Unit VII Material Culture: The Stuff of Life
Lesson 2 Teaching and Learning Through Objects
It's a difference in seeing something out your eye. This [walking] stick, this is imagination until I bring it out to what it's going to be. Imagination don't leave because it's in your mind.
--David Allen, Claiborne Parish
English Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, Visual Arts
Purpose of Lesson
This lesson asks students to consider the function (usefulness or utility), form (beauty or aesthetics), and meaning (context or story) of objects and how we learn skills and make things that we learn traditionally, by observation and imitation, in everyday life from people around us. Such people can be considered indigenous teachers.
Lesson Objectives/Louisiana Content Standards, Benchmarks, and Foundation Skills
1. Students study the concepts of function (utility), form (aesthetics), and meaning (context) in relation to material culture artifacts.
2. Students identify and study indigenous teachers as well as traditional skills and crafts in their own lives, their communities, and the state.
3. Students learn to see themselves as indigenous teachers of skills and teach someone else a skill, analyzing the teaching steps and successful ways of teaching.
4. Students improve their observational skills and fieldwork documentation procedures such as photography, notetaking, audio or video recording, and transcribing.
2 class periods
An interesting array of unbreakable objects to demonstrate utility and aesthetics, for example, tools and linens, nets and carvings, or baskets and jewelry. If your students will be doing fieldwork, you may need digital cameras, audio recorders, or video recorders in addition to notepads and pencils as well as appropriate fieldwork forms. Print out and duplicate any worksheets or rubrics that you will be using.
Background Information for the Teacher
What, how, and where people use various objects comprise an object's function or usefulness (utility). Objects such as handmade tools have high utility, whereas a lace doily has lower utility. Both may be expertly made with extreme care and talent, however, and both may be admired for their form, or aesthetic qualities. And both objects have meaning, or context. A well-crafted tool made by hand is pleasing to the eye as well as to the hand. A crocheted doily safeguards the finish of a table. Perhaps a favorite uncle made the tool, it's always kept hanging on the same hook, and it evokes memories and anecdotes. Likewise, a frothy lace doily may be expertly made in someone's favorite color and remind visitors of the maker while protecting furniture from a scratch. People who have learned skills or how to make objects traditionally by observation and imitation can be considered indigenous teachers, teachers found in everyday life outside a formal academic setting. Often the skills they pass on also teach values or behavior as well as abilities. For example, a grandfather's lessons about caring for your horse's needs before your own after horseback riding also instruct about delaying gratification and honoring nature. Or, a son's explanation about making spitballs to annoy his teacher might spark a memory of such behavior in your own grade school days.
Folklorist Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett first used this phrase to describe those we learn from outside the classroom--family members, neighbors, friends, religious leaders, mentors, care providers--"connoisseurs of eloquent talk, storytelling, wit and humor, apt metaphor, the crafted object, fine food, the well-orchestrated celebration. In a word, folk artists are connoisseurs of the arts of living." Folklorist and technology educator Gail Matthews-DeNatale describes the potential importance of linkage between indigenous teachers and the classroom. "What can we learn from indigenous teachers about inclusive pedagogy, multiple intelligences, collaborative group work, and experiential learning? Teaching in everyday life involves making good use of all these concepts. Collaborative fieldwork creates a context for educators, students, and indigenous teachers to forge long-term, deep relationships, extended conversations not only about what we 'know,' but also about how we know and how we learn." (See Unit VII Resources). This lesson invites students to contemplate how they themselves are teachers as well as learners, consciously and unconsciously sharing skills from tying shoes to braiding hair, expertise at games to computer knowledge. They analyze and compare the learning process in formal, academic settings such as classrooms and in traditional settings in everyday life.
Think of someone from whom you have learned to make something in a setting outside school, an indigenous teacher such as a grandparent or friend. Outline a story about the experience to share with students. Read some of the articles listed in Technology Options above and print out and bookmark any that you plan to use. Read Sample Fieldnotes: Teen Memories of Grade School Traditions. Decide what depth of fieldwork you want students to undertake for Step 3 and review Unit II. If using Venn diagrams, Venn Diagram shows how to use them for comparisons.
4th and 8th Grade Activities
1. Lay objects on a table for students to handle. Discuss their function (utility), form (aesthetics), and meaning (context)--not just how things are used but by whom, for how long, in what setting--the story of an object. Do students think form and function relate?
2. Tell students a story about how you learned to make something--pie crust, paper airplane, special knots. Describe who taught you, when, how, practice time, and whether you've taught this to anyone.
3. Ask students to identify someone they know who makes something and interview that person. Students may simply talk to the person and report back or conduct more thorough documentation such as developing a survey form, video or audio recording, or photography. Use Unit II to guide research. The main purpose is to help students examine the process of learning to make something. Before beginning, print and duplicate the Peer Evaluation for Interviews and review them with students. Assign partners who will have to evaluate each other's interviews using the forms. Remind students to use them as self-evaluation devices to guide the interview process.
4. As a class or in groups discuss findings. How useful or complicated were the skills student identified? What did the learning experiences tell about the person? Did the person learn any intangible lessons such as patience or perseverance? Decide how to display the results: classroom demonstrations, essays, or poetry, for example.
5. Ask older students to read Sample Fieldnotes: Teen Memories of Grade School Traditions Some may read the whole journal. Choose excerpts to read aloud to younger students. Students may read the interview aloud, with two students taking the parts. Brainstorm objects students have learned to make from paper. What have they learned traditionally, by observation and imitation, and what have they learned in a formal situation such as an art class? Discuss the paperfolding and the fortunetelling devices that your students know how to make. Then divide students into pairs or groups to exchange paperfolding techniques. Mix boys and girls in groups. Students may use the online interview as a model to interview each other, photograph their objects, and create a classroom exhibit or computer slide show of their finished works, including transcriptions of interesting comments from their interviews.
