Continuing our study of cultures, my classes recently completed a really interesting research and writing project: The Biography of an Object. The project addresses one of the guiding questions for this unit: How does a culture express its own unique qualities? Nothing defines a culture like its objects, its artifacts, and this activity continued our study of material culture. We discussed in class how we have plenty of recorded information about the lives of emperors and kings, but it is the lives of everyday people and the items that were a part of their lives that give us the most insight into a culture. We talked about what an object like an iPod would tell people two hundred years from now about us and our culture today.
To choose a cultural object to study, the students utilized the extensive archive at the website of the Antiques Roadshow. If you haven't visited this site, I urge you to do so. It's fascinating. You can view (or read) the appraisals of hundreds of objects that have appeared on the PBS show. Whatever your interest- furniture, jewelry, military objects, posters and prints- it is represented in the archive. First, the students narrowed their search by object category. Then, they could narrow it further by time period. For example, if a student wanted to find a children's toy from the 1940s, they could enter just those search parameters. Once the search results list came up, students chose an object that looked interesting and watched the appraisal of that object. I let them view several appraisals before settling on the object they wanted to study. I gave the kids a list of questions to guide their research on their object. They couldn't find all of the answers to these questions by watching the appraisals, so they also had to go out onto the internet and dig a bit.
When the research was complete, the students used the information they'd found to write a biography of their object. I asked them to imagine that their object had a "life" like a person, an existence from the time it was "born" (created) to the time it reached the end of its usefulness. They discussed the object's "career": Who used it? How did its use change over time? What are the recognized "ages" or periods of such an object's life? Was the object typical for its time and use? How did it fit into its culture? Did the object move from hand to hand as it aged? What happened to the object when it was no longer useful? What is the object's value, monetarily, culturally, sentimentally?
Students wrote their biographies on Zoho Writer, an online word processor like Google Docs. Using Zoho, they could share their document with me online, and I could make contextual comments on their individual pieces. We utilized this online collaboration feature to revise and edit their pieces. Finally, they used the publish feature on Zoho Writer to publish their pieces online. I've linked to a few of their pieces here:
As a result of doing this activity, the students were able to focus on the cultural significance of an everyday object. Next week, it's onto folktales and their cultural implications.