Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

My Piece of History

Created September 28, 2010


The Lesson


My Piece of History: Making a Phone Call in 1946

Making a Phone Call in 1946

Credit: Photograph courtesy of the National Archives

What is the oldest object in your home? How did it get there and why is your family saving it? Finding the answer to these questions can put students in touch with family history and help them discover how much of our past lies hidden in "old things." In this lesson, students first examine pictures of household objects from the late 20th century and gather historical information about them from older family members, then create an in-class exhibit of historical objects from their own homes.

Guiding Questions

  • What can old things teach us about our past?
  • Why do we keep them?
  • Why are some old things important to us?
  • Why do some grow in value as they get older?

Learning Objectives

  • Provide a historical context for objects from the past.
  • Characterize the historical significance of objects from the past.
  • Conduct historical research through interviews and field work.
  • Construct a historical narrative.

Preparation Instructions

1. This lesson plan consists of four learning activities that you can use together as a unit or adapt separately to your curricular needs.

2. Review the suggested activities, print out the worksheet for Activity 2, and then download and duplicate any online materials you will need. If desired, you can bookmark specific web pages so that students can access relevant online materials directly. (See the Selected EDSITEment Websites section for a guide to locating online materials.)

3. For guidance on talking about and interpreting historical artifacts, explore the "Household Objects" sections of the At Home in the Heartland Online website. Each section presents a gallery of objects from a different period in the history of a midwestern state, providing a brief description of each object and what it can reveal about life in the past. The sections cover:

  • 1700–1800, when Illinois was a French frontier territory.
  • 1800–1850, when American settlers moved into the region.
  • 1850–1890, when industrialism began to change the pace of everyday life.
  • 1890–1920, when the modern-day consumer society began to take shape.
  • 1920–1950, when technological advances, economic hardship, and the pressures of world war transformed American society.
  • 1950–Present, when postwar prosperity set the stage for a series of social revolutions.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. A Piece of the Past

Begin the lesson with a memento of your own, either a family keepsake that has personal significance or an everyday object that can give students a glimpse into the decades before they were born – for example, an out-of-fashion piece of clothing, a pre-video-game era toy, a 45 RPM record or 8-track tape. Tell students that objects like this one are pieces of history that can help us find out how people lived in the past, then tell the story behind your object, modeling the process students will use in their research:

  • What is it? Identify the object.
  • How was it used? Explain the object's function.
  • When did people use it? Place the object in its historical context, telling something about the period when it was new.
  • Why is it significant? Share memories associated with the object or explain how it illustrates a facet of life in the past.
Activity 2. Historical Detectives

After presenting your object, tell students that in this lesson they will become detectives searching for pieces of history in their homes. But first, to sharpen their detective skills, they will examine historical objects in class.

  • Have students examine two of the exhibit display pictures from the "1950–Present" section of the At Home in the Heartland Online website: the picture of a recreation room from the 1960s, and the picture showing a collection of wedding gifts from the 1970s.
  • For each picture, ask students to point out objects they recognize (the television set and coffee maker, for example) and compare them to similar objects from today. Explore whether these recognizable objects look old to your students, and draw attention to features (such as design and material) that provide a clue that the object comes from the past.
  • Next have students point out objects in each picture that they do not recognize or have never seen before (such as the home movie screen and the macrame plant hanger). Ask them to speculate on how these mystery objects might have been used, based on features of the objects themselves and the context provided by the surrounding display.
  • Finally, ask students how they would find out the real story behind these mystery objects – whom might they talk to and what questions would they ask? Help them realize that parents, grandparents, and other older family members can provide them with firsthand information about the past.

Let each student choose one mystery object to research at home by interviewing an older member of the family. As preparation for this research, have students complete the fact-gathering worksheet based on the bulleted list, below. (Very young students can fill out their worksheets with the help of a parent.) Provide students who have Internet access at home with the appropriate URL so they can conduct their interview by email if they wish.

  • What is the object?
  • When did people use it? What was happening back then?
  • Does it bring back memories? What does it tell us about the past?
Activity 3. How Things Tell a Story

Have students share their research in "show and tell" class reports, letting students who have researched the same object present their findings together. Then provide students with museum labels for some of the objects they have researched, drawing examples from those available at the At Home in the Heartland Online website, such as the site's description of a fondue pot.

  • Talk about the documentary information on the museum labels. Point out that, in addition to describing the object, a museum label identifies its manufacturer, the date when it was made, the materials used to make it, and tells how the museum obtained it. Ask why facts like these are important. How do they help establish that an object is authentic – really a piece of the past? How can they help us see an object in different historical contexts – for example, as part of the history of Japanese trade with the United States, or as evidence of the impact of plastic on American life.
  • Turn to the descriptive information on the museum labels. Ask students to evaluate these factual accounts, based on the memories and personal observations they have collected. What additional information can they provide? What stories can they tell that might bring the object to life and help us understand what it meant to people in the past? Talk about how the different stories attached to (or evoked by) an old object give us different perspectives on the past and add to our appreciation of old things. To what extent do such stories help explain why people save and value old things?
Activity 4. Your Piece of History

Tell students they are now ready to search for pieces of history in their own homes. Have them prepare a second fact-gathering chart, this time including space for the kinds of information they will need to write a museum label. Explain that their task is to find the oldest object in their homes and learn the story behind it. Ask students to draw a picture of the object (or take a photograph), since family keepsakes may be too precious to bring to school.

When students have completed their research, have them use the information they have collected to write a polished museum label for their object. Then have the class imagine that they are museum curators creating a family history display for the other students in your school. Have them work together to organize their individual exhibits into a classroom display that tells a coherent story. They might, for example, organize their exhibits chronologically, or group them according to ethnic heritage, or put similar objects together. When they have completed their display, invite another class to visit for a guided tour, or put their historical detective work on your school's website.

The Basics

Time Required

4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Critical analysis
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Oral Communication
  • Research


Activity Worksheets