Teach Through Objects

Teach Through Objects

When I was a first year teacher, the Department of Education assigned me a mentor named Donna. She helped me in innumerable ways, but one day in particular she brought in a little something wrapped in a paper towel and kept inside a small tupperware container. I opened it up slowly, not sure what to expect. As soon as I finished unfolding the paper towel covering the object, I screamed.


It was a rhinoceros beetle, dead but well preserved. Donna was cracking up while I was trying to recover.  She suggested that my students might be interested in it.

Some of my students refused to touch it, while some were so wild to get their hands on it I was certain it would be crushed within minutes. However, ALL of them were interested in talking about it. Why might it have hair on it’s legs? Why would it have such a hard shell? How strong did they think it could be? And (because they were fourth and fifth grade boys) what bugs and other creatures could it “beat” in a fight?

My students were more engaged than they had been in anything else the entire year. This started a trend of Donna bringing in more creatures (including a centipede which was somehow the only one I could never bring myself to hold.) And every time she brought in a new object, my students engaged in critical thinking activities that were nearly impossible to get them involved in with pencil and paper or simple readings.

I’ve used objects throughout the years I’ve taught. However, it wasn’t until I read “Teaching yourself to teach with objects” by John Hennigar Shuh as part of a Coursera course called Art and Inquiry, that I began to ask myself why I haven’t been more deliberate in using objects as a part of my teaching on a more regular basis.

Shuh points out that unlike other teaching materials we use, objects are not age-specific. He details a wonderful example of showing teachers how to use an object to teach, then using that same object with first graders.

Though it has been requested by multiple readers, I am hesitant to label the toys and games described here by grade level (though I have caved a little by ascribing age ranges). It has not been my experience in teaching that toys, games, books, and other activities fall so neatly into age categories. And I think Shuh has hit upon the reason why. After all, aren’t toys objects? Aren’t there games and activities we do with preschoolers that we also enjoy? I can’t begin to count how many times I have seen adults become immersed in a play-dough activity, get carried away by a children’s story, or crack up while playing a child’s card game.

I have always been thoughtful in my teaching about how games and toys can be used to capture the motivation of students and lead to more natural and applicable teaching. Why haven’t I done the same with objects? Especially because I have seen everything Shuh describes (and there is so much, you really should read the whole thing) actually work in my own practice.

Shuh describes a couple of examples of what objects have to teach us, and I found myself thinking of missed opportunities with former students and ideas for current ones. He also talks about what objects tell us about ourselves and our culture. While I do teach through games and toys, Shuh’s example of a discussion about a styrofoam cup was eye-opening for me. There are so many opportunities for insightful teaching that are being missed repeatedly. Now I can’t shut off the ideas, and I’m feeling oddly nostalgic for that rhinoceros beetle that scared the living daylights out of me so many years ago.

Donna let me keep the rhinoceros beetle after my first year. It traveled through my classrooms for seven years. I used it with elementary students with emotional disturbances, middle school students with learning disabilities and autism, and middle school students who were designated as “gifted.” The rhinoceros beetle showed up in math lessons, reading lessons, and graphic design lessons.

During my seventh year of teaching, I was working with a four year old student with language delays who was fascinated by all animals. I decided to bring in my rhinoceros beetle with the permission of the head teacher in his classroom. Though I only saw this student for a couple of hours each day, I heeded his request to let the rhinoceros beetle stay with the class after I left. The next day when I came back, the rhinoceros beetle was missing. The head teacher felt terrible and was unable to find out what had happened to it. A few weeks later, my student mentioned in passing that he felt better knowing that the beetle was where it belonged. Turns out, my student had given the dead beetle a “proper burial.” If that doesn’t tell us something about my student and our culture, I don’t know what does.

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