Significant Objects

8th grade middle school social studies 19th century united states history paul bogush moran middle school
Every once-in-awhile I have to add these sentences to a blog post…

Listen…I don’t have a lot of time in my life to dedicate to this blog. This post was written with a minute here and there.  What that adds up to are spelling misteaks, and lots of poor grammar.  So I hope that the overall ideas presented, trump my inability to find the time to revise and edit ;)

This post is about our latest project call “Significant Objects in American History” which is explained here.   All of the objects that are being auctioned can be found here.  If you click on those hyperlinks the following post will make a bit more sense.   This post is simply a story about how our site came to life.

So you didn’t click on the links did you…fine…most people don’t….here is a short explanation.  Each kid received one topic to research from our current unit.  They started with the textbook which tends to take the story out of hiSTORY.  They wrote a piece of historical fiction putting the story back into the hiSTORY.  Then they found an object that played a part in their story.  Some started with an object and wrote the story,  others did it the other way around.  We created a blog and posted their stories with pictures of the objects.  Readers can “bid” on the object by offering a donation.  The highest donation gets the object and a copy of the story that gives the object “significance.” A student who graduated from our team five years ago did a presentation to us in December on a group she was doing a fundraiser for named Clinique Monique.  We decided to send the donations for our “Significant Objects” project to the same group.

If you are thinking you really don’t need to read a day-by-day description of our unit, but you have a couple minutes and a couple dollars, please visit Significant Objects in American History and place a donation on one of the items!

Here is brief description on how it went day-by-day:


Each student brought in a significant object from their life.  An object that that has value because of the story the story attached to it, not because it is valuable by itself.   Each student came up to the front and we took a picture that would then be uploaded to our flickr account.  I then explained directions for their blog post with their Significant Object, and need for a hard copy for Friday.  Kids then shared their object and the story.  We did it in groups of five.  After each, we talked about which objects would you remember a month from now?  Why?  What was it about the object?  So it’s not the object, it’s the story?  What about the story?  The details?  I gave story with lots of details about a metal pipe and asked what did they see when I held up the object…still the object, a “fail” story.  Asked a student to hold up her Disney hat…what do you see?  The relationship with her grandparents.  I handed a pipe out to the class and asked them to add significance.  After each story we held up the object and asked what do you see? We went from just giving details about the pipe, to placing the pipe into a bigger story where the story wasn’t about the pipe, the pipe just became a “symbol” of their story.   I told the last story about the pipe.   As we went around the room telling more stories kids no longer saw the “objects,” but saw a story…a story much bigger than any one object.

Then we went back to…SO what gives something value?  Emotion.  How could you test that?  Shared Significant Objects website (our inspiration),  their examples from ebay and from their website(Example Example ExampleExample Example), and read some of the stories.  We talked about how we were going to do the same thing, but with historical objects based on topics in our current unit.  I assigned groups, and a topic.  End of class

Each group went home and took notes on one the following topics:

Whiskey Rebellion

Washington’s Farewell Address

XYZ Affair

Alien Sedition Act

Peaceful Transition

The Republican Victory

The New Capital

Jefferson in Office

I actually liked using the textbook for this.  We talked about how your text book takes the STORY out of hiSTORY.  It gives so little information on each topic, and boils everything down to such a few facts that it is our job to put the STORY back into our hiSTORY text.

Here are examples of their personal significant objects…what an interesting look at who we are as a team(I think I will do the personal significant object day next year even if I don’t repeat this project):

To take the pictures at the beginning of class we set-up a very simple backdrop on the front desk.  Any object that wasn’t flat we tried to shoot from the side to give it some perspective and stuck a nickel in each photo for the same reason.  I think you can see the reason why it was better to shot from the side rather than straight down by looking at the rock pictures below.  We realized after a several images that we should have been placing white objects on a different colored background.  I include these directions  here, because later in the unit we took pictures of their historical significant objects in the same way.

