Using Material Culture to Understand the Past

Using Material Culture to Understanding History

We had some guest visitors to our summer camp at the Springfield Armory historic site yesterday. Reba Jean and her daughter, Piper, are both historians, who conduct immersive workshops with students as a way to teach them about the past. She calls this “material culture,” as in the objects from the past can bring to the surface the stories of the people who lived in a certain time.

A little research on this term, which was new to me, showed me that this is a common historical concept.

Material culture is the physical aspect of culture in the objects and architecture that surround people. It includes usage, consumption, creation, and trade of objects as well as the behaviors, norms, and rituals that the objects create or take part in. The term is commonly used in archaeological and anthropological studies, specifically focusing on the material evidence that can be attributed to culture in the past or present.

Material culture studies is an interdisciplinary field that tells of the relationships between people and their things: the making, history, preservation, and interpretation of objects. It draws on both theory and practice from the social sciences and humanities such as art history, archaeology, anthropology, history, historic preservation, folklore, literary criticism and museum studies, among others. Anything from buildings and architectural elements to books, jewelry, or toothbrushes can be considered material culture. — via Wikipedia

Since we are exploring World War 2 and women at the home-front (when men went to war, the women of Springfield were recruited in neighborhoods to work in the Armory, disrupting families and forever altering the social fabric of the city), Reba Jean and Piper presented our young writers with objects and stories of the time period. It was fascinating to watch our middle school campers come to learn about rations, and gender expectations, and the sacrifices of children.

They held a jar of recycled aluminum foil balls that would be donated to the war effort, fingered old sugar and food cloth sacks that were used to repair socks when other materials were not available, smelled the old rubber tire used for soles of shoes, read comic books with superheroes fighting for the Allies, and more.

The most powerful stories came from the objects of her own father-in-law, who had inscribed into his tin water cup the many places he fought in the trenches in WW2 but never talked about at home. She also had a recovered bayonet from Germany that her father-in-law brought home, not as a souvenir of war but as a reminder of childhood. Inside the bayonet casing, you can smell the mix of oil and materials that evoked the smell of crayons, and she said her father-in-law and other soldiers would smell that smell when they were scared or lonely or homesick. All of us in the room took a sniff, experiencing what he also smelled as the war raged around him.

Our Own Rosie

Finally, a student volunteer was “dressed” to resemble the famous Rosie the Riveter image of WW2 home-front, with the student nearly falling over with all of the “stuff” Rosie had to carry to stay strong at home.

Overall, our campers learned so much, through the touching and exploring of the “material objects” which brought the stories of the past to the surface in tangible and important ways.

This is the second year of our Minds Made for Stories project, which is funded by the Mass Humanities organization with support by the National Writing Project and the National Park Service. I am the head facilitator of the camp through my work with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, and our student campers all come from a social justice magnet school in our main urban center, Springfield, Massachusetts.

Peace (from the past),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: Inquisitive Kids at Writing Camp

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

You may know this feeling if you have ever imagined and then brought to reality a writing camp in the summer. In the hour before camp starts, you wonder: will anyone actually come? They signed up. But will they get out of bed and get here? And then, they do arrive, and you realize, this was a great idea!

That was me, and my colleagues, yesterday, as middle school kids arrived at the Springfield Armory Historical Site for our week-long free summer writing camp. It was a relief that they showed up.

And then we had a fantastic day of looking through and writing about primary source images from the Armory’s history, touring the historic buildings on the grounds of the site, learning about innovation exhibits on the museum floor, and pretending to be innovators in the manufacturing of a “lock plate.”

What great campers! What a great day!

And today, we get to write and to explore once again.

This is the second year of our Minds Made for Stories project, which is funded by the Mass Humanities organization with support by the National Writing Project and the National Park Service. I am the head facilitator of the camp through my work with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, and our student campers all come from a social justice magnet school in our main urban center, Springfield, Massachusetts.

Peace (from the past to the future),
Kevin

 

The Start of a National Parks Historic Site Summer Camp

Welcome to Springfield Armory Camp.001

We have the snacks.

Armory Camp Snacks

We have the notebooks, pencils and writing materials.

Armory Camp Supplies

And now, we’re off to start the first day of our Minds Made for Stories summer camp at the Springfield Armory, a National Parks Historic Site, where we will explore stories, and primary sources, and social justice issues.

