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“The key to success is to risk thinking unconventional thoughts. Convention is the enemy of progress. If you go down just one corridor of thought you never get to see what’s in the rooms leading off it. ”                      — Trevor Bayliss, British Inventor

In our previous blog entry, we mentioned that we often get questions about the number or type of artifacts in the Teacher’s Closet on the Artifacts Teach website. These questions come in the form of, “What Civil War artifacts do you have?” or “What Revolutionary War artifacts do you have?”, or “What do you have that is 20th Century?” These questions, while well-meaning, miss the mark. To pigeon-hole an artifact is to limit its applicability. Let me give you some examples.

Let us begin with a drop spindle. This item (pictured at the right)  is used to spin thread from cotton, wool or flax. The drop spindle has been around for over 6,000 years. So, this one artifact can be used to teach both the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in Western Civilization. It can be used to teach World History as it appears in all of the Ancient Civilizations at approximately the same time. National Geographic Magazine recently featured a story about finding the hidden tomb of a Mayan princess. Wrapped in a leather bag drop spindlealong with jewelry and precious stones was a drop spindle. It can be used to teach the Revolutionary War. American Colonial women began the “Homespun Movement” in an attempt to cripple the British Imperial economy in the 1770s. It can be used to discuss Native American culture. Men in the pueblos of the Southwest spun clothing and rugs while women worked in the fields. After the Spanish conquest, the advent of European ideas and religion changed pueblo society completely and women became the spinners, while men worked the fields. During the Great Depression, the WPA taught home spinning to unemployed men and women as a means of making ends meet. A drop spindle can be used to teach post-World War II anti-colonialism as well.  Ghandi used home spinning as a tool to break the back of the British economy in India and achieve independence.

The drop spindle also teaches math, science and Language Arts. The construction of a drop spindle contains circles, cones, and cylinders. Math principles involved include circumference, radius, and diameter. (math) The amount of weight added to the spindle determines the tightness of the thread that is spun.(physics) The elements that are used to construct the spindle and the attached the weight reflect the environmental and geographical conditions at the time. (science) The design of the drop spindle reveals status and cultural development. ( Sociology, Anthropology) Words associated with spinning have defined women’s roles throughout history. (Language Arts) So, how would you classify a drop spindle? What “kind” of artifact is it? To what era does it belong?

Another example is the simple American Woodsman’s Axe. It is designed specifically to remove bark and fell trees. The design of the head of the axe contains both basic math lessons (size, shape) and geometry and physics lessons (shape of the wedge, angles, relationship of head to handle, curvature of the handle and its impact on efficiency). The axe is also a Language Arts lesson. Think about the story of Paul Bunyan. If I am not mistaken,  he used an axeAmerican Woodsman’s axe. The original Anglo colonists brought axes with them. They quickly discovered that the large, flat blades of a board axe did not work well to clear trees for the planting of crops. They modified it to meet their needs. Those modifications continued as Anglo-Europeans moved westward in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is surely history, but it is also science and math. Is it Colonial history, or Westward Movement, or Environmental history? How would you classify the American Woodsman’s axe?

We can go on and on here. The Teacher’s Closet at contains candle molds (math, science, history, Language Arts), Minie Balls (Civil War, Economics, Globalization, science and math), a beaver hat (economics, history, art, globalization, Language Arts, environmental science and math) a toy bank (Industrialization, cultural history, math, science), a miner’s candlestick (math, science, economics, An Apple composed by several fruitshistory, Language Arts) and so on, for some forty-odd artifacts. Each of these has multiple applications over a wide range of space, time, and disciplines. Artifacts Teach has the artifacts that can help you engage your students and teach them critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, decision-making, problem-solving and communications skills? Artifacts Teach has assembled a series of artifacts on-line that students can manipulate as if they were holding them in class. We continually add to that cache, provide hints and help for students, and context support for teachers. We suggest ways in which teachers can use them in existing lesson plans. Why? Because thirty years of teaching has proven to us that





“Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving  of right answers.”

From the first day of class, it is vitally important that a teacher demonstrate that the environment will be one of exploration and explanation and NOT one of “right answers regurgitated.” Start each period with an exercise that you are absolutely sure 95% of the students can accomplish without your help. This may be a review of the previous day’s work, or completing a simple writing prompt, or counting the number of students wearing socks. It is always better to tie the exercise to the work you have done, or will be doing, easybut there are THOSE DAYS where everyone, including the teacher, needs a break from the routine. The exercise should be couched in an open-ended question so that you are not seeking one correct answer. “What problem do you think  Pythagorus was trying to solve when he established his formula for right triangles?” “How is the story we read yesterday reflected in the relationships in our school?” ALWAYS have students write their answers on a sheet of paper that you will collect at the end of the exercise. There is no threat of failure here. There is no correct answer. Students of all ages like to share their ideas about all kinds of subjects. You have established that this is a safe environment in which to share those thoughts.

As you add rigor to your lessons, you should follow the same process. Always ask open-ended questions. “How might….”, “What do you think….”, “In what ways….” are all good questioning prompts that allow you to assess student knowledge, progress and understanding. If you have students who might need assistance, or who may have missed days important to instruction, you can Open-ended questionalways establish scenarios that allow them to succeed as well. The easiest of those is to allow students to use their notes or their textbooks in order to formulate their responses. Your goal is to teach them, so allow them to learn. If they have not been diligent in their preparation, using notes/textbooks provides a way for them to do the work and avoid embarrassment. Most of all they do not want to look foolish in front of their peers. Allow them to catch up, and they will learn to prepare for your class.

Another effective method here is to have students individually answer the question and then write their responses on a sheet of paper. Then, have them form a dyad and review their answers. They must choose the best response from among their individual responses. You can stop here, or go on to have two dyads compare answers and have them decide upon which response best answers the question. What have you accomplished here? Firstly, you have insured that every student has a written response to share. dyadSecondly, when you moved to dyads, you insured that all responses would be “safe,” as they have been arrived at jointly. If you moved on to the two-dyad consensus, then you have added an additional layer of safety. Further, we know that all students learn more and retain that knowledge longer if they learn from participation with their peers. You have not only created a “safe” environment for response, but you have automatically established a productive learning environment.

So, the method works for the students. WHAT IS IN IT FOR YOU? Simply put, this one approach establishes a positive, productive learning environment. You have eliminated the most dreaded of all responses: “I DON’T KNOW.” No student can answer in this fashion. EVERYONE has a written answer in front of them. That answer was arrived at through the WIIFMexchange of ideas. Everyone has a safe backup, their partner. In the case of the double-dyad, there are three others who support the response. Even if  you stopped the process with individual responses, you would still have the advantage. If your most uncooperative student at first replied, “I don’t know,” then your response can be one of the following, “What did you write down?”, or “Check your notes/textbook, I’ll let you finish your thoughts and come back to you in a moment.”, or “Who can help Johnny?”  Regardless, you have employed several methods here to allow Johnny to recover and respond in a safe fashion. Johnny won’t try the old “I don’t know” ploy again, because he knows you won’t allow it to work.

There are two cardinal rules here:



If you break either of the rules, the safe, interactive environment will collapse. Students are pretty savvy about avoiding “Do Nothing” exercises. Who wants to work for no reward or satisfaction? Make sure that you maintain the integrity of that environment by making sure that every student feels safe in their participation, and every participation is a success.



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I ran into a typical problem the other day. It occurred in a conversation with a curator. I had asked about his collection and had explained that I was interested in finding artifacts to post on the Artifacts Teach website ( so that K-12 teachers could better engage their students and improve both their retention and performance on standardized tests. His response Kit_Carson_photograph_restoredwas as follows, “I have just the object you need. It is Kit Carson’s pipe. They’ll love it.” I swallowed, took a deep breath and replied, “That is just the kind of artifact that we cannot use. It is not a ‘teachable object.’ The fact that Kit Carson possessed it makes it a novelty, not an object for the focus of a lesson.” The curator was upset. He did not understand the difference between an object that might be in a museum exhibition and a “teachable object” that can be used in a classroom to open the past to students in engaging and challenging ways.

