Creating a Lesson Plan to use Material Culture in the Classroom

Last week I ended my research not knowing where to go next. The presence of guidelines, lesson plans, and discussions of material culture (MC) online told me many things. It told me people understand the importance of the use of MC in a range of classrooms. It told me people understand how to use MC to cultivate critical thinking skills in students, and how to teach students how to investigate like historians. After mulling this over, I felt I had two directions I could take: I could research scholarly literature to make a case for the use of MC in the classroom since I didn’t find as much of that online; or I could use what I found to create my own sample lesson plan using material culture. I chose the latter. This blog post is about how I created my lesson plan along with my thoughts and difficulties I experienced along the way.

I wanted to make the lesson plan as easy on myself as possible, so I chose something with which I was already familiar: Sandow’s Spring Grip Dumbbell. This dumbbell was sold by mail during the late 19th century and early 20th century by a world renown strongman named Eugen Sandow. He was a phenomenon during his time and his name became synonymous with strength and health. He is now recognized as the father of modern bodybuilding.

I wanted to be familiar with the object and its context because this meant I could focus on how to get the students from the dumbbell – Point A – to the history it could provide – Point B. But this brings up a tension regarding teaching that we’ve discussed in different forms in class. This tension comes from two ways of instructing a class. One way is holding an authoritative position and feeding the information to students, while the other way involves stepping down from the pedestal, so to speak, and becoming a facilitator for learning. I want to practice the latter when using MC.

What I struggled with while writing the lesson plan is not that I am uncomfortable with not having a lecture, but I want to provide enough structure in the class so that the students see the connection between engaging and investigating the object, and gaining knowledge from that detective work. In other words, I want to guide them enough so that their investigation proves fruitful, but I do not want to spoonfeed them questions or information. I feel like this cannot be written down in a lesson plan though, so mine does not reflect it well. I feel this act is something that must be practiced and is partly determined by the demeanor of the class. I believe it will be a performance and walking that line will be dynamic and improvised.

When I thought about the activity, I also didn’t want to be the provider of all the knowledge about the dumbbell. I wanted to empower the students by showing them they have the ability to learn about it on their own. Therefore, because I have the resources available, I plan to provide a few copies of Sandow’s Magazine and a few of his books such as Strength and How to Obtain It and Body-building; or Man in the Making: How to Become Healthy and Strong (These can be found here). Students will be able to “research” these objects in order to learn more about the dumbbell and the domain in which it was used. Essentially, the students will be doing history.

I envision the class being structured as follows:

  • 5 minutes – explain the goals of the lesson and the expectations of the students
  • 10-15 minutes – introduce the dumbbell and allowing the students to interact with it and investigate it on their own
  • 10-20 minutes – engage in a talk-aloud about the dumbbell
  • 10-20 minutes – introduce new objects and let students research
  • 10-20 minutes – engage in a talk-aloud with new research materials included

Ideally, this would take place on a Monday or Tuesday and the next class or two classes would include a debrief/reflection of what occurred, and a talk about Eugen Sandow, physical culture during the Victorian era, and cultural aspects of the Victorian era.

I believe a number of the different learning principles we have discussed in class are manifest with this method. For example, this type of investigation means that active and critical learning will occur. The students will also be immersed in a more semiotic domain than they usually would be due to using a range of objects and being exposed to a number of images. The students also take on the identity of historian or detective in learning about the dumbbell. James Gee’s probing principle, in which the learner probes, reflects upon that action, and then creates a hypothesis based on that, is also utilized. Moreover, because I envision taking the role of facilitator, I believe that experimentation and discovery on the part of students would also occur. Finally, by utilizing facilitated think-alouds, in which I would help guide students in thinking like a historian, the students would be able to practice cultivated critical thinking skills in a low pressure environment while also taking ownership of their learning.

Now, I just mentioned a number of learning principles that I believe can be harnessed using material culture. But, being a bit selfish, I also think it could benefit me. Watching students wrestle with questions, engage one another and engage artifacts, and, hopefully, be mildly excited by something that many would consider junk would be very exciting. Granted, I’m looking at this entire scenario idealistically. I could receive no feedback, it could be like pulling teeth, and students might hate it. These are all possibilities. But I believe that if I could convey in the classroom half the enthusiasm I have simply writing about this type of teaching, then students would respond. I obviously need to practice before utilizing this teaching method, but I believe with enough practice, prep, and pep, it could be fruitful.

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3 Responses to Creating a Lesson Plan to use Material Culture in the Classroom

  1. prof2144 says:

    Question: When students “engage and interact” with the artifact (after everyone’s lifted it a few times!), what do you expect–or how might you direct– to think beyond the object? In some ways, this seems similar to reading a primary document–but it’s not. I think by trying to characterize how it is different, you could build a set of expectations for the students at that stage.

  2. Duane says:

    Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a very well written article.
    I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post.
    I’ll definitely comeback.

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