Using Artifacts to Inspire Critical Thinking

This article has been re-posted from the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access page. It was written by Mary Manning, College and Career Readiness Specialist, at Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Ohio.

You don’t need to be a museum curator to use artifacts in a classroom. If you decide to use visual thinking strategies, which offer powerful ways to unravel all the symbolic power of artistic images, they may not seem to apply to artifacts, especially those used in daily life that may not carry symbolic meanings. However, artifacts are the most often forgotten yet most compelling kind of primary source—they may not tell us a story in words and figures, but they can lead us down trails of questions that can stimulate critical thinking and research in the classroom.

Sasaki Family Photograph, 1960.

Sasaki Family Photograph, 1960.
Members of the Sasaki family are shown in their kitchen, preparing the actual cakes and treats that were made from the sticky mashed rice created in the mochi barrel. Cleveland History Center.

Making Sense of Mochi

When I began to design a Learning Lab collection that featured Asian Pacific American stories from the Cleveland History Center’s collections, I found one such compelling artifact—a mochi barrel used by the Sasakis, a Japanese-American family that lived in Cleveland, Ohio. At around two feet tall, our mochi barrel is a deceptively heavy contraption of wood curved around the cement dish inside. Inside the lid, a series of Japanese characters confirms that the barrel  was made in Cleveland in 1947. I became fascinated by this object, so I began exploring its history through all the questions that it brought to my mind.

First, who was the Sasaki family? How did they come to Cleveland? I knew that much of Cleveland’s Japanese population arrived during World War II, and indeed, after being interned on the west coast, they were placed in Cleveland through the local War Relocation Authority office and efforts of local churches. Telling the story of the Sasakis and their mochi barrel meant combing through these local records, seeking references to the specific family or to situations that mirrored their experience. I also realized that I couldn’t explain how the barrel was used.

After some searching, I learned that making mochi could be a very intensive process, but one that has persisted through centuries of Japanese New Year celebrations. Telling the story of the mochi barrel then became about the process and science behind its function. The more I learned the more I saw these lines of questioning coming together: I wondered if their oppressive experience in internment camps made even more important to preserve cultural rituals like mochi making in their lives.

Questioning Through Artifacts

If you ever find one compelling object or image, don’t hesitate to bring it into your classroom, and use it to build out a lesson. Students are curious; when you let them observe an object for some time, and then ask what they see, they often respond with questions that cut to the core of why the object exists in the first place. They are often able to intuit the purpose of an unfamiliar object from what they already know. They can use their questions as a guide to research the historical context that fills in gaps of knowledge about the object and, potentially, creates more questions. In this process, there doesn’t always have to be just one story—strands of history inherently relate because they all tie back to that one original object.

Through this process, students seek a holistic view of an artifact or image, weighing information for value and bias and how it does or does not fit into the object’s story.  There may be no bad questions, but there are certainly deeper questions that lead to higher-quality answers. By pushing students to question what they see through an intensive engagement with a single object, you hone a process of learning to interpret and draw meaning that enhances the way that students view the world around them. The Sasaki family and their mochi barrel provide the perfect example of why these skills serve students so well. The Sasakis do not play a role in any of the great triumphs and magnificent failures that would characterize a history of Cleveland in the twentieth century, but the ways in which they experienced internment and remade their lives tell us much about what is possible to find in between the events in our history books.

The Cleveland History Center is a Smithsonian Affiliate museum that collaborated on the Teacher Creativity Studio program. This program received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Smithsonian Learning Lab Webinar: Creating National History Day Collections

Learning lab elephant logoFor the past two years Smithsonian Learning Lab has been a tool for curating topic ideas for students participating in National History Day (NHD) research projects.

The Learning Lab team, along with educators from NHD and the National Endowment for the Humanities, will hold an online session on Thursday, August 9 at 4 pm ET around the 2019 NHD theme Triumph and Tragedy in History. Learn how to use Learning Lab to showcase your  collections and make them available to students around the country conducting research for their 2019 NHD projects. (See Learning Lab NHD collection examples here.)

In this session, designed for museum educators and other National History Day (NHD) content creators, participants will learn about the 2019 theme “Triumph and Tragedy” from NHD staff and hear from educators at the Smithsonian and National Endowment for the Humanities about their experiences in curating content for NHD students using the Smithsonian Learning Lab since 2017.

If you are new to NHD, read these two articles from Smithsonian staff in the 2019 NHD Theme Book to get a feel for how Learning Lab can help students spark ideas for their projects.

• Stories of Triumph and Tragedy found in the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery (pg. 22)
• Discover Digital Tools and Resources for Triumph and Tragedy in History (pg. 43)

RSVP for the webinar here! 

