Hands-On History

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© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photo by Jack Looney.

For me, literacy education encompasses both fiction and non-fiction subjects. I’ve already chronicled some of my adventures in science (check out these posts on chemistry and Rube Goldberg engineering, these projects on butterflies, buoyancy, and creative construction, and this science kit review by our kid tester). Today, however, I want to focus on history and relate a fantastic hands-on experience that inspired me over 14 years ago.

In 2001, I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, happily enrolled in a “Museums and Education” class taught by Professor John Bunch. Part of the class was lecture-based, but another part class involved field trips to various museums and historic sites to get a tour and learn more about their educational programs. Once such field trip was to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in the beautiful mountains surrounding Charlottesville, Virginia.

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© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Monticello has a very active roster of programs for adults and children alike, but I want to share one ingenious activity my class was invited to experience during our tour. The activity is intended for elementary school group visitors to Monticello.

The activity begins with the students sitting in groups at tables. Each table is given a recreated “historic pocket” (it could be a leather wallet, a burlap bag, an embroidered linen pouch, a basket, etc.). Inside each pocket are various objects representing items that the pocket’s owner would have used in his or her daily life at Monticello. Students are invited to examine the objects (touching is not just permitted, it’s encouraged!). Then they engage in a discussion with a Monticello staff member to determine: 1) What the objects are; 2) How they were used; and 3) What the objects tell about the person who owned them.

Here’s an image of Jefferson’s recreated historic pocket:

TJ.Pocket

© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Pocket contents include:

Brass sealing stamp
Money (both paper and coin)
Ivory Notecards
Folding spectacles
Map of land holdings
Traveling quill set

From examining these objects, the students learn that Jefferson was literate, wealthy, and the owner of the plantation. They’ve learned it by touching and exploring the objects – holding a quill pen, looking at a map, jingling replica coins in their hands.

Even better, the educators at Monticello don’t just offer one pocket. They have several! In addition to Thomas Jefferson’s pocket, students explore recreated pockets representing members of Thomas Jefferson’s family, including his children and grandchildren, and members of the enslaved plantation community, such as Edith Fossett and her husband, Joseph Fossett.  By exploring a variety of pockets, students can compare and contrast the lives of different individuals, and the various roles they played at Monticello.

Here, for example, is the Fossett Family pocket, which represents Edith Fossett, Joseph Fossett, and their children:

FossettFamilyPocket

© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Pocket contents include:

Clay marbles
Metal s-hooks
Steel striker (use with flint)
Jaw harp
Coin money pieces
Spoon
Nails
Beans
Cowry Shells

Students learn that Edith and Joseph Fossett were slaves at Monticello – Edith was chief cook, trained in French cookery at the President’s House in Washington D.C., and Joseph was foreman of the blacksmith shop. Being slaves, they were not paid for their work. So why are there some small coin pieces in the pocket?

Interestingly, Joseph Fossett received a small portion of the blacksmith shop’s profits, and sometimes took paid work on the side.  Joseph Fossett was one of only five slaves freed in Thomas Jefferson’s will and started a business in Charlottesville.  Using money he earned, he was eventually able to buy his wife and some of their eight children out of slavery and move with them to the free state of Ohio.

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Students examine objects in the Grandchildren’s basket, including a family letter, sewing sampler, slate, and ball and cup toy. © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

The pocket activity is only the beginning of the students’ experience at Monticello.  Next, they proceed to the house and grounds, often hearing the names of the people whose pockets they explored. The activity is very flexible and portable. Staff have taken it off site to schools and teacher training sessions.

Depending on class size and time constraints, classes will rotate to different spaces within the Education Center, exploring a different pocket—and new individual—in every room. Currently, the educational staff are taking the pocket idea and experimenting with applying its hands-on, minds-on concept to entire rooms of their Education Center and Griffin Discovery Room.

It would be interesting to apply the pocket activity to literary figures. What would Jane Austin carry in her pocket? Charles Dickens? J.K. Rowling? Why not apply this concept to the sciences? What would Einstein have in his pocket? Marie Curie?

I did, in fact, do a modified version of the pocket activity when I designed this Character Book activity at my library. Not a wallet, and not replicas of historical objects, but the concept is still there! People often ask where I get my ideas (see FAQ). This one derives directly from the pocket activity.

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Character Book for Milo, The Phantom Tollbooth

I love everything about the pocket activity. Intriguing students with a bit of mystery, handling and exploring objects, allowing time for the students to postulate the answers for themselves, comparing objects across individuals, and using the objects to launch an educational dialogue about the people, places, and experiences at Monticello. It’s a powerful lesson in history, right in your hands.

This post has made me realize that I’m long overdue in writing about the other ways in which I incorporate history into my literacy programs. While I have a series of 6 classroom programs that feature my library’s special collections (you can read more about that here), I’ve also found ways to bring history to life at some of our special events (including a sign that almost stole the show, this little Medieval herbal bag, and does a 1963 recipe test for fudge count as history?).

I shall get to work on more history posts, posthaste!


Many thanks to Jacqueline Langholtz, Manager of School & Group Programs at Monticello for chatting with me about this amazing program.

All images used with permission of Monticello.

Super Sushi

super sushiToday, we’re going to Japan! This adorable sushi bar serves up a number of felt delicacies. The menu includes a pronunciation guide, so you can brush up on your Japanese while dining on maguro (mah-goo-roh) and satsuma imo (sat-soo-mah e-moh). This set was one of our most popular projects yet, with parents reporting that their children continued playing with it weeks after story time had adjourned.

We read The Way We Do It In Japan, written by Geneva Cobb Iijima, and illustrated by Paige Billin-Frye (Albert Whitman & Company, 2002). Gregory’s mom is from Kansas, and his Dad is from Japan. They live in America, but when Dad’s company transfers him to Japan, Gregory quickly learns that the two countries are very different! In Japan, they use chopsticks, pay for things with yen, drive on the other side of the road, sit on zabuton, and sleep on futons. Gregory is very worried about how he will fit in at his new school. But happily, he learns that friendship isn’t culture-dependent. Words and phrases from the Japanese language are woven into this story, with helpful pronunciation guides at the bottom of each page to aid the read-aloud experience.

You’ll need:

  • A strip of white poster board (approximately 2″ x 22″)
  • 1 corrugated cardboard base (I used a 9.75″ x 13.75″ cake pad)
  • 4 small plastic cups (mine were 3oz)
  • A selection of colored masking tape
  • 2 toilet paper tubes
  • White construction paper
  • A large rectangle of clear plastic (more on this below!)
  • A piece of light green crepe paper streamer (mine was 13″)
  • 3 paper cups
  • 1 small box (mine was 2″ x 3″ x 3″)
  • 2 rectangles of white poster board (approximately 4″ x 5.25″)
  • 2 pairs of chopsticks
  • 5 white cotton balls
  • Scraps of felt (I used yellow, orange, red, maroon, light pink, and dark pink)
  • 4 strips of green felt (approximately 1.25″ x 8.25″ each)
  • 1 sushi menu template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white paper
  • Scissors, stapler, and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

First, your headband! Decorate a strip of white poster board, circle it around your head, and staple it. Done.

headbandNow for the sushi bar! The bar has two sides: the side in which the chef prepares the food, and the side in which the customer enjoys it. Here’s what a completed sushi bar looks like:

sushi setBegin by hot gluing 4 plastic cups to the underside of the sushi bar. I glued the mouths of the cups to the underside of the base. This created a slightly tapered look to the sushi bar’s legs.

base legsFlip the base over and use colored masking tape to decorate the top of the bar (or just use markers). Wrap 2 toilet paper tubes with white construction paper, then decorate them with colored masking tape (or marker). Hot glue the tubes to the top of the base.

It’s a little hard to see in the photo below, but the tubes are glued slightly towards the back of the base (as opposed to directly in the center). This is because you want a little more room on the “dining” side of your sushi bar.

tube postsTape a piece of clear plastic to the tube posts, creating a “window” your diners look through, watching their delicious sushi being prepared.The window should face the dining side of the base.

attached windowI used a 4″ x 14.5″ piece of archival mylar (leftover from a rare books project) for my window. You can also use transparency film from an overhead projector (OfficeMax sells it), or a piece of plastic from recycled retail packaging. Another option? Tape clear cellophane or plastic wrap inside a poster board frame.

