especially the material culture of Mount Vernon.  Over at my fellowship blog, "Clothing as Culture at Mount Vernon," I posted a couple of new entries.  One covers the delineation of space at Mount Vernon (mentioned on this blog) while the other introduces some resources for teaching about George Washington through objects.

Reproduction of Martha Custis (Washington's) Wedding Shoes (photo by author)

I would love to have you along for the ride this summer as I share resources, lesson plans, and reflections on working at Mount Vernon and the Fred W. Smith library.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

STEM is NOT a Dirty Word!

STEM has been an educational buzzword over the last few years and, unlike many similar acronyms, I think this one has not only value, but staying power as well.  The problem many humanities teachers raise seems to result from fear or frustration.  Is STEM out to conquer the humanities and subjugate the disciplines that lend education soul? How do you teach STEM and still keep your soul?

I led a workshop a couple of days ago on integrating STEM into the humanities curriculum (while keeping your soul).  Most of the attendees were upper elementary and middle school Social Studies and ELA teachers, with an administrator thrown in.  We discussed what STEM is, how a colleague and I blended it with American History to create our own hybrid, and a basic model for designing lessons with STEM in mind.

One takeaway from my conversations with teachers is that there is a great deal of confusion about the purpose of STEM-education and how it can cooperate with courses like English and History.  As a diehard believer in liberal-arts education and a proponent of STEM-integration, this is an issue I want to prioritize throughout the next year.

Below are the slides from the workshop, but to provide a brief summary:

  • STEM is not the accumulation of a "toy box" of technology. It is a mindset shift.
  • STEM is not the enemy of the humanities. 
  • Chances are, you are already teaching elements of STEM in your course.
  • STEM can hook students without sacrificing educational rigor.
  • Students at every grade level and ability can benefit from STEM-integration.
  • The "tool" (technology) should be the last piece in planning STEM-integration.
  • A simple model for adding STEM: start with your standard, learning target, etc., create an essential question, and then bring in resources to support that question through the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)

RCET Workshop 2017: STEM in the Humanities from mshomakerteach

I'm sharing a sample unit our 7th grade Social Studies, ELA, STEM, and Science departments collaborated on this year: Yellow Fever 1793. 

Hopefully, this will give you an idea of the possibilities and the freedom that comes from opening your humanities course up to new directions and influences.  Follow the blog as I provide more experiments in STEM-integration throughout the year.


Do you incorporate the STEM fields into your humanities discipline?  If so, how?  If not, what has kept you from trying?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Material Culture Minute No. 4 (#TMCM): News from Jefferson's "Little Mountain"

Last week, I had the pleasure of revisiting Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I spent a week at the home of Thomas Jefferson in the summer of 2016 as a Barringer Fellow, during which time I was immersed in Jefferson's life and ideas in his favorite spot on earth.  On this most recent trip I played the part of tourist with my family and took in the many changes the staff at Monticello has made to the house and grounds in such a short amount of time.

I started thinking about those changes and how they could instruct students on the power of historical investigation.  This "TMCM" is about one of the most exciting transformations to Monticello, the excavation and reconstruction of Sally Hemings' living space in the South Dependency.

There, in the corner of this picture, is where Monticello's archaeology department is working to restore the living space of Sally Hemings, slave and mother to possibly six of Thomas Jefferson's children.  When I visited in 2016, this was a popular spot among tourists-it served as the men's bathroom-which was installed in 1941.  

Current discoveries include the original brick floor, a hearth, and traces of shelves.  Once this excavation is complete, it will introduce a completely original connection to the most well-known person owned by Jefferson, as well as a major contribution to the story of enslaved lives at Monticello.  

Below is a news story from CBS Evening News on the Hemings' project at Monticello.  Make sure to visit "TMCM #4" Resources page for ideas on how to use the ongoing work in your classroom.

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,