So, what is a “teachable object”? There are several criteria, but the first, and most important, is that the object must contain the potential to raise important historical ideas (self-sufficiency, changing values, enduring traditions for example). Kit Carson’s pipe does not have that potential. At best, it shows us that Kit Carson was a smoker and that he preferred pipes. This is not earth-shattering stuff, nor does it contain much historical significance. Smoking was common in the 19th century. Pipes were preferred as neither cigarettes nor cigars were readily available. Kit Carson’s pipe doesn’t open any doors to the past for us. If not his pipe, then what object(s) that Kit Carson owned might meet our basic criterion?

Kit Carson was a fur trapper. One of his beaver traps would serve to open the door to the exploration of the beaver trade in the 183os and ’40s. In addition, like 40% of all fur trappers, he married Native American (Arapaho and Cheyenne) women, and one Hispanic woman. To Carson’s credit, he was only married to one woman at a time. Any gift given to Carson by any of his wives Beaver Trapopens the door to the multicultural nature of the American Southwest, a place where French, Spanish, Native Americans and Anglo Europeans mixed and mingled. Kit Carson’s military uniform allows students to explore the role of the US military in the settling of the West as well as the nature of “Indian Removal.” Unbeknownst to most teachers, nearly every Native American society experienced removal from their homeland to a remote and unfamiliar region. Carson led the Navajos to the Bosque Redondo as part of his role as Indian Agent, scout, and military leader.

The second criterion for a “teachable object” is that it should excite students’ interest in the topic at hand. It should draw them into the larger story. Certainly Carson’s uniform has that characteristic. “Kit Carson’s Coat,” currently part of the Colorado Historical carson-coatSociety’s collection at the Baca House in Trinidad, Colorado, also has the potential to grab students’ interest. It looks as if it were made by Native Americans, but it is machine stitched. It is decorated with Native American symbols, but was produced in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Finally, no one knows if Carson ever wore it. The traditional story is that he owned the coat and gave it to a friend, but there is no proof of ownership on either end of that transaction. So, what larger story does the “Kit Carson Coat” offer? The most valuable lesson today, I think, is that the American Southwest was a messy place where people of many cultures mixed and openly borrowed from each other. Kit Carson’s military uniform, Kit Carson’s “coat,” Kit Carson’s medicine pouch, Kit Carson’s beaver traps open the door to larger questions, and greater stories than the man himself. They are  teachable objects. Kit Carson’s Pipe is not.

To see more teachable objects, go to Artifacts Teach at



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“As the pace of scientific discovery and innovation accelerates, there is an urgent cultural need to reflect thoughtfully about these epic changes and challenges. The challenges of the twenty-first century require new interdisciplinary collaborations, which place questions of meanings and values on the agenda.”                               William Grassie


As tools for teachers, artifacts possess characteristics that beg their use in the classroom. We should probably spell artifacts with three “I’s” because artifacts are inherently interdisciplinary, intellectually engaging, and instructionally sound.  Here’s what I mean.

Because humans created them, all artifacts contain “purpose.” They were made to do something: fix a drain, chop down a tree, carry water, stir soup, connect wires… This underlying cause for its existence connects every artifact to each of the major academic disciplines. Briefly, each artifact had to be designed (math, science, art), constructed (math, science, language arts), applied waywiser(sociology, language arts, history), evaluated for its effectiveness (math, science, sociology, history, language arts), modified (match, science, language arts) and stored for future use (anthropology, history). As an example, let’s use a fairly common item, a waywiser. This is a wheel attached to a rod with a forked end (like the front tube on a bicycle). Attached to the fork is an assembly that counts one full revolution of the wheel. A waywiser is used to measure distances. The circumference of the wheel is a standard measure, usually one yard or one meter. The waywiser counts the number of meters/yards in a straight line so that the operator knows immediately the distance covered. It is a simple device, yet it is a very important device. Here is how a teacher from each discipline might use a waywiser in a classroom, after having the students analyze  and determine what the object might be and how it might be used:

Math: a waywiser is a practical application of the principles of pi, diameter, and circumference. For younger students, a waywiser teaches circles, arcs, and measurements of size. Its applications apply to basic math, algebra and geometry.

