RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Sources


“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





Posted on

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



Posted on

“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.





Posted on

In previous blog entries we have established that artifacts teach what State and Common Core standards require. Further, we have demonstrated that from the moment artifacts are introduced into your classroom, they engage students of all ages in two ways: artifacts capture students’ interest (“What is this?” “How does it affect me?”); and artifacts move students immediately into higher standardslevels of thinking (analysis, synthesis, decision-making, and drawing conclusions). So, why don’t teachers employ artifacts in classrooms more often, or, at all?

There are many complex reasons for the lack of artifact-centered teaching in the classroom involving national testing, administrative expectations, pre-service training, and fixed curricula that can serve as logical answers. However, I would suggest that teachers don’t use artifacts because they feel that material culture is cumbersome, head scratch 2expensive and fragile. But, most importantly, I would suggest that teachers AT ALL LEVELS OF EDUCATION do not use artifacts because NO ONE EVER SHOWED THEM HOW to employ material culture in the classroom. Let’s rectify that major omission right now. Over the next few blog entries, we will show you how to use artifacts in math, science, Language Arts and Social Studies classrooms. We will demonstrate the use of artifacts, not only as illustrations of accepted knowledge, but also as primary sources for new insights. Let’s begin by dispelling some old myths about artifacts.

The major excuses for not using material culture to teach are that artifacts are difficult to find, expensive to obtain, and too fragile to be handled in a standard classroom situation. That may have been the case, but it is no longer. Technology has finally caught up with artifact-centered pedagogy. 3D objects are now available on-line both readily and cheaply. At there are currently 50 artifacts available, ranging from fossils to Roman coins, and from  Civil War items, searchingto drop spindles and wash boards. Ear horns, bugles, children’s toys, mocassins, water jugs, chamber pots and axes can all be found at the site. All can be manipulated in a 360 degree plane, magnified, and measured either as a class, in small groups or individually at home or in school. Certainly, ARTIFACTS ARE NO LONGER HARD TO FIND.

If one allows for Christmas Break, Spring Break and days lost to national testing, there are approximately 30 – 32 weeks of school each year. The cost of a one-year subscription to Artifacts Teach is $109. If you inexpensivewere to use one artifact per week for the year, your cost would be between $3.63 and $3.40 per week. However, at Artifacts Teach you can build a lesson that contains from one to five artifacts, so your cost is reduced to $.72 per week. USING ARTIFACTS IN THE CLASSROOM IS NO LONGER EXPENSIVE.

3D artifacts are easily accessed via As mentioned previously, you and your students can manipulate each item in a 360 degree plane, measure it, and magnify it. A complete National Archives Artifact Analysis can be conducted either as a class, in small groups, or individually just about anywhere there is Internet access. The same 3D objects can be used repeatedly without fear of wear or breaking. On-line 3D objects enter your room effortlessly. Moreover, “dangerous” or “prohibited” objects like muskets, bayonets and axes no not fragilelonger pose a threat and can be used as easily as children’s’ toys or drop spindles. ARTIFACTS ARE NO LONGER CUMBERSOME, FRAGILE OR DANGEROUS. The obstacles to using material culture in the classroom have been removed.

All that remains is to learn how to employ artifacts in your own lessons. Next time we will begin to show you how ARTIFACTS TEACH.


Posted on

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”

-Stephen R. Covey

The last characteristic of the “college and work-ready graduate” is that he/she “comes to understand other perspectives and cultures.” Artifacts automatically introduce students to cultural differences. Every artifact is a product of the culture in which it was made. We transfer our cultural ideas, norms, traditions and beliefs into the objects we make and use. Compare for instance, a mixing bowl from Polish mixing bowlPoland with one from France. Look at eating utensils from China and compare them with those from the United States. What could we decipher about culture from looking at a British board axe and a hand-axe from Washington State? How could an Easter egg from the Czech Republic reveal something about tradition and commitment in Eastern Europe? How would the patterns of a Navajo rug communicate ideas and beliefs of Southwestern culture? What would Czecha chemical analysis of concrete from a Roman aqueduct tell us about that culture? What might a painting from Saudi Arabia tell us about Islam and the relationship of man to his world? Objects are ideal tools for students to learn about other cultures.

