|Humanities Time Capsule: Columbian Exposition of 1893|
Humanities Time Capsules©The Humanities Time Capsule is a device for teaching the humanities to school children. The capsules are thematically organized collections of primary texts and artifacts enclosed in a metal can, simulating the steps taken to preserve documents in real time capsules. Each capsule is an invitation to believe the educative illusion that people from the past are passing notes about their lives directly to students in our time. The idea of creating humanities time capsules emerged withn the Minnesota team of the American Council of Learned Societies curriculum development project during the 1992-1993 school year.
Time Capsules as MetaphorThe collected, enclosed, somewhat anonymous texts and artifacts in each time capsule are a metaphor for learning in the humanities. Opening a time capsule awakens us to the past and makes us wonder about how people and society have changed and not changed. Opening a time capsule, like many every-day experiences, transports us back into lives we have partially forgotten but never really left behind. Opening a time capsule is like opening a box in an archive, discovering a set of letters in an attic, flipping through an old picture album or yearbook, re-reading the marginalia in a schoolbook, finding a treasured note from a friend in last year's jacket. Like any of these encounters with the past, time capsules awaken a series of questions about their contents: Why did someone save this? How valuable was it back then? How valuable is it now? What does it tell us about how things have changed? How they have remained the same? How will the future be different because of what I have found here? When they work, time capsules will not elicit glib reactions and conclusions but instead "deepen the mystery" (to borrow a phrase of Flannery O'Connor's) about the past and the present, others and ourselves, the distant and the near at hand.
Time Capsules as Curriculum Design
Several core assumptions about curriculum design informed our approach to the time capsules:
- These prototype capsules are first and foremost an invitation to teachers and students to create their own time capsules filled with humanities materials of interest to them.
- Their impenetrable surfaces are meant to excite a sense of mystery about their contents so that teachers can strengthen curiosity and teach speculative thinking and hypothesis testing.
- The organization of time capsules around moral, political and multicultural themes arises out of our agreement with Robert Coles that "the humanities do not begin in a student's reading experience, but in our lives--the moral preparation we bring to school, to our reading time."
- The loose collection of texts and artifacts is intended to challenge students to puzzle over a variety of clues about cultures rather than fasten on a short, correct answer.
- The range of texts and artifacts--from popular songs and photographs to presidential speeches--underscores the importance of providing a multi-skilled and multi-disciplinary humanities education for our students.
- The emphasis on texts and artifacts that are available in many good libraries is intended to encourage teachers to seek out their own materials and build their own time capsules for classroom use.
- The inclusion of some obscure but interesting texts and artifacts is meant to invite teachers into the adventure of rediscovering letters, poems, photos, and songs that have been overlooked or ignored by anthology editors and textbook writers.
- The time capsules have an accordion-like design. They can be compressed and used to supplement any art, English, social studies, or even a science course. Or, they can be unfurled and used as a set, which can serve as a year-long humanities or cross-disciplinary curriculum.
- We have deliberately chosen to avoid grade level designations on the materials. Such designations, we feel, would be artificial and misleading. Each time capsule contains some materials that can be used in the primary, middle and high school grades. Our assumption is that teachers will choose those materials most suitable for their students and supplement each time capsule with their own resources.
- The "as if" character of these time capsules encourages teachers and students to suspend their disbelief. These are not, of course, real time capsules--deliberately constructed to communicate with posterity. But they can be used "as if" they are real. Teachers can mask certain identifying features, so that students immediately have to confront fundamental questions: Who were these people? When did they live? What were they trying to tell us about their lives?
- The time capsule design contains its own follow-up lesson or unit. Once students understand time capsules and how they work, they are ready for the questions: What should we place in our time capsules and why? What is it about our lives and cultures that we want to convey to the next generation of students of the humanities?
Time Capsules and Teaching Strategies
Time capsules are not teacher-proof curricular materials. In fact, the effective use of time capsules rests entirely on the professional planning, decisions, and instructional skill of teachers. Time capsules can be used effectively with a variety of teaching styles: social interactive, cognitive, humanistic, and behavioral. And they are flexible enough to work with a wide range of instructional strategies such as cooperative learning, simulations, student presentations, individualized instruction, exhibitions, portfolios, and free writing, to name a few. But they do presume that teachers will use an inquiry approach. In other words, when students open time capsules they initially find questions, not answers. Studying the humanities, in the words of Lola Szladits, "...is the quest for a potentially unexpected answer to a possibly ill-defined question." Teachers with a didactic tell-them-what-I-want-them-to-know style will not be comfortable with the puzzles, ambiguities, and generative issues they will find in time capsule materials. On the other hand, time capsules are not designed to provide purely evocative experiences for students. We believe that the enabling literacy skills of active listening, critical viewing, deliberate speech, thoughtful reading and persuasive writing can and must be developed through the use of humanities time capsules.
How to Get Students to Build Their Own Time Capsules
The Mythical Student Time Capsule is a prototype of a first step teachers can use in getting students to build their own time capsules. Building one's own time capsule can be somewhat daunting, so the mythical student capsule provides two sample artifacts and a sample assessment worksheet. A complete set of instructions is provided and teachers have the option of making the time capsule either an individual or a group assignment. For further information contact: John Ramsay, email@example.com, 507/646-4008
Sample time capsule
Student time capsule