Thursday, September 6, 2018

Sarah Anne Carter's "Object Lessons"

Sarah Anne Carter is the curator and director of research at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. She has published, lectured, and taught courses on material culture, museum practice, and American cultural history.

Carter applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Object Lessons: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Learned to Make Sense of the Material World, and reported the following:
Page 99 brings readers directly into some of the most challenging aspects of my book: the racist implications of object lessons. The larger study considers the history of object lessons, a nearly forgotten pedagogy that was employed across the United States to teach children about the world. This approach had been designed to open children’s minds, to teach them how to think broadly and expansively rather than relying on rote learning and memorization. It intended to teach students how to move from concrete observations to abstract thinking. By the turn of the twentieth century the actual practice disappeared from common school curricula into metaphor, becoming a way to talk about object-based reasoning more broadly. In chapter 4, “Object Lessons in Race and Citizenship,” I focus on the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. There, African American and Native American students were taught using object lessons and referred to as living object lessons in the transformative potential of these educational methods.

The top of page 99 describes the Native American prisoners of war brought to Hampton by Captain Richard Henry Pratt from Fort Marion:
When Pratt first brought the group of Plains Indian prisoners of war to Hampton in 1878, the school responded with “object lessons.” Ludlow described the curriculum intended for students in the Indian Department as initially centered around the study of things, “The methods of teaching are those in modern use for their grades, with adaptations to the conditions: Language and number lessons with objects, geography with molding sand and map drawing; reading.” Later they were to move on to “arithmetic, history and drawing.” Only then did they enter the normal school’s junior year, usually spending five years in all at the school. For younger native students, objects and object lessons, lessons on pictures, and basic drill usually replaced books for the first three years of classroom study. Because of their perceived abilities to observe, these Native American students were believed to have a “native keenness of perception” that fitted them to the study of natural history, which they pursued through Prang’s lithographs.
This passage explores how those students were educated and the ways teachers at Hampton linked the presumed benefits of object-based learning to the perceived, racially determined abilities of Native American students. Not only does it remind us that some students at Hampton arrived as prisoners of war, but it also highlights the connections between the assumptions teachers made about students’ needs and abilities and the methods and topics used to teach those students. These choices were often based on racial stereotypes.

Page 99 continues by addressing the application of object lessons as a new and popular pedagogy at Hampton, and how parents of African American children in Virginia, many of whom had been denied education under slavery, may have viewed this approach:
Hampton was, as its name indicated, also a normal school. Teachers were trained in pedagogical methods and permitted to teach and observe instruction in the school’s practice school in preparation for their own mandatory teaching experiences. In 1878, Armstrong invited Colonel Francis Parker and his students from Quincy, Massachusetts, known for the “Quincy method” of object teaching, to give a teacher’s institute. Parker’s hands-on methods emphasized students’ real-world knowledge and skills. For example, Quincy was known for its granite quarries. Parker used a specimen of granite from their quarries and another from a New Hampshire quarry as the foundation of a conversation lesson in comparison for his students. The children of granite men could tell the difference between the two samples, and in looking closely at the materials with this in mind, were able to understand the nature of physical evidence.

Through the work of Parker’s teachers, the students in the normal school were explicitly instructed in how to teach with objects. Of course, this mode of teaching was not exactly what some parents were expecting, even though it was employed in various forms in northern schools. In 1879, the Southern Workman, Hampton’s newspaper, reported on the new pedagogy: “The object lessons given to the little children of the Butler School this winter by a trained teacher from Col. Parker’s famous schools in Quincy, Mass. have proved quite trying to the faith and patience of some of the parents, who thought that because the little ones did not bring home books to study they could not be learning anything.” Directing the focus away from literacy was clearly troubling to parents who viewed it as the central goal of primary education and a tool they had been denied under slavery.
For some African American parents at Hampton, many of whom had once been enslaved, a pedagogy that did not focus on reading did not meet their expectations for their children’s education. Many prioritized the development of their children’s literacy skills.

While page 99 does not encapsulate the whole book, it still passes the test. It reminds us that researchers should endeavor to understand the ways instruction and learning unfold in real classrooms for diverse students. We must be attentive to these realities and responsibilities both as scholars and as teachers.
Learn more about Object Lessons at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue