Hands-On History

Monticello 28feb2013 JLooney-0250

© 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.

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.

350 for 50

350 for 50 typewriter popWe are delighted to announce the winners of this year’s 350 for 50 contest! An author from three age categories was challenged to write a 350-word story that included the sentence, “There was a rattling noise.” Enjoy!


Sleepless, the Squirrel
By Samantha Gunton, age 10

Sleepless the Squirrel_artwork by Aliisa Lee My eyelids open. I look out the window to see what’s making the noise; three kids in a snowball fight. I get out of bed and put on my slippers. Groggily, I walk down the hallway and out my front door.

“Hey! You’re trespassing!”

The kids don’t even glance my way. I watch as a boy with bad aim throws a snowball at MY tree, which doubles as my house. Grr – how am I going to get rid of them? You know, I wouldn’t have to deal with this if it weren’t for my real estate agent, Larry…

“It’s a great deal!” Larry had exclaimed, “No human beings will bother you!” Regretfully, I had believed him.  Now, I was awake during hibernation. I needed to visit Professor LeNut, the genius, to see whether he could help. I hopped to Professor LeNut’s house and knocked on his bedroom door.

“Hello? You awake?”
There was a rattling noise. What was that?

“Ughh…is it spring yet?” the professor moaned.

“You’re awake! Good. I need your help.” Professor LeNut finished putting his retainer back in its case (that was the rattling sound) and turned to me. “You see those humans out there? I can’t get them to leave.  I need to hibernate.”

“First of all, WHY IN THE NAME OF WALNUTS DID YOU WAKE ME UP?!! Second, just pretend you have rabies. And lastly, how were you able to wake me?? It’s physically impossible to be awoken during hibernation. So either this is a dream or -”

Cutting him off, I said “Thanks!” and ran out. Once outside, I squeaked my way to the smallest kid and started foaming at the mouth.

The little humans got it, shouting, “Rabid squirrel!” They dashed away. I ran like my tail was on fire back to my tree house bedroom. I collapsed on the bed, closed my eyes and thought, “When I wake up, it better be Spring. If not…Larry, you’re going to get it!”


The Last Cabin_artwork by Aliisa LeeThe Last Cabin
By Hugo Kim, age 11

There was a rattling noise. The sound appeared to come from the front door, thought the last man on earth. Two months earlier, the man came to this remote cabin up state to shut the world out and finish his first novel. The cabin didn’t have an address for mail, TV, telephone, or any connection to the civilized world. Disconnected to civilization, he busily typed away on his manual typewriter. He was almost done. Tomorrow, he planned to drive forty miles the nearest post office to drop off his manuscript to a publisher.

What this man didn’t know was that a terrible epidemic had swept around the world. Somehow, a virulent strain of avian flu had combined with a lethal swine flu, mutating into a deadly pandemic. Scientists who discovered this flu called it N8H9 and it was spread through tiny droplets when people coughed.  The incubation period lasted a week. N8H9 was highly contagious and completely resistant to all types of antivirals. In just forty-three days, the entire world’s population had ceased to exist.

He heard the sound again. This time, he could hear someone turning the doorknob. The man got up and walked to his front door. No one knew about this place, so how could he have a visitor? He unlocked the door and opened it. Standing outside was a beautiful woman. She looked very pale and tired. The man asked if he could help the woman. She came closer as if to say something very important. The man leaned close to her face to hear what the last woman on earth had to say. He felt it was going to be something very, very important. That’s when the woman coughed.


The Dragon Princess
By Angelina Han, age 14

The Dragon Princess_artwork by Aliisa LeeThere was a rattling noise beginning somewhere deep inside the dragon’s chest, softening into a delighted clicking sounds and a low purr as the girl tickled the soft skin underneath his chin. The dragon rolled onto his back, spraying green fire from his nostrils for the girl’s amusement. The girl clapped and chortled, running around on her short legs. “Dragon!” The girl babbled, laughing. “Good dragon!” Her tightly curled hair bobbed in tandem with her small white dress. The dragon tilted his head to the side, pondering the strange little creature. He’d never seen anything like this before, and what were those noises she was making? It didn’t matter. He liked her already, and with a swoop of his great golden wings, he picked her up. She squealed with happiness as she flew for the first time, oblivious to the shouts below and the crown that had fallen off of her head into the dewy grass. The dragon carried her to his nest, and she stayed there with him.

Fourteen summers had tumbled by with laughing footsteps and constellation-filled nights when the girl and the dragon returned again to the spot where they had first met so long ago, though neither knew it. The girl had grown into lovely young lady with golden ringlets looping down her back, and she had all but forgotten her brief time with the humans. The dragon was her father now, and they communicated in sounds that dragons used. As they walked silently through the field still hung with morning dew, the girl tripped over an object that lay half sunken and long forgotten in the mud. She picked it up curiously, and it glinted in the rising sun like the dragon’s scales. A silver crown, bent and tarnished with moss crawling over it in spongy strands. A memory came to port on the foggy sea of her consciousness, and the girl slowly lifted the crown to her head.

“Dragon,” she whispered, her lips struggling to form the once-familiar words. She smiled at the dragon, who looked at her with large iridescent eyes. “Good dragon.”


Artwork by Aliisa Lee