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Teaching the History of Race Through 100 Objects

A high school history teacher at Ellis School in Shadyside is showing his 11th grade students the evolution of racial attitudes in America by exploring how common items have had different meanings for black and white people.

Students speak in the first person and personify one item a week including a typewriter, bus ticket, acoustic guitar, police baton and a flapper dress.

“Well the '20s were a period of real change for African Americans," said Ellis history teacher Rick Malmstrom. "Entertainment became a reality, flappers were black and white. In the Harlem renaissance, for example, you would have seen African American and white people together in clubs there. So flapper dress witnessed this, all of these changes from either a white person’s flapper dress or a black person’s flapper dress, but what they saw going on around them and what it meant to them and why they thought about it the way they did.”

Malmstrom and his colleague, Sara Sturdevant, visual arts department chair, developed the idea based on the global trend in museums to tell the story of an item's user and how they shaped history rather than where and when the item was found.

“In my history classes we deal with race all year long, but kids want to compartmentalize topics like this, and I want to get past that and show people’s racial attitudes change over time and how and why that happens,” Malmstrom said.

The students pick an object and Google search. They read articles and search ebay. Malmstrom wants them to know not only the history of the item, but also who used it. He said it gets students to think about race in a different way.

During the pre-Civil War section, junior Dayna Rouse studied the Akan drum.

“It was like interesting, the process of how it was made in Africa and then taken over with slaves and like how white people would think to profit off of it and sell it and trade it more than black people would think to use it how they used it at home,” Rouse said.

After the students write their narrative, they record their voice and create a multimedia video with images that they then upload to the class’s Youtube channel.

“I’m a history teacher and I’ve been at this for a while, but more and more because of the resources that are available, the best way to teach history is to have students teach themselves about history," said Malmstrom, "and that’s exactly what’s happening here. I’m providing a lot of framