Creating Historians Part Two: The Grab Bag

You don't need to be a museum curator to bring artifacts into the classroom; part two of a series on approaching social studies as a group of historians.

By Mollie Moore


You've seen it—the brightening in every kid's eyes when you tell them that the artifact you've been holding in front of the class is going to be passed around. It's even better if you've been handling it, explaining it, giving it the care any historical relic deserves. There's just something about holding it, respecting it; first graders can take pride in this just as much as high school seniors. So, what’s stopping us from doing this more often in the classroom? I, for one, didn’t have a home full of ancient heirlooms at-the-ready (don’t those just come with a high school history classroom?) But I did discover some ways to bring primary-source and artifact analysis into the classroom to encourage learners of all ages to really think like historians. 

Create Interest with Personal Artifacts 

The first day of school, bring in a box of personal artifacts, taking them out reverently one at a time to explain the meaning behind each one. These artifacts could be an old Girl Scout sash, a movie ticket stub, a worn-in pack of cards; anything that tells your personal history and that comes with a story. This is a great way to introduce yourself in a unique way, and will set kids up to do it themselves. Take some time to discuss why historians use artifacts to learn about the past, then look around the classroom. If this room were to be preserved for 1000 years, what would historians assume about us? Assign learners their own "Personal Artifact Box" to put together and present to the class later in the week. Before everyone presents, consider pairing learners up to switch boxes. They can examine the contents and make some assumptions about their partner based on the artifacts, perhaps even taking some notes. This is also a great way to bring up the fallibility of historical artifacts; Can we really know everything from the past? 

Engage Learners with a Grab Bag

I hope you have an entire room filled with amazing relics of the past, but if you're like me and don't have anything, you may need to get creative with this activity. The Grab Bag is generally an activity I do with 11th grade US history classes to add depth to our unit on the 1940s and 1950s, but you can certainly adjust to other time periods and subjects. The idea is to put a bunch of artifacts and secondary sources into a bag, enough for one per person or one small group. If you haven't already discussed the difference between primary and secondary sources, the day prior to this activity is a great opportunity to cover this topic. It also ties in nicely with the Common Core standards for Literacy in History/Socials Studies. Once you're ready, consider arranging desks in a big circle. Place an artifact or secondary source in each kid's desk, charging them with examining it to determine what it can tell them and the rest of the class about this era. The jigsaw aspect is key, since there are too many for everyone to analyze each of them, but together they can add so much intrigue and human interest to a historical era. 

Procuring Artifacts is Easy!

This is where you need to get creative. Start with your connections. When my class studied the forties and fifties, I visited my parents' house and was able to find some amazing magazines, an old tuna can, photographs of my grandparents as teenagers, some coins, a landscaping book targeted at the Levvitt-town suburbanite crowd, and baseball cards. Your artifacts don't need to be amazing or complex; real historians can learn from even these simple things. Actually, simplicity usually draws out more critical thinking. I also put out an "ad" on Facebook, asking for authentic memorabilia from this era, promising it would be cared for and used to further the education of the next generation (sometimes you just have to pull the teacher card). Furthermore, I scoured Craigslist and found someone giving away a spectacular collection of old magazines dating from the thirties to the sixties. I also posted in the "wanted" section of craigslist and got many responses from people willing to part with their relics to be used in a history classroom. Lastly, check with your local history museum, as they will sometimes rent out artifacts for classroom use. I found that all I needed to do was express the need, and I quickly acquired more than I needed. 

Whether you are bringing in a postcard, or a woven basket made by the Chumash Indians, historical artifacts bring the past to life for all ages. 

More Ideas for Your Classroom:

Primary Sources and Personal Artifacts

Ranging from elementary to middle school, this is a fun way to make connections between personal artifacts and the history each one represents. Check out the online features in this resource, including the Primary Source Analysis tool. 

Digging up Artifacts Online

Do your young historians know historical documents can be found online? They examine primary sources on the web, evaluating historical significance and finally completing a research project. 

For the Record

Use a New York Times article and corresponding lesson to explore cultural artifacts! Learners consider the significance of their own family heirlooms, and take on the point of view of an artifact to show their understanding in an essay.