IMG_0720 IMG_0724

IMG_0727 IMG_0726


Road Trip to the Library!  We all went to the library to do more research and take notes on their topics.  The crazy directions are below:

  • Today I want you to settle in and read anything about your topic and pursue parts of the story you find interesting.
  • I know it might sound silly, but just explore. Your significant object might turn up where you least expect it! Obviously start by searching for your “main topic,” but also dive into individuals that are involved in it, places, laws, court cases, anything and everything. The idea is that tomorrow everyone in the group will bring a common set of knowledge about your topic to the group, but also everyone will bring their own unique perspective. DO NOT SIT NEXT TO ANYONE IN YOUR GROUP.
  • As you explore, write down the name of the websites you spend any quality time on and some of the key/interesting/useful/important information/details/factoids from the website…and write down any potential significant objects that you think would be perfect for a story on your topic.
  • If you think you would like your group to visit your website for more information on Thursday, write down the url or if it is too long use to shorten it.
  • Bring a list of five potential “significant objects, the notes on your section, and your notes from today to class on Thursday.

At this point the group members had not met yet.  I wanted to attempt to have each kid bring different information to the group on Wednesday.  Each kid had the basic understanding of the event from the textbook, but during the research they were each expected to explore their topic and search for people,  events, places, objects, and other pieces of information that would make their story more rich.  When they met they would each be able to bring a different perspective to their event. This was one of those days that everyone did very different types of work—some took copious notes, others spent a lot of time tracking down one specific piece of information. For example, most people know that tax collectors were tarred and feathered, but how did they do it?  What was the “tar?”  And how in the world did they get it off? Some kids ended up pursuing information about the life of one individual involved in their event, and one kid only ended up focusing on the boarding house that Thomas Jefferson spent his first night he was sworn in as President.

We have computers in our library that you have to schedule 35 years in advance to get.  Luckily when I was six my mom forged my name on the calendar.  There are two groups of 25.  We signed out one of the rooms for the day.



Thursday was the first time they came together as a group.  One kid in each group took out a notebook and pen, and when I said go, they just listed every conceivable idea they had for a storyline, characters, and significant objects.  I should add, that in this blog post, one thing that is lacking from the description of each day is why each activity is important, the reasoning for some of the directions, order of events, things like why did I assign topics for this project,  question I asked each class to move the group and individuals forward, or backward to reflect, and much of my words of wisdom that go along with each day.  I once had a student teacher do the same exact unit that I did.  Their unit failed, mine was one of the greatest successes I have ever had.  Why?  Because of what I did that wasn’t written into the lesson plan.  You have to know what your kids need in order to be successful (If you take this post and use it as a lesson plan without adding your own special sauce to it, it will probably fail).  For example, before we did this we talked about schools making kids hesitant to take risks and just throw out lots of creative ideas.  We talked about dropping their baggage about being right and wrong and judgmental of others, and their baggage about not dreaming big, but only thinking about what is possible.  During the brainstorming session I had to several times stop groups from judging ideas as being to hard, too crazy, or too silly.   I think it’s the stuff that you don’t read about in this post that makes me a great teacher.  I think it’s the stuff that you do between the lines of your lesson plan that makes you great teacher.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to blog about those things? Are there words for those things?  Anyway…After the students had a considerable sized list the “two minutes” were up (so for an example of what I was talking about…in some classes that two minutes was five, and in some it was one depending on all sorts of variables).  Now comes something I think is important, we starting crossing things off.  Depending on the assignment I use different words to get the kids to think this through, but we cross off the least important idea or object first.  Then I ask the same question and they  do it again and again and again until in this case, they were down to about three ideas. Each time the process of eliminating the least important starts all over.   There is a totally different mental process that occurs when your cross off the least important, and then keep doing that, compared to circling the “best three,” or number your top three ideas. Then each group played with the three ideas that they had left.  They floated around various ideas, significant objects, characters, places, and…the emotion that each story will hit and how likely their audience would be to connect with the story.  After that process, each group clearly had one idea that worked better than the others.  Then they started writing their story.  I had an intern ask if she could observe one of the classes, and I told her to expect to see some “sloppy” learning.  It was sloppy, and I was ok with it because it was expected.  It is what is supposed to happen.  Learning and especially that start of every project is messy.  We are now (thank goodness) at the time of the year at which when I say “go,” no one raises their hand and says “We don’t know how to start off.”  We are at the time of the year were they wait at least five minutes.  That is when we go through the following sequence of questions.  Do you know what being confused after 5 minutes makes you?  Normal.  Do you know what being confused after 10 minutes makes you? Normal.  Do you know what being confused after 20 minutes makes you?  Normal.  Do you know…at this point no one is listening to me any more, they have forgotten they were confused,  so I usually mumble the last answer to myself.  I find that sometimes when they do get frustrated I just need to stop class and “review” a certain part of the directions and break their cycle of frustration, rather than coach them through it.