Science: our waywiser provides accurate measurements of distance. Crime Scene Investigators (CSI’s) use waywisers to measure stopping distances in order to determine the speed and stopping time of vehicles. Physics instructors working in speed, velocity, and its gravitational effects require accurate straight-line distance measurements. Waywisers are used to obtain those measurements.

Language Arts: our waywiser can be used as the key element in creative short-stories, descriptive essays, and persuasive pieces that require conclusions based on evidence. Writing prompts might include, “Describe the use of a waywiser in law enforcement,” or “Write a persuasive essay  in which the accuracy of a waywiser measurement is the key element in your argument,” or “Write a creative short story in which the operator of a waywiser is the central character in solving a crime.” Providing a prompt as simple as, “Write clear, concise  instructions for using this waywiser so that any operator would be able to read your directions, pick up the waywiser and be successful in its operation,” provides an additional opportunity for young writers.

Social Sciences: for historians, an assignment might be to research how the design of the waywiser has changed over time, and why. Teachers might begin with the hint that a waywiser was used to measure and calculate the base of the Great Pyramids at Giza. What other applications might students find through historical research? Anthropology and sociology teaches can look at the application of the waywiser in building other sites, as well as the societal organization required to complete projects of monumental size.

Most certainly, introducing the waywiser as a problem to solve, “What is this?”, followed by discipline-specific questions, “How does this demonstrate the math principles we have been studying?”, “How is this object significant in our approach to the physics of An Apple composed by several fruitsvelocity and gravity?”, and so on, provides a new and engaging element in your repertoire of classroom practices. By now, you should be asking, where do I get one of these things, how big is it, and how much does it cost?  You can go out and purchase one of these items for $85 to $125, load it into your car, carry it to your classroom, use it,  store it somewhere and do it all again next time you teach the topic, OR you can go to, subscribe to their site, and get a waywiser and dozens of other interdisciplinary teaching tools for the same price. It would seem far more wise to do the latter rather than the former.

Next time, we will demonstrate how artifacts are intellectually engaging and instructionally sound. For now, remember that in every major discipline, ARTIFACTS TEACH.





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Our last entry concentrated on using artifacts as an introduction to a lesson. Let’s look at how to use an artifact as the focus of a lesson. We’ll look at how to employ artifacts as the centerpiece of the lesson through the lens of four disciplines.

For Language Arts teachers, using an artifact comes most naturally. Placing the artifact in the students’ hands and asking them to write a creative essay about finding the piece, or using it, or describing the journey of the artifact into the classroom both engages Screenshot 2014-06-10 16.10.02students immediately, and offers them a tangible basis for their stories. One might use a bottle of patent medicine from the turn of the 20th century. Prompts for students might be “Write a story about who might use this medicine and for what reasons.” Another good storyline would be, “Write a story about finding this bottle of medicine in your grandmother’s pantry, and asking her how she used it as a cure for your father’s ills while growing up.” You could also write an argumentative essay calling for a ban on “home remedies” that contained more than 70% alcohol. Finally, you might ask students to write a creative essay about waiting in line to receive your “weekly dose” of the family’s “cure-all.”


For Science teachers, listing and looking up the ingredients used in making “Pepto-Mangan” would lead to an interesting discussion of chemicals, their interaction and palliative effects. It could also lead to an effective scientific discussion of regulation of items by Chemical-Element-Symbols-1690506the Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, science teachers could correlate these ingredients with those in the herbal, over-thecounter products offered in health stores today. Scientific vocabulary can be supported in defining the differences among solutions, amalgams and emulsion. Such a discussion might include identifying “Pepto-Mangan” as an emulsion, and providing the scientific basis for its classification.

