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An Amazing Way to Teach History!
April 10, 2013

Using Historical Ephemera in the Classroom

John Lee, an associate professor of social studies education at North Carolina State University writes a great article about using Historical Ephemera in the classroom:

What Is It?
Historical ephemera include transitory materials from the past that were intended to have a one-time or temporary use. This guide offers suggestions for teaching with historical ephemera.

We can learn much from studying about the past using historical ephemera. Most of the ephemera that we have today were kept because they represent something significant to us. Personal ephemera, such as memorabilia, can provide an authentic entry point for students to learn about the past using evidence. Because ephemera are all around us, most children will have easy access to various types of ephemera, particularly mementos saved by family members. There are also many online collections of historical ephemera. The Ephemera Society of America maintains a list of ephemera topics.

This guide describes a series of activities that introduce students to the concept of ephemera and to methods for using historical ephemera as historical evidence. The activity below introduces students to ephemera by having them locate historical ephemera in their homes or from an online collection.

Teacher Preparation

■Make arrangements for supporting students who may not be able to find historical ephemera in their homes. These students can be provided with pre-selected materials from online collections such as this one.

In the Classroom
It is very common for people to keep ephemeral materials; although it's unlikely they would call it ephemera.

Activity: Learning from What's Lying Around—In this activity, students should locate a piece of historical ephemera in their homes. It is very common for people to keep ephemeral materials, although it's unlikely they would call it ephemera. Most people think of these items as personal memorabilia or mementos. They are physical items that remind us of past activities, events, or people. They might be photos, newspapers, magazines, ticket stubs, report cards, letters, postcards, or other items that evoke memories. The items selected by students should be somewhat removed from their experience, so as to open new opportunities to learn about the past.

After students have located an item, they should respond to the following questions designed to support their analysis of the object and the context surrounding the object. The questions posed below are from an historical thinking heuristic developed by David Hicks, Peter Doolittle, and Tom Ewing called SCIM-C.

The first step is to summarize the content of the item. Have students answer these four questions to support their summary level understanding:

1. What type of historical document is the source?

2. What specific information, details, and/or perspectives does the source provide?

3. What is the subject and/or purpose of the source?

4. Who was the author and/or audience of the source?

The second step is to contextualize the item in historical time and space. Have students respond to these four questions to support the process of contextualizing:

1. When and where was the source produced?

2. Why was the source produced?

3. What was happening within the immediate and broader context at the time the source was produced?

4. What summarizing information can place the source in time and place?

Extend the activity by having students digitize their historical ephemera. Make the process simple by having students take pictures of the item and then post one to or some other photo sharing website. Once the item has been digitized and posted, it can be embedded in additional work aimed at producing an historical interpretation.

Note from Stay tuned for worksheets and activities revolving around the use of Ephemera in the classroom!!

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