My friend and colleague, Denise M.A. Brown, is a wonder to behold in and out of the classroom. She is a dollar store diva and re-purposes cast off wood into the most beautiful and thoughtful art. She also teaches elementary art just down the hall, and as students move through her classes from year to year, she tells an increasingly elaborate tale about a small plastic trinket she received as a child from an old-fashioned coin operated prize machine. While she had saved up her shiny coins to obtain the coveted red plastic horse, she was beyond disappointed when a ring came spilling out of the metallic mouth of the machine. Just as she was about to throw it in the gutter, she saw a glint of color – a picture of a small dog embossed on the ring. She began to look more carefully and realized that someone had made that ring with – PURPOSE. What she had originally seen as trash now became a treasure because she had the eyes to carefully look carefully at what she was holding. When one of her students does well in class, Denise allows him to pick a plastic trinket out of the ART HEAD, a recycled Operation™game component. He’s not allowed to trade it out for something else because he needs to recognize the PURPOSE with which it was made. Denise is a gifted story teller, and she uses the tale and the tokens to illustrate to her students the importance of their own purposeful choices when creating art in her classroom. So, what does an art class have to do with history? (Quite a lot, actually, but that’s another post!)
In reading John Fea’s Why Study History?, I began to think about how to teach my students how to “become historians” rather than merely to be students in a history class. Hearing Denise’s lesson-in-a-tale inspired me. The kids already knew the story by heart so why not add on a chapter about looking with PURPOSE historically? So, I got a Styrofoam head, a wig, a fake mustache and some googly glasses to create the HISTORY HEAD. The students and I discuss how important it is to look carefully, as if our eyes were popping out of our heads, at primary source materials to discover their purposes. It’s a goofy lesson, but my students practice from the beginning that true learning about history demands careful observation. Primary source objects and documents have the power to show us the varying purposes at work in history, if only we have the eyes and minds to see.