The window shouldn’t rise too far past the top of your tube post…the tape needs to extend from the top of the window down into the tube.

taped windowAfter the window is attached, slide a piece of light green crepe paper streamer along its bottom.

finished windowAt this point, I added 2 construction paper circles to the tops of the tube posts to make them look tidy, but one little boy left his tubes open and created these awesome chopstick holders. Genius!

chopsticks optionNext, cut 3 paper cups until they stand approximately 1.75″ tall. Do the same with a small box (if you don’t have a small box handy, use an additional paper cup). Hot glue the box and cups on the “preparation area” side of the base. Hot glue 2 white poster board rectangular “platters” onto the dining side.

sushi set upDrop the 6 balls of “rice” (i.e. cotton balls) into the box. Place 4 strips of “nori” (i.e. strips of green felt) in the cup next to the rice box. The 2 oval-shaped pieces of felt “sushi meat” and 4 square felt pieces of “hosomaki filling” go in the remaining 2 cups.

preparation sideFinally, color and cut the sushi menu template, and tape it to the front of your window. Your sushi bar is officially open! To make hosomaki for your diners, wrap a piece of green felt around a cotton ball, then add a square of hosomaki filling to the top. To make sushi, slightly elongate a cotton ball, and put a piece of sushi meat on top.

hosomaki and sushiInteresting aside: the green felt we used for this story time project was recycled from the Rare Books and Special Collections Department at the University. In its previous life, it was used to cover a desk owned by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. How do I recycle thee? Let me count the ways…

But back to sushi! Place the finished sushi onto the customer’s platter, and hand them a pair of chopsticks! Our project allowed kids to make 4 hosomaki and 2 pieces of sushi, but feel free to add more.

sushi setIn the process of putting this story time together, I ran across two additional books about Japan. Both are super-excellent and…non-fiction!

Hiromi’s Hands by Lynne Barasch (Lee & Low Books, 2007)
A picture book biography of Hiromi Suzuki, a woman who became one of the first female sushi chefs in New York. The story begins with Hiromi’s parents, their journey to New York, the opening of her father’s sushi restaurant, Hiromi’s growing interest in his work, and his ultimate encouragement for her to become a chef. It’s really interesting!

My Japan by Etsuko Watanabe (Kane Miller, 2009)
An absolutely adorable picture book about seven year-old Yumi and her little brother Takeshi. Through detailed drawings and Yumi’s cheerful conversational tone, we learn about her life – her house in the suburbs of Tokyo, what her family prepares in the kitchen, what her bathroom looks like, and what a school day is like. You also learn about holidays, Japanese writing, and more!

Popping Up All Over

spaceshipsWhen I started Pop Goes the Page, my goal was to share the programs and projects I do at my library, but I also wanted my readers to be able to replicate the programs and projects themselves. I love the idea that children far beyond the realms of my library are enjoying a story time or two. Today, I’d like to share three Pop-inspired programs from around the globe!

First, we’ll visit Zoe Toft and family in the UK. On her blog, Playing by the Book, Zoe describes how she adapted our flying saucer project for Space Dog by Mini Grey (Knopf Books, 2015). Her kids launched their saucers from the second-story window of their house which, in my mind, cliched Zoe as the blue ribbon winner in the “Awesome Mom” category. They also made these incredible space suits from disposable painter’s overalls!

spaceships2Next, we’ll zip over to Canada, where Polly Ross adapted our Cinderella Story dress-making program for her library’s little princesses-to-be. On her blog, Story Time and Other Exciting Things, Polly shares what she learned about running the program, and gives some sound practical advice (having done the program myself, her first suggestion still has me chuckling). Here’s a daring dress designer modeling her stupendous creation:

DSC_0003Finally, we’ll land in North Carolina, where Brytani Fraser used our PVC wands at her library’s Harry Potter birthday celebration. On her blog, The Neighborhood Librarian, she breaks down the entire program, which sounds like it was a total blast. Five activity tables! Movie soundtrack! Spelling challenges for chocolate! Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans! Here’s the wand decorating station – the flowers, the glass bowls, the moss…it’s gorgeous!

wand-stationHave you hosted a Pop-inspired program, story time, or given a project a whirl? E-mail me! I would love to see what you’ve done!


All images used with permission of Zoe Toft, Polly Ross, and Brytani Fraser.