Every Thing Speaks: Learning to Hear the Voices of Material Culture

June 7th, 2006 by Adam

In 50 or 100 years, what will PlayStation game systems, plastic dress-up dolls, remote control cars, light-up sneakers and robotic pets tell researchers about the nature of childhood in the early 21st century? Today’s children are surrounded by material culture: toys, clothes, images, technology and other items that inform the way they live, learn and play. For teachers, learning to use artifacts from material culture in the classroom can be an effective way to open students’ eyes to the possibilities of the past, present and future, both in one’s own hometown and in distant lands.

“Every Thing Speaks: Teaching Material Culture,” a weeklong summer institute for teachers, museum and historical society staff and other community-based educators, will explore multi-disciplinary strategies for using material culture – including global and historical artifacts, documents, photographs and other items – to teach themes in language arts, social studies, the arts and other curricular areas. The institute, sponsored by Plymouth State University’s College of Graduate Studies and the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire, will be held on the PSU campus July 31 through August 4.

“Simply put, material culture is the study of things made by humans and revealing truths about the human experience,” says Katherine Donahue, professor of anthropology at PSU. Once the specialized domain of archaeologists and anthropologists, material culture is now being brought by innovative educators into elementary and secondary classrooms across the country as a powerful tool for teaching and learning.

“Every Thing Speaks” will explore the material culture of childhood and play throughout history and around the world, and address curriculum connections in archeology, anthropology, heritage studies and the arts. Participating educators will explore how to integrate artifacts into the teaching of both American and foreign cultures. Workshop and session topics include material culture found in toys, clothing and historical schoolhouses; historical and contemporary photography; primary documents and community archives as sources for research; representations of childhood and culture in Afghanistan, East Africa, the Ukraine, and other areas of the world; and the history and culture of American childhood and play.

“We really do live in a material world All kids are surrounded by objects, including pieces of their own lives and pieces of the past,” said Frumie Selchen, executive director of the Arts Alliance. “Studying material culture helps students understand themselves and the world they live in, and also gives them an opportunity to step into the past and into cultures very different from our own. What’s more, it’s a great way for students to practice higher-level thinking skills like analysis, interpretation and judgment.”

During the institute, participants will have the opportunity to take part in hands-on explorations of photography and exhibit planning and set-up. Educators will learn the best ways to examine and discuss old photographs and how to use the process of photography with students as inspiration for documentation, expansion of projects, and assessment of student learning. Participants will also work together to create an exhibition of personal artifacts that represent American childhood.

In addition, educators will have daily opportunities to keep reflection journals about their experiences and explore classroom connections, lesson ideas and other curriculum planning during grade-level (elementary, middle or high school) meetings. Participants will also have the opportunity to participate in evening events, including film screenings, research time and open studio time.

Instructors and presenters for the institute include Dr. Donahue; Dr. Catherine Amidon, director of PSU’s Karl Drerup Art Gallery; Dr. David Switzer, nautical archeologist and PSU social science faculty member; Rachel Lehr, artist, photographer, scholar and founder of Rubia, the Afghan Women’s Handwork Project; Dr. Lisa MacFarlane, professor of English and American studies at the University of New Hampshire; Kay Morgan, director of N.H. Heritage Project; and Dr. Rebecca Noel, PSU professor of history.

Teams of teachers from schools, districts, museums or other organizations are encouraged to attend together. The cost for the institute is $379, which includes morning refreshments and lunch, workshops, materials and CEUs. Participants may also register for one to three graduate credits through PSU at the reduced rate of $125 per credit. Overnight housing is available. Call the College of Graduate Studies office for more information, (603) 535-3097. For additional details about institute content, educators are invited to call the Arts Alliance at (603) 323-7302.

Plymouth State University (PSU) is a regional comprehensive university offering a rich, student-focused learning environment for both undergraduate and graduate students. PSU offers 42 majors and 62 minors in programs that include education, business, humanities, arts, and natural and social sciences. The College of Graduate Studies offers coursework that promotes research, best practices and reflection in locations on- and off-campus as well as online. For non-traditional students, PSU’s Frost School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers working professionals opportunities to pursue an undergraduate degree by attending classes in the evenings, weekends and online. Located in a beautiful New England setting, Plymouth State University has been recognized as one of the “Best in the Northeast” by The Princeton Review.