Part 3: Using Collections to Think About Immigration with the Smithsonian Learning Lab

After visiting three Affiliate communities in 2018, the staff at the Smithsonian Learning Lab wrapped-up their Teacher Creativity Studios at the City of Austin Asian American Resource Center (AARC), a Smithsonian Affiliate in Austin, Texas. As mentioned in Part 1, the goal was to increase digital access to museum collections and inspire students to investigate the world around them using objects, documents, videos and more, all available for free online. In this final installment, Hanna Huang, culture and arts education coordinator and acting supervisor at the Asian American Resource Center, shares her project, Austin’s Asian American Pacific Islander Roots.

Smithsonian Learning Lab in AustinThe AARC partnered with the Austin History Center to define Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) programming. Huang sees each AAPI community as special and unique in its makeup, much like the many cultures, ethnicities, and languages that comprise what we know as AAPI. To share this with a wider audience, the partners worked with the Learning Lab to create a collection for teachers based on a revived exhibition that covers Asian Pacific American history in Austin from the late 1800s past the 1980s.

As you work your way through, you can not only see all the images and texts from our exhibit but also find learning tools to help you with teaching topics such as Asian Pacific American history, immigration, Texas history, primary/secondary sources, and more!

Read Huang’s full blog– Austin’s Asian American Pacific Islander Rootshere.

And don’t forget about Part 1 and Part 2 in our Learning Lab Series!

Want to see more Learning Lab in Affiliate neighborhoods? Check out these blogs from past workshops at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh: Supporting Digital Innovation in Education with the Learning Lab
Every Collection Tells a Story
Creative Introduction to Geography
Smithsonian’s Home in Pittsburgh
Creating with the Learning Lab
Teach Digital Curation with Depth

The Teacher Creativity Studio program received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

f you are interested in learning more about the Smithsonian Learning Lab and how it could help your museum support teachers and students in your community, contact your National Outreach Manager.

Part 2: Using Collections to Think About Immigration with the Smithsonian Learning Lab

In Part 1 of our Smithsonian Learning Lab series we took you to the Tsongas Industrial History Center at the Lowell National Historical Park, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Lowell, Massachusetts, where teachers were exploring the question “Who belongs?” (You can read the full blog here.) This time we’re headed to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, another Smithsonian Affiliate in Seattle, Washington, to explore immigration through the lens of Chinese immigrants.

Wing Luke Learning Lab title pageIn his blog Beneath the Text: Analyzing Letters from Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, Rahul Gupta, education and tours director at The Wing, developed his first Learning Lab gallery using the museum’s collection of letters to to discuss three areas of immigration– “push” and “pull” factors that bring immigrants to the country or that reject their presence, and the letters’ style, writing and format.

I am often amazed at what I learn at this job every single day—and this project opened my understanding of the personal impact of colonialism, Chinese nationalism, gender relationships, and changing gender roles—and more and more. There are brilliant gems within our museum collection, and I am restlessly waiting to place more of these archives and artifacts into the hands of teachers and students around the country.

Read his blog and view his Learning Lab collection here.

The Teacher Creativity Studio program received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

If you are interested in learning more about the Smithsonian Learning Lab and how it could help your museum support teachers and students in your community, contact your National Outreach Manager.

Part 1: Using Collections to Think About Immigration with the Smithsonian Learning Lab

In 2017-2018 a collaboration among Smithsonian Affiliations, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access brought the Teacher Creativity Studios: Fostering Global Competence in the Classroom project to 3 Affiliate communities. The nationwide professional development project for educators is designed to develop new instructional materials and content highlighting Asian Pacific American experiences within K-12 humanities subject areas.

Teacher creating Learning Lab collection

Learning Lab workshop at the Tsongas Industrial History Center. Photo by Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Smithsonian Affiliates worked with local teachers to create multimedia lessons on the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab portal that integrated resources from the Smithsonian and other participating museums into teaching materials and lesson plans. The goal was to increase digital access to museum collections and inspire students to investigate the world around them using objects, documents, videos and more, all available for free online.

A teacher in Lowell, MA, did just that. Laura Lamarre Anderson, Grade 4 Teacher at STEM Academy at the Rogers School, participated in a workshop at the Tsongas Industrial History Center at the Lowell National Historical Park, a Smithsonian Affiliate, to explore the question of “Who Belongs?” with her students. Below is an excerpt from a blog she wrote for the Smithsonian Learning Lab. You can read the whole blog here.

In a city like Lowell, rich with a constant flow of immigrants moving in from all over the world, the question of “who belongs” comes up frequently. After facing discrimination themselves, some second- and third-generation Irish immigrants railed against the newcomers who came after. And the cycle continues with each new group of immigrants facing challenges to their rights to be here. Several students in my classroom have come up against challenges to their right to be in Massachusetts, their right to be called American, because of where they or their parents were born. With this in mind, I tried to choose images that reflect the challenges of immigration, that would help generate conversations about how people were welcomed at different points in our history, and that help us to begin thinking about what it means to be an American.

Teacher Creativity Studios workshops are funded by the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool at the Smithsonian.

If you are interested in learning more about the Smithsonian Learning Lab and how it could help your museum support teachers and students in your community, contact your National Outreach Manager.