In this challenge, students decipher as much as they can about objects from their or another community's past. Prepare for the activity by locating several historical artifacts in second-hand stores or in family storage areas or by locating pictures of artifacts that would likely have been available or used in the early days of their community (e.g., household items, tools, obscure clothing). Wherever possible, include objects from various cultural groups that have played a role in the community's history.
Introduce the activity by showing the objects and explaining that they were in use during earlier days in the community. Explain that through careful detective work, the class can learn about life in the past from these objects. You may choose to dress up like a detective (e.g., Sherlock Holmes). Assist students in exploring one of the mystery objects by asking the class to look for clues in response to the following questions:
- Who do you think would use this object? (A child? A woman? A man?)
- What is this object? (What is it made of? What features does it have?)
- Where might we find this object? (Inside? Outside? In a house? On a farm?)
- When would this object have been made? (Is it old or new?)
- Why was this object needed? (What is its purpose?)
- Is there a modern replacement?
You may want to adapt the chart and strategies for Collecting Information (Support Material) to structure and assess student generation of conclusions based on the observed clues. After students have exhausted their conclusions, explain the object, its use and, if possible, the story of how you came to have possession of it, as well as other anecdotes. Discuss the current replacement, if any, for the historical object and help students see why this object would no longer be in use.
Over the next several days, repeat this process with other historical objects that you may have assembled. Over the course of the inquiry, encourage students to bring in their own historical mystery objects (or photographs of the objects) and have the class uncover their story. You may want to send a letter home explaining this activity and inviting parents/guardians to communicate with you information and stories about the object so that you may assist their child in answering questions about the object.
Adapted from "Using Artifacts to Foster Historical Inquiry," by Linda Farr Darling, published in The Anthology of Social Studies: Issues and Strategies for Elementary Teachers, ed. Roland Case and Penney Clark (Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press, Fall 2005).