This is the second year of our Minds Made for Stories project, which is funded by the Mass Humanities organization with support by the National Writing Project and the National Park Service. I am the head facilitator of the camp through my work with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, and our student campers all come from a social justice magnet school in our main urban center, Springfield, Massachusetts.

Peace (digging into the past),
Kevin

 

Chalk Talk: Learning Beyond the Curriculum

Chalk Talk June 2018

I wrote a piece that was published this past week in the local newspaper about some activities for our sixth graders at our school that seem to fall outside of our traditional curriculum, but which still have a huge impact on the learning for our students.

This column, which honors the work of colleagues at my school, is part of a regular feature our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has in partnership with our local regional newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette. Each month, WMWP teachers are featured as columnists.

Read Of Archers, Actors and Artists

and read the Chalk Talk archives for other pieces from WMWP teachers

Peace (is how we learn),
Kevin

Summer Camp Design: Student Explorations of Past, Present, Future

Minds Made for Stories Summer Camp Mission StatementI am in the second year of facilitating a free summer camp for inner city middle school students at our local National Historic Site — the Springfield Armory. This project is funded through Mass Humanities foundation, with support from the National Park Service and the National Writing Project.

Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project, of which I am a member, is the lead organization, but there are all sorts of interesting partnerships that have emerged from this adventure. Our partner school — Duggan Middle Academy — is a social justice-themed expeditionary magnet school in Springfield, Massachusetts.

This weekend, I worked with the other teachers to complete the design of our free summer camp, which takes place at the Armory itself. Our theme this year is the World War Two Homefront, and we will be tackling issues of women in the workforce and segregation of the military (Double V) and innovation and technology at the Armory.

We’ve worked on a mission statement to guide our design, and I think it does a nice job of capturing what we are planning, which is an immersive, hands-on experience with history, told through the stories that will emerge from the vast archives of primary sources available at the Springfield Armory. This statement guides our planning work.

I took our statement and tinkered with Lumen5 to create this:

Peace (and perspectives),
Kevin

 

At Middleweb: Raising Teacher Voices

My latest column for Middleweb is all about a publishing project we do at our Western Massachusetts Writing Project, in which we partner with the local newspaper to feature a teacher columnist every month.

The result is some amazing writing and sharing, a chance to raise teacher voices into the public sphere, and a raising of the profile of WMWP. We encourage our teacher-writers to bring a lens into learning and teaching, and to consider how the mission statement of WMWP might be a guide for this writing.

So, it’s all good.

I coordinate the program, so I am often chatting with teachers about their writing, and making sure the connection with the newspaper stays strong. And I get inspired by what my colleagues are exploring in their pieces.

All of the columns get posted at our WMWP website, as archived voices and stories.

Read Raising Teacher Voices in our Community Media

Peace (out loud),
Kevin

Making Music in Colleagues’ Google Classrooms

Cell Music Analogy Project

We’re more than half-way through a professional development session on learning how to best use Google Classroom. The session is being run by my colleague, Tom Fanning, from the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. I’ve been using Google Classroom since the start of the year, but I asked our district to consider PD for other teachers, since I was getting a lot of inquiry from colleagues about how it works and why use it.

The session has nearly 20 teachers from our entire school district, and Tom has us making pilot Google Classroom spaces, inviting each other in as small groups of “students” to play the role of learner.

John Coltrane Jazz Project

My group has three other elementary teachers, and as I was working on their assignments — a cell analogy project, a state history project and a notable African American biography (and mine is a Parts of Speech project) — I decided to keep to a common theme of music across my work.

Taj Mahal BluesMan Project

My cell analogy project used a musical score as the point of comparison. I chose Taj Mahal as the Massachusetts history project, since he is the state Blues Artist. And I researched John Coltrane’s musical legacy for the biography project.

Look. Google Classroom is a fantastic work management tool that my students enjoy using and which has certainly made my work as a teacher a whole lot easier. It’s also clearly another finger reaching out to grab more Google users. We talked about this in our PD session and I talk about it with my students. Google wants to nurture young eyeballs for later in life, when it can target them for advertising, and make money. To think otherwise is to delude ourselves.

For now, I see more positives on our end than negatives with our dive into Google Classroom, but it’s always important to keep the larger perspectives in focus, on what we give up when we use free technology with our students. I’m glad we addressed and debated Google’s mission and motives in our PD. We can all move forward, knowing to some degree what we and our students are getting into.

Peace (in the rooms of music),
Kevin

In the Newspaper: Game Design Sparks Student Writing

Chalk Talk Game Project

The local newspaper published a column that I wrote about our sixth grade video game design unit, and how I use what we do as a way to encourage more writing out of my students, in different genres and different audiences.

The column is part of a monthly series of teacher-written pieces that come from a partnership between our Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I coordinate that project — helping WMWP teachers develop ideas and coordinating the contact between teacher writers and newspaper editors — and every now and then, I write, too.

Since the Gazette has a paywall, we have permission to move all of our pieces to our WMWP website. It also allows us to archive all of our teacher writing for the Chalk Talk series.

Read The Games They Make

Peace (in the write),
Kevin

 

The Power of Student Voice (Sydney Chaffee Keynote)

It’s taken a few weeks, but I finally got around to editing video footage from our Western Massachusetts Writing Project‘s fall conference keynote address by Sydney Chaffee, a Massachusetts educator who is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year. Sydney’s keynote speech centered on how to encourage student voice, and how to spark a love of words and language.

I hope you can watch her talk. Be sure to listen to the spoken poem of one of her students — Omar — whose performance of his poem caught the attention of our former state commissioner of education (he passed away earlier this year), who shared Omar’s poem with educators around the state and beyond, and apparently even performed Omar’s poem a few times himself.

Peace (shout it loud),
Kevin

Meeting Up in St. Louis … and Making the Path Forward

Elyse at NWP

She made the best of the situation. No surprise there. National Writing Project Executive Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl worked the large crowd of hundreds of NWP educators and leaders at our annual meeting yesterday here in St. Louis, Missouri, by keeping to the script of a traditional Plenary Address — a celebration of the work and spirit of the 180 writing projects sites across the country.

Just as we have done every other year (see annual report).

We heard stories from the stage about the impact of the writing project. We were mesmerized by stories of three outstanding educators who took part in the Holocaust Educator Network, and then returned to their schools to engage their students in powerful discussions of social justice and equity. One of those teachers dazzled the audience with a spoken poem addressed to a parent concerned about the teaching social justice in schools.

All this came as inspiration and celebration, even as Eidman-Aadahl  acknowledged that the federal SEED funds that have supported the work of the writing project has disappeared, and the NWP itself is shrinking. The main office is dwindling in staff, whom we gave a rousing standing round of applause for, to show our collective appreciation for the work they have done and do behind the scenes on many projects.

NWP won’t be disappearing, but it will be smaller than it probably ever was since it was first founded on the campus of Berkley in the 1970s, and began to spread out, thanks to the energy and vision of founder Jim Gray. Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project site is nearly 25 years old.

WMWP Cohort at NWP Annual Meeting

“We are not closing shop, by any means,” Eidman-Aadahl told us. “We’ll still be here. You’ll still be here.”

What happens next is not exactly known, but it follows the trajectory of the wave of Republicanism in this country: cut the top level of everything (even if it causes disruption and chaos) and let the local community determine what survives and what doesn’t. (I don’t agree with that political rhetoric but it’s hard to ignore that’s what’s happening.)

“The future of your (writing project) site is in your hands. The future of our network is in your hands,” Eidman-Aadahl said, and I thought of the guiding philosophy of “teachers teaching teachers” as what might continue to guide us forward. “Walk towards your purpose. We will get through.”

And then she left us with a challenge. The National Writing Project is celebrating its 44th year this year. She wants us to be around to celebrate its 50th year in six years from now (maybe, this writer says to himself, a new president and administration will realize the impact of NWP on the quality of education in this country. Hmmm.)

So, she said, what about a “50 for 50” campaign of some sort. Local sites can determine what that might mean. Maybe it’s 50 new leaders at the site in six years. Maybe 50 new writing resources developed. Maybe 50 classrooms reached. Maybe 50 testimonials to the reach of the writing project.

50 for 50 … we can do this.

Peace (in St. Louis),
Kevin