Purposeful Making in American History Class by Heather Pang

(written by Heather for Designing Purposeful Making Experiences, Jun 2017)

In my history class a purposeful making experience needs to combine a purpose for the making with a purpose for the historical understanding. Both parts need to be significant, and the combination of the two purposes should be greater than either one together. Historical understanding enhances the making experience, making enhances the historical understanding.

My Project: American Suburbs and the American Dream, 1877-1929

My project for this workshop started as a skill builder. I had removed a project (in part because the history part of it did not seem meaningful enough) from previous years and the students showed their lack of skills in a later project. They were not as comfortable or experienced with the laser cutter and the software we use to design for laser cutting (Inkscape). When I realized this, I looked at the calendar for a place to introduce a making project and settled on residential architecture and the rise of suburbs in the United States. We will focus on the late 19th century “streetcar suburbs” and the 1920s expansion of housing because of the automobile. .

The maker skill building was pretty purposeful from the beginning: students to learn and then have time to practice using the vector drawing software. They will have used it once before for a very simple project, but they will need to refresh these skills and build new ones to create their drawing and cut-out of a house. They will also get a quick introduction to the online box making software, Maker Case, which can be useful later in the year.  As we worked through what made something purposeful, I reflected on ways to make this fun and challenging, but to ensure the students have enough time and instruction to get a great result out of the project. We will use their creations in the classroom, but then they can take them home. The scale we use will be important here. We want them to be able to see the detail they draw, but also make the boxes small enough to take home easily.

Inkscape drawing. Red line is to cut.1920s Sears House “The Crescent”

Primary source for Sears building:

I spent more time working on what will make this activity meaningful for history class. We do a 3D printing exercise to understand the buildings of Colonial Williamsburg and try to expand our thinking about an 18th century city. With the suburbs project, which will take place much later in the year, I want to be able to help students go deeper into the issues of the neighborhoods created by the economic and technological changes in American life. Each student will pick a house (from a set I supply) in a particular neighborhood in a specific city. The homes will all be new in the period we are studying. Since I have 4 sections of history 8 I will pick 4 different cities so by the end of the project we can compare four neighborhoods in different parts of the United States. The choices will depend on available primary sources, I hope I will be able to find materials for these cities:

  • San Francisco (or San Jose)
  • Los Angeles
  • Atlanta
  • Chicago

I am intentionally leaving out cities that developed extensively before this period because the historical context is more confusing in places like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

After students have created their laser cut homes, we will lay them out on a butcher paper plan showing the lots in a typical neighborhood:

Source: Virginia Savage McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses, p. 67).

Using primary sources such as advertisements, newspaper articles, and personal reflections we will use our little Potemkin suburbs to examine the following questions:

  • Why did people move to the new suburbs?
  • Who lived in these new houses?
  • Who did not live in these new neighborhoods? Why? (I think I will find primary sources that show redlining and other forms of institutionalized racism.)
  • How did the suburbs show ideas about the American Dream?
  • Where did people come from who moved to these new housing developments? Why did they come? What did that do to the places they used to live?
  • How were styles of housing different in different parts of the country?
  • How were houses built before 1930 different than houses built today? (Compare these neighborhoods to ones the students know, including the one where the school is located.)

I hope to do this project before the creative writing project we do about technology and innovation in people’s lives which is in the same unit and covers the same time. I think if we have a good discussion here about these neighborhoods the historical understanding students show about homes and cities in the short stories (choose your own adventure stories in Twine) will be significantly improved.

Heather Pang is the 8th grade history teacher at Castilleja School in Palo Alto.