By far, the easiest objects to place before students of any age are pieces of clothing. Textiles contain lessons for stuChinesedents in all disciplines. Mathematicians can calculate standard sizes (heights and weights) of the population  from samples of clothing. Chemists can determine the elements used in making the item, including the dyes used for color and the sources of the thread employed to construct it. Sociologists can speculate on the status of the person based on materials, design and wear. Historians can examine how an item has changed over time. Engineers might consider how objects used for the same purpose differ in composition and application. Geographers would be interested in the pattern of disbursement across the society. Artists and designers would be interested in the different applications of design, construction and color. And so it goes. By their very nature, objects provide an introduction to cultural diversity and an opportunity to develop cultural empathy.

Even within the same society, take the United States for example, objects provide for greater cultural understanding. Think of food as an object. Try placing grits in front of your students – food is an object after all. What understanding might we have of another, regional culture in our own nation if we examined grits in terms of composition, function, usage and popularity? At the same time, we corn tortillacould use the corn tortilla for the same purpose. Why not start a class with a corn tortilla? Ask, “What is this and why is it important?” and you have fodder (sorry, I could not help myself) for discussion that includes chemistry, industry, transportation, agriculture, geography and economics. The same holds true for any regional or national specialty, be it food or clothing or tools, or containers, or the structure and composition of houses. Objects take students immediately into the higher order thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, not only with the object under consideration but also with similar objects in their own experience.

Objects reveal the ideas, beliefs, practices and traditions of the societies in which they were made. That transference is inherent. We cannot avoid it. Using objects in the classroom allows students to discover and appreciate the ideas, skills, traditions and lives of others outside the walls of their schools and the limits of their neighborhoods.

Artifacts teach cultural appreciation and perspective.


Posted on

Characteristic Number Four of a “college and work-prepared” graduate is that he/she comprehends as well as critiques information. More specifically, the standards state that our graduates need to be “open-minded, but discerning, recorders and listeners who question assumptions and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of the reasoning involved.” Let’s put this into other terms. Number 4First and foremost, our graduates need to understand information presented to them, regardless of position or perspective. Once that understanding has occurred, they need to possess the ability to challenge the basic ideas that underlie the premise, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the argument presented. How in the world can an artifact – an object that is not a written document – contribute to this characteristic? Again, we need to return to the process that occurs after an instructor places the artifact in front of the class and asks, “What is this and why is it important?”

Once the questions are posed, students begin to gather evidence based on their observations of the object in front of them. In an open classroom – one that encourages participation and welcomes all ideas based on evidence – students observe the item, discuss with each other the evidence obtained, and determine a possible answer, either individually or in a group. The class then chooses the “best answer”, from those presented based on the strength of the argument derived from direct evidence. I observed a third grade instructor who placed a hoop and stick game in front of his students and asked our favorite two questions. His students immediately began to Question Markplace the objects within their frame of reference. “Does the hoop come from a barrel?” ” Is the stick used to stir?” “Is it a pointer?” “Did the hoop hold something together?” All of these were good questions and examples of the first stage of observation. Students  examined the items as individual pieces and attempted to resolve their problem with separate answers. Once their own ideas formed, they moved to the second step, and consulted each other for possible answers. Challenges to the assumptions of others came through the defense of their own ideas, or in the support of another’s suggestions that were similar to or the same as their own. The final step, the resolution of the questions, came in the form of the class determining the best answer from all those presented.

What happened in this class? In the first steps of solving the problem before them, students  almost naturally became “…discerning puzzlerecorders and listeners who question assumptions based on the soundness of the reasoning” of the arguments.” They gathered evidence, created a hypothesis based on that evidence and presented it to the group at large. The group, through individual voting, chose the “best” answer based on the strength of the evidence at hand.  I have personally observed students from first grade through AP high school classes go through this process. It is an amazing thing to watch, especially since it is repeated in essentially the same fashion, regardless of grade level.  What if we all used artifacts consistently in our classrooms? Might students have an easier time achieving this fourth requirement?

Do not be fooled here. Students go through the process, but they do not always come up with what we might think are correct or logical answers. Without some context within which to work, students can logically arrive at the dreaded, “the aliens did it,” as the answer. aliensThe process allows for the combination of what is known with what can be uncovered through observation and further consultation of sources. You, the teacher, can guide them by providing the context or by suggesting where that context can be found. Background knowledge from previous lessons, or reading in advance offer a place to begin. The artifact provides practice in the methods that teach how to question, evaluate, synthesize and come to a logical conclusion based on the evidence at hand.

Artifacts Teach – Comprehension and Critique


Posted on

Artifacts are important teaching tools. Using objects in your classroom helps students develop important intellectual skills. Working stress1-300x200with tangible things helps students to “develop a capacity for careful, critical observation of their world.”* As the 21st century progresses it seems that our lives are becoming more fast-paced and increasingly complex. Technology has provided the means for instantaneous worldwide communication, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year ’round. This is a good thing. However, technology is always a “double-edged sword.” We have less time away from work, shorter response times, and increased stress as we are expected to produce more with fewer resources.”** We have little time to stop and observe what is literally at our feet. Furthermore, our educational system simply does not train us to see many of the things in our world.

In the American educational system, there is a great deal of emphasis on helping students name and categorize the objects, items and artifacts they encounter. This process is helpful. It organizes our experiences and frees us from treating every encounter with our world as “entirely new.” Naming and numbering”are the foundation skills for language development and mathematics. Because we can name v0_mediumand number, we are free to play around with abstractions. But, it is just as important to see the world through “fresh eyes.” We need to develop the ability to look at the world in a careful and critical way. Critical observation is just as important as naming and numbering. The ability to see the world clearly and to ask good probing questions of that world is a vitally important intellectual skill. Employing artifacts in your classroom provides the opportunity for you to train your students to observe and analyze effectively.

If we were to ask, “Who was Louis Agassiz?” Most of you – dare I guess 90% – would not be able to answer correctly. However, if we had asked this question 100 years ago, 90% of the populace would have been able to identify him immediately. His name was as well-known then as Justin Bieber, Nikki Minaj, or Tom Brady today. He was the preeminent glaciologist, ichthyologist and natural scientist of the 450px-Louis_Agassiz_H219th century.Among his many professional duties was to teach at Harvard University where he trained the zoological elite of the 20th century. He had a very interesting entrance exam for his potential graduate students. He would lock each in a room with a fish or turtle or other preserved object and not release them until they had discovered “all the truth” about their object, or until they gave up in despair. (See David McCullough’s description of the Agassiz method in Brave Companions). He wanted to impress upon his students the critical nature of close observaton and analysis. His method worked. Now, we don’t recommend locking your students in a room filled with formaldehyde-soaked, prehistoric fish, but you can teach the same lesson – and more – by using artifacts regularly in your classroom.

When you place an artifact in front of students and ask, “What is this?”, you immediately engage them in higher order thinking. As they examine the object , they continue through the stages of critical thinking: analysis, discovery, identification, classification, and thinterpretation. As they work through this intellectual exercise, they naturally form learning groups, share information and develop leadership and communications skills.* Artifacts fascinate. Artifacts engage. Artifacts Teach.

*Shuh, John Hennigar. “Teaching Yourself to Teach with Objects.” Journal of Education. Volume 7, No. 4, 1992.

U.S. Department of Commerce. Washington D.C. The Effects of Communication on Job Productivity and Response. U.S. Government Printing Office, 2010.