Okay, so we've been thinking about a couple of new projects for this coming year. This one totally rips off somebody else's brilliant idea (which is why it should work well...)

I don't know if you're familiar with the BBC podcast, "A History of the World in 100 Objects" This podcast looks at a series of objects from the British Museum and talks about them in context of a particular period in history. They discuss the actual object in some detail, but they are more concerned with what the object can teach us about the ancient Mayan Empire or Medieval Syria or 19th Century Europe, than the details of the object itself.

It's a great podcast, that I wait for eagerly several times each week, but even for a well educated, attentive adult, it's pretty dense stuff - way too dense for my 8th grade classroom. But it's a really great concept - one that's well worth stealing.

So here is what a we are doing:

We're hoping to recruit teachers, professors and other smart people around the country to think about objects that reflect important themes or periods in American History. Each contributor would write a short essay 500-1,500 words about why that particular item provides a valuable look at American History. This could be a written essay, or a written essay and audio recording, or a written essay and video recording. We would also appreciate a high-quality image of the item as well.

Here's how it would work:

Once we have a collection of items and essays collected, a teacher could pull an item that deals with the period or theme of American History that he or she is teaching. They would show their class the picture of the item and the class would have a discussion about what the item could be and why it might be important. Once the class has reached some sort of consensus (or NOT) the class could read or listen to the essay from our contributor explaining his or her reasons for including this as an important item. This should lead to more discussions and a jumping-off point for a unit of study.

Eventually, students could start producing their own Item Essays - particularly high school students. This would be a good model for younger students to eventually do unit projects - "A History of Montana in 26 Objects" or "A History of Our Neighborhood in 40 Objects" or "A History of YOUR Town in 15 Objects - Do You Think We're Right?".

The beauty of this idea is:

A) It's ripped off, so most of the heavy lifting has already been done for us.

B) The total investment for any individual contributor would only be an hour or so

C) It would be free, flexible and engaging

Technical Details:

Level of Complexity - We'd like to use this for grades 5 and up, so please write your essay in such a way as to be easy to read and understand. This might mean simplifying some concepts, but should not involve much "dumbing-down". Think of how you would explain this particularly cool thing to your barber or bartender - a smart and interested person, without a heavy academic background or vocabulary.

Which Items - We're probably not looking for objects that are important in and of themselves - the Constitution or the Liberty Bell, for instance - but for items that would allow you to discuss a theme in American history. Here are a few items that spring to mind:
  • A beaver hat
  • A bottle of bathtub gin
  • Slave shackles
  • A "No Irish Need Apply" sign
  • Love beads from San Francisco in 1968
  • A draft card
  • A "copperhead" coin from the Copperhead Party
  • A poster from a minstrel show
  • A corset

Obviously, there are thousands of items that would work at least as well as these.

How These Will Be Stored/Displayed - We're still working on the details for this, but at this point, this blog seems to be a good way to do this. Each item could have it's own blog post, with an attached image file. It could also have an imbedded audio or video file. Students or other scholars could leave responses in the Comments section. They could even disagree and start an online discussion about a particular topic.

How to Submit an Item or Contact Us - We have a basic, "beta", still-to-be-perfected submission form on GoogleDocs:


or you could email me at this address.

If we could get a dozen or so essays done over this summer, we'd have a body of work that could help teachers right off the starting block this Fall.

Would you be interested in submitting an item?


John Fladd
Angela Cunningham