Again, one thing that is not included in this post is all the individual work that I am doing with each group or student.  I am not just sitting at a desk.  I am walking around, sitting down with them and becoming part of the process.  I jump into the process with certain groups at different point, and do different things with each.  Each thing that I do with each group, and each individual, is based on how they did during the prior unit, lesson, minute.  Normally my “help” takes on the form of questions, rather than answers.   With some kids it does take the very direct form of “do this next.”  Then I will come back in a few minutes with questions to get them to figure out where to go next.  With many of the kids who seem to have a problem working in groups, or engaging in project based learning the problem isn’t usually laziness or “lack of focus,” they usually have no idea what they are supposed to be doing or how to fit into their group.  Their group might tell them to start working, or tell them they better finish “their part” and then will come to me with their concerns about the other kid not pulling their weight.  What I suggest is that they don’t say “do your part,” but be very specific with what that part is and what is expected of them the next day.  So with one of our special needs students it might be simply “come in with where Thomas Jefferson was born, and X,Y and Z.”  Not, “Find out some information about Thomas Jefferson.


Kids brought in their significant object paper, we cut them to a size that would fit the top of their lockers and they went out and hung them up.  You can read their personal significant object stories that they posted on their blogs here.  Telling kids to “hang this on your locker” resulted in what I am sure most staff thought looked like a mess…and it did.  But it looked exactly like the the job 100 13 year olds would do :) Made me smile every morning walking in seeing all those papers hung all sorts of ways unique to the individual.  The image below are the neatest set.  Maybe the sloppiness turned off staff members…I expected at least more than one staff member to ask what we were doing!!


After they hung their object I warmed them up with a little exercise.  I told them I woke up, heard a sound, got dressed, found out it was a lamb.  That is essentially how their text book is written.  We fooled around with adding the “story” in between the facts.  In five minutes we had several examples of  ”historical fiction.”  They know enough about me to know what I would have worn, what I would have done, where I would have gone to find the lamb.  Essentially what they are doing with the facts that they have found, and the other details they found out about the individuals lives that they have found.  It was an early release because of snow, so they had about thirty minutes to work on their story.  By the end of the period I was amazed at how they had woven the non-fiction with the fiction to produce some great stories…there were some stories that were total fantasy, and some that were just sentences with facts.  I have kids of all sorts of levels, and that is to be expected.  In some cases a story of total fantasy, or just a few facts, is the best I can expect.  In many cases I told them that they had too much fiction and should consider changing characters.  In most of those cases I was wrong.  They had simply woven in really interesting facts about the events and people that I had never even heard of.  Even after they told me some of the things were true,  I had to look them up because they seemed so far fetched. You will see many levels of writing reflected the final posts.  I try hard to have the writing reflect the kid.  For an extreme example, my student who is autistic is never going to weave in the fiction, so we just work with him to have a short tight factual piece.  So while they are edited, I try to always keep the kid’s voice in the writing.  Sometimes that’s a funny wording, an odd word choice, etc…  Make sense?  I let them make all the mistakes I know they will grow out off, and try to deal with the rest…except I still can’t get them to capitalize the “P” in President.


Took pictures of their historical significant objects and posted them.

One big problem was that many groups did not quite finish their stories and post them in the proper spot. For the kids who did, I was able to read them on  Monday night and give them fixes necessary to finish Tuesday.  Other groups finished, polished and placed story on blog with image.

Here are there historical objects.  I think it is kind of interesting to see the images and guess why they might be significant without the stories attached.  In the past I have simply given kids objects and said work this into your story.  That usually is a very simply way to raise the creativity level.

Wednesday and Thursday–Snow Days!


There were a couple groups in each class that needed to have their picture re-done or done for the first time. I took the pictures and uploaded them while the kids were doing some “paper work” for high school.  Then…

Each group opened the draft of the story on their laptop and we went over the following as a class, step-by-step:

  1. I read the drafts over the snow days and left comments, so they read and fixed what needed fixin’
  2. Spell checked
  3. Checked Titles
  4. Checked ending paragraph
  5. Added tags to post
  6. Checked to see if image was appropriately sized
  7. Decided who was going to speak first, second, third…and what they were going to say

One of the biggest problems we had during the project was snow!  Delayed openings, special meetings, cancelled days…notice how I am going from Friday above to…


It was a short period due to a delayed opening, so we just did a walk through of the presentations.  Each group got up, and started their intro, story, and outro.  When I felt confident that they were confident, I told them to skip to the next part.  So not a full preso, but a quick re-fresher after many days off.

