Unit VII Material Culture: The Stuff of Life
Lesson 1 Reading Artifacts
I've made so many [pine needle baskets] that now I can make any size or shape I can see in my head. There's no pattern for these [Koasati] baskets. I just have to do it by feel. I have to know how to start it and make it uniform in the stitching. You can see from different baskets that everyone has different styles. No two are alike.
--Loris Langley, Allen Parish
English Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, Science, Visual Arts
Purpose of Lesson
Students begin the study of material culture by looking carefully at vernacular, or everyday, objects from several perspectives, considering the context, or story, of objects, and categorizing objects. They improve their fieldwork research skills by looking at artifacts as cultural outsiders would. Learning to "read culture," students hone decoding skills that improve reading and writing.
Lesson Objectives/Louisiana Content Standards, Benchmarks, and Foundation Skills
1. Students investigate the concept of "insider" or emic views of culture and of "outsider" or etic views and examine objects as cultural insiders and outsiders would.
2. Students improve their observation skills and view objects as ethnographers such as folklorists, anthropologists, or cultural geographers would.
3. Students learn the importance of context in relation to material culture and the role of material culture in folklife and history.
1-2 class periods
Everyday objects such as pencils, scissors, baskets, CDs, Louisiana souvenirs, clocks, and so on. Also provide rulers, measuring tapes, a small scale if possible. For a class exhibit use index cards for labels and consider how to display objects. Print out and duplicate any worksheets or rubrics that you will be using.
Background Information for the Teacher
Look at any object closely, and many questions come to mind. Asking students to focus on an object and imagine what a person from a totally different culture might think about it will help them to step outside their own perspective. Cultural insiders share a great deal of spoken and unspoken knowledge about folklife that outsiders will not have the context for. Even an everyday object such as a pencil could require significant explanation to someone from a strictly oral culture. Folklorists and other social scientists use the term emic view for insiders' view and etic view for outsiders' view of culture and community.
Find some unbreakable, intriguing objects to bring to class so that teams of four students may each examine one in depth. Review The Story Within Worksheet to inspire ideas for things made of different materials and for diverse purposes, for example a tool, needlework, food package, mask, craft, rock, or even a computer disk. Print out a copy of The Story Within Worksheet for each team of four students. Read How to Teach the Folk Arts to Young People: The Importance of Context, by arts educator F. Graeme Chalmers. Also read Bonnie Sunstein's Artifact Exchange and adapt it for your students. Look at Susan Eleuterio's Artifact Reading Activity to decide if you want to substitute it for the lesson below. And read Rita Moonsammy's suggestions in Collection Tips and Artifact Documentation. Print and duplicate copies of the Creating an Exhibit Rubric for each student. The school visual art specialist may have ideas for exhibiting artifacts if you plan to create a class artifact exhibit. If using Venn diagrams, Venn Diagram shows how to use them for comparisons.
4th and 8th Grade Activities
1. Divide students into teams and ask them to pretend that they are from a very different culture, perhaps another galaxy. Their task is to examine an everyday object from the perspective of a cultural outsider and guess its purpose. Ask them to choose a recorder, an engineer, a reporter, and a curator. Distribute The Story Within Worksheet, which gives directions for the following activity and a place to record observations and discuss the task.
2. Give each team one of the interesting objects you've brought to class and ask students to examine it closely, noting measurements, material, color, shape, smell. The engineer should direct the physical examination, and measure the object carefully. Students should consider what the object is for, who made it, who uses it, how old it is, whether it is considered beautiful, where it is kept. In other words, what are its function (utility or use), form (beauty or aesthetic value), and meaning (story or context)? The recorder should take careful notes. The team should agree on what the reporter should tell the class about the object.
3. Ask team reporters to describe to the class the following: their imagined function (use or utility), form (aesthetic or artistic value), and meaning ("story" or context) to the culture. They may report from their completed The Story Within Worksheets. If desired, ask reporters to write the report they would send back to their superiors in another galaxy using word processing software.
4. After the teams have reported, team curators should collaborate with one another to create a class exhibit of artifacts. Discuss the Creating an Exhibit Rubric with students, emphasizing that they should use it as a guide while planning and designing the exhibit. Curators are in charge of arranging artifacts by a theme such as function, color, age, material, or other categories they choose. Teams may work together to write descriptions, design signage to accompany the artifacts in the exhibit, and act as docents for a class tour of the exhibit.
5. As a class, discuss the way that curators categorized artifacts, how this activity made them look differently at objects, and why the context or story of an object is so important. Invite another class to visit the finished exhibit to learn directly from your students how they conducted this project.
6. Ask students to score the exhibit using the Creating an Exhibit Rubric and have them complete the Audience Feedback section. Ask them to come to a consensus as to whether the goals of the project were attained.
7. Another way of "reading" objects is to look for motifs and variants in a craft tradition. People make baskets in every region of Louisiana. Ask students to find images of baskets by at least three different basketmakers in the Domestic Crafts section of the Creole State Exhibit and print or bookmark. Students should note the variations in size, shape, color, material, ethnic folk group of the maker, and parish. They should also note whether they recognize elements that stay the same. What are some basket motifs they find among cultural groups? Print and duplicate the Motifs and Variations Worksheet for students to use when conducting this activity. They may also use Venn diagrams.
4th Grade Explorations and Extensions
1. Make scale drawings of artifacts.
2. Discuss different ways of categorizing the artifacts. What if the class exhibit were based on color, material, or shape instead of function, for example? How similiar would an exhibit based on function be to one based on shape?
3. Write vignettes about one of the artifacts from different points of view--cultural insider, cultural outsider, the artifact itself.
8th Grade Explorations and Extensions
1. Adapt the Artifact Exchange. Co-author of FieldWorking, Bonnie Sunstein developed a lesson on analyzing material culture for the CARTS Newsletter.
2. Arts educator F. Graeme Chalmers models how important context is to personal aesthetics in the essay How to Teach the Folk Arts to Young People: The Importance of Context. Give the context, tell the story, of a special object in your own home. Would an outsider know why an object was special without the story, the context? Read and summarize Chalmers' essay.
3. Estimate the dollar value of this special object, by considering the points in the story. Would outsiders be willing to pay this amount without knowing the context? Would they be willing to pay it after hearing the story? Prepare a chart with three columns titled, "My Estimated Price," "Outsiders' Price Before Hearing the Context Story," "Outsiders' Price After Hearing the Context Story." Then write your answers "What things add to the value of their special object?"