For Math teachers, the percentages of each ingredient used to compound “Pepto-Mangan” provide a “real-world” approach to using the principles of math in daily life. For younger students, shapes are an shapesimportant mathematical concept. How many different shapes comprise the bottle (including the cap) and its labeling? Hexagons, circles, and rectangles abound in this artifact.

For Social Studies teachers, this artifact can lead into a discussion of the need for a Food and Drug Act in 1906. It can be used in economics to discuss labeling, marketing and individualization. Why for instance, is this bottle hexagonal, not cylindrical? The wording used in the labeling can be examined in sociology Food and Drug Actand history classes to uncover trends at the turn-of-the-century. History teachers can utilize this object in the study of technology, the story of medicine, or a comparison with today’s ideas and products surrounding health and health remedies.

All of this leads to the most basic and fundamental reason for using artifacts in ANY CLASSROOM: Artifacts engage students immediately. Artifacts provide an avenue for exploration and analysis. Which would you prefer in math class, a worksheet of percentage calculations, or a percentage exercise based on a real-world object, one that has a notorious past as well? In science, which is better, a written definition and explanation, or a hands-on experience with a product that employs the principles involved in the lesson? Artifacts open the door to creative thinking and problem solving. Artifacts engage students. Artifacts are adaptable across disciplines. Because they are made by humans, they are interdisciplinary by their very nature.





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In the simplest fashion, there are three principal uses of artifacts in the classroom.: as the introduction to a unit or a lesson, as the focus of the unit or lesson, or as the assessment for the unit or lesson. These three approaches remain the same regardless of your location, subject matter, or adherence to a set of common standards. Artifacts are the most accommodating of the outside sources you might use to teach.

want to succeedBecause each artifact was created for a purpose, it bears an important relationship to humanity. It would not exist without human activity. Because it was human-created, it remains the construct of human thought, intention and form. As a result, we can use artifacts to teach any subject that deals with thoughts, ideas, forms, goals, objectives, success, failure and on and on. Every classroom teacher can use artifacts to teach his/her class. You simply have to want to do so.

Let’s look at using an artifact as the introduction to a unit or a lesson. Let’s say that you are an elementary teacher and your next lesson is about circles, squares, rectangles and triangles. Why not use an artifact? I am a historian, so my artifacts are always from the past. I have access via to a six pound mortar round from the Civil War that has been cut in half. I would use this item in the following fashion:Screenshot 2014-05-29 14.21.35

FIRST: I would bring it up on the monitors in the computer lab, or on a Smart Board in the classroom, and ask the students to observe the object and to write a description of the artifact. (The object is round. It contains other round objects, some conical objects and some triangular pieces.)

SECOND: I would have the students share their answers either in pairs or in groups of three or four. They would be asked to combine all of their answers to form one common description of the object. Each group would then be asked to share their description with the rest of the class.Students in Group

THIRD: As the descriptions emerged, I would write them on the board. When all the descriptions had been presented, as a class we would find the common words among the descriptions. The common words that have emerged in the past have been “round,” “big,” “little,” “boxes” and “tents.” This leads directly into your lesson on shapes. The students have already discovered them, described them in their own words, and attached meaning to them. Your job has just become easier. All you need to do is to attach the accepted terms to their descriptions and your lesson is complete. You have taught shapes to elementary students and much more.

When you look at the pedagogy here, you have not only taught geometric patterns, but also creative thinking, analysis, synthesis, Keys to 21st century skillscommunication, cooperative decision-making, and drawing conclusions. Not bad for a lesson that took less than 5 minutes to prepare!!! Further, you have set up your class for even more learning with math and vocabulary involving circumference, radius, and diameter. You can compare the size of items. You can compare the shape of items. You can count items. You can measure them. All of this occurs within one lesson plan that takes less than five minutes to prepare!!! Artifacts are like that.

Artifacts give you the edge in the classroom. They allow you to teach the important skills while engaging students at the same time. It doesn’t matter what grade level you teach, either. The same half-shell can be used in a Middle School history class to teach the Civil War, a High School chemistry class to discuss compounds and chemical reactions, or a High School math class to teach the geometry, algebra or calculus of trajectories, force and mass. Language Arts teachers at all levels can use the half-shell as the introduction to creative story-telling or descriptive writing. ARTIFACTS GIVE YOU THE EDGE IN THE CLASSROOM.

Regardless of your grade level, your subject matter, or your required standards: ARTIFACTS TEACH.


In the last entry, I outlined the philosophical basis for using everyday things – artifacts – to teach science. Now, we are going to move into the classroom and talk about specific lessons you can employ.

Let’s be clear about what “science” is. Scientific study consists of two parts: CONTENT and PROCESS. “Content” is comprised of Image-Atom-Sciencethe facts, principles, laws, theories and hypotheses that we normally think of when the term “science” is used. Newton’s Laws of Motion, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the principle of refraction, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution all fall into the area of science “content.” In the “process” category would fall the observations, scientificmethod.jpgexperimentation, imagination, critical thinking, and prediction that are associated with the “Scientific Method.” In science, artifacts provide the “stuff” of process to examine and explore the “stuff” of content. Without an object for observation, the “process” is useless. Without the process of examination and experimentation, the object remains unknowable.

For our first classroom example, let’s look at a pencil. It is a common tool with which students of all ages are familiar. What content could you explore if you placed a No. 2 wooden pencil in front of a group of 4 students? Most certainly the 500. pencilsprinciples of measurement, not only inches, millimeters, and centimeters, but also circumference, diameter and mass would be the simplest content here. Higher grades might explore types of solutions (“What is that black stuff in the middle?”), or friction (How do erasers work?), or bonding (What keeps the center from falling out?). Advanced students can explore more sophisticated content: add a No. 4 and a No. 6 pencil to the mix. Ask what content explains the differences they can discern through process. A simple tool, the common wooden pencil evokes the process that leads students to the discovery of science content.

Let’s use a simple toy, a marble, for our second example. Once again, measurement is the key principle here. However, the measurements are different. They are not linear. Circles and spheres along with size and volume are more pertinent. Again, upper grades and advanced students can deal with more difficult questions. “What are the properties of spheres?” “How do marblemarbles demonstrate Newton’s Laws of Motion?” What do the terms, “clear,” “opaque,” and “marbled” mean? “How did the ‘Cat’s Eye’ get in there, anyway?”  In another class, you might create an entire activity involving different sizes of marbles to examine and demonstrate Newton’s Laws of Motion. Regardless, we have a simple object, one common to most households that becomes the focus of the process in order to clarify, explain and understand the content of science.

Finally, let’s use a coffee cup or a teacup. What content can students learn here using the scientific process? We have a more complex item, one that contains partial spheres or ellipses, with straight lines intersecting round surfaces. There are volumes to Coffee-Cupmeasure, and the transfer of heat and cold to consider. The composition and design is important to the purpose as well. From the earliest grade levels to students involved in chemistry and physics, a coffee cup provides the means to study the content of science.

The problem that the coffee cup presents for you is the same for all objects. How long before a student breaks the item? What is the cost of replacement? Will the others in the teachers lounge discover that you “borrowed” the broken-coffee-mugcup from them for the class? Objects can be expensive, difficult to replace or time-consuming to find. What if you could choose from an unlimited number of objects for your students to examine? What if your students could manipulate them without the fear of breaking or damaging them? What if an unlimited number of virtual objects were available for the cost of 4 artifacts you might purchase for your classroom?

We know that artifacts engage, excite, entertain and teach. We know that objects – simple everyday items – can be used to convey both the process and the content of science. We know that objects are tools we can use, because we know that