At the end of the day I had my podcast group go through all the posts and double check for images, spelling, grammar, the final “small print” paragraph at end, etc.  Despite all the editing, they still reflect the writing level of my kids, and more importantly the amount of time we had to review rough drafts.  The reality is that schools usually don’t give enough time to do something well.  There is only enough time to do something maybe once, one chance at fixing mistakes, and then you get a grade and move on.  Most of the time in school is spent doing something the first time, a practice, assessed, move on…  At least from my experience on this blog for the posts that I did try to make great, 5% of the time was spent writing, 95% of the time was spent dreaming, fixing, editing, dreaming, and re-writing, and some more editing.  I wish we had the time to do less, but do less better.  One great piece of work a month, instead of an endless series of first time writing pieces that are finished as soon as the last period is placed on the paper.  That last period should be the start of the experience.  How do I do that?


We published all the posts and had the Significant Object website go live.  Then each group did their presentation live.  The kids used no notes, just their head which was the first time this year we did something like that.  One of the things we practiced the day before was that from the moment we went live, there would be no directions given.  Each group would have to know when to go, start themselves, get off without someone telling them, etc.  In between most groups someone got up and did a short talk on Monique Clinique.  I don’t have a full picture of the class, but we had on “on deck” spot where the next group would be standing so that there would be no big transition in between presentations.  The kids were excited when the first donations were placed in the comments before they left class.

There were three tripods set-up in front of the kids.  One had the web cam, one had a regular cam, and one had a sign that you can see in the bottom two images.  The only part that was read off of paper was the in between group plug for Monique Clinique which was written by Leanna Verch who told us about Monique Clinique.  When placed correctly, the sign shows up nicely on the web cam, and we figured out half-way through that we could tuck the microphones behind it so they are out of sight on the web cam.  By the way, one tripod I received for my 12th birthday, one I found in the school garbage, and one I found on the side of the road!



I am running out of steam on this post so a quick final note…Many times when I talk about projects to people who are not in project based classrooms, they think they sound so simple…maybe too simple. They have the impression that I do less work, the kids do less work, and they just run wild as they work in groups, figure out things on their own, and when you have eight groups in my little room, a bit of noise leaks into the hallway.   Come on…read a section of the text, do a little research, write a story, pick an object. Easy right? That’s just explaining a basic outline of what we do, without throwing in the essential question, the level/type of sources used, etc.   After quickly scanning what I thought to myself that this project “sounds” so simple.  I would say after watching and reading some of the kids reflections on the project that this probably ranked between a 8-9 on the difficulty scale for the kids.  Probably about 20% of the kids found it to be a 10.   The toughest part was that it was historical fiction.  Yes, some groups went to0 far with some fantasy, but some wove tremendous tales that you would swear are pure fiction, but in fact it’s almost all true!  So what you get on the Significant Objects website is a great collection of stories, from kids who worked really hard, and are really hoping that people enjoy the stories and donate on each one.  This might not be the type of project that will get the spotlight at the next major conference, or become the next “Common Craft” social studies activity, but it was a great way to have students analyze an event from multiple perspectives (see that’s one of those things that I really didn’t go into detail about in the day-by-day).  But it is and easy to pull off project that would get your kids brains moving.  The website, the donations, the live streaming were just frosting, not necessary.

As is the case with anything you do for the first time, every day…every minute I kept thinking how we could have done so many parts of this project differently.  I do hesitate to make it go “smoother.”  Usually in the end that means more directions by me, less thinking on the kids part.  Some of the most “impressive” looking things the kids do are the least meaningful in the end when I realize that I controlled the project, the directions, the storyline, images, etc…Sometimes the projects with the roughest edges, the ones with the most mistakes, the ones with the most room for improvement, the ones with the most woulda coulda shouldas, end up being the ones that we learn the most from.

So if you made it this far….won’t you visit the site and donate?  Your donation will help a great group, inject some karma into the world, and make some kids in Connecticut feel like they made a difference.  As one of my kids said, by being a part of this project they “got a feeling of warm fuzziness inside.”  Go to the site, donate, there is enough warm fuzzys for everyone.

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