6. Students' paperfolding can provide a math lesson in tessallations. Ask students to make something from a piece of paper, then smooth the paper out. They should trace the fold lines with black lines, then color in the open spaces with two different colors to form various tessellations or patterns. They can repeat this and make other tessallations. Hang their work in strips to form a quilt pattern on the classroom wall. Check out the Jurassic Park Fractal to make a fractal from a strip of paper and how it relates to Jurassic Park.
7. Ask students to teach someone a skill they know or to learn a new skill. Examples might include rollerblading, dancing, fancy handwriting, playing a computer game, and so on. If you're emphasizing documentation, they could document the process by taking notes or photos or using audio or video recording. They should demonstrate what they've taught or learned for the class. Ask them to write a paragraph about the teaching experience--was it difficult, what method worked best, what did they learn about teaching?
8. Invite some of the people students interviewed during their fieldwork to make something in class. A half day could be spent making things and interviewing people about things they make, how they learned, whom they teach. Students should document a visit or demonstration using digital cameras, audio or video recorders, or notetaking. Discuss with students ways to display their documentation, for example a computer slide show, scrapbook, or video.
9. Develop a folk artist residency so that students may spend time with a master traditional craftsperson. The longer the residency, the more students will benefit, so adequate planning and funding are essential.
4th Grade Explorations and Extensions
1. Not only objects have function or utility; the raw materials that people make things from do as well. Folk artists often use natural and recycled materials with great care, from fabric scraps to aluminum cans. Integrate a study of materials that traditional artists use into a science unit on matter or ecology. For example, environmental changes make some materials harder to get. Explore the Creole State Exhibit to find at least eight artifacts made from different materials. You may start with examples on the Natural and Recycled Materials Worksheet. Include at least one made from recycled material. Choose one material to research. How do artists obtain it? Is it natural? Endangered? Expensive? Recycled? See Unit IV Lesson 2 on the relationship between ecology and folklife and Unit IV Lesson 1 on folk regions of the state to consider what materials are indigenous to each region. Also think about how fads and styles relate to material culture and to conservation by going to the Museum of American History website The Feather Trade and the American Conservation Movement.
2. Read some of the Louisiana Folk Artist Biographies. Choose one artist you would like to interview in depth. List the questions you would ask this artist. Teachers, if these are written above your students' reading ability, refer to the Adaptation Strategies for ways to adjust and modify them to levels that students can understand.
3. Study the traditional crafts of one or more Native American tribal groups in Louisiana. Start with examples in the Creole State Exhibit and the Louisiana Folklife Photo Gallery, then conduct library research (see Unit VII Resources). Try to find members of a tribal group to visit your classroom. Prepare for the visit by seeking funding to pay an honorarium, developing an interview form, and making a field trip to a museum exhibit of tribal crafts or to a reservation. Use the Louisiana Indians in the 21st Century webpage in your research.
8th Grade Explorations and Extensions
1. Explore the aesthetics involved in making something. Why do people embellish a simple object with a graceful stripe or hone a skill to perfection? There is no correct answer, and the line between art and craft is not clear to folklorists or art critics. The relationship between function and form, utility and aesthetics, is complex. Find selected objects in the Creole State Exhibit using the Useful or Beautiful Worksheet. Discuss or write about why the makers might have taken such care on utilitarian objects. How does making things by hand differ from buying manufactured goods? Compare a handmade object with a manufactured one. Read About Louisiana Crafts. Teachers, use Adaptation Strategies to adapt this adult-oreiented resource to your students' reading level, if necessary.
2. After looking at the objects from the Creole State Exhibit on the Useful or Beautiful Worksheet, think of objects in your home or neighborhood that are both useful and pleasing to the eye, such as mailboxes, quilts, fences, window decorations, weather vanes, or dog houses. Photograph some objects to exhibit in a classroom display or computer slide show that investigates the usefulness and beauty of handmade objects. Some students may choose to write about the continuum between strictly utilitarian objects and objects made just for beauty. Again, there is no right or wrong answer; scholars have explored the nature of beauty since ancient times. Books in the Unit VII Resources offer interesting perspectives.
4. Individually assign prices (dollar values) to each object on the Useful or Beautiful Worksheet. Calculate the average price for each by adding all prices together and dividing by the number of prices. Then each student must decide whether to use their own price or the average price.
5. Choose some activities in Louisiana Studies in Historic Preservation to study regional Louisiana housetypes in more depth. Then write a short essay on utility and aesthetics in housetypes or outbuildings such as garages or sheds. If you have identified people in your fieldwork who can build structures, invite them to class to interview about how they plan, buy materials, measure, frame, and finish.
6. Study regional Louisiana folk boats using Ray Brassieur's article Louisiana Boatbuilding: An Unfathomed Fortune and photos of boats in the Louisiana Folklife Photo Gallery by searching for "boats" in the keyword field. Teachers, use Adaptation Strategies to adapt this adult-oriented resource to your students' reading level, if necessary.
7. Read the short story "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker. Discuss the different aesthetic values and of each character. What makes quilts useful to each? (see Unit VII Resources).
8. Consider how artists recycle materials to create art using the Museum of International Folk Art's virtual exhibit, Recycled, Reseen: Art from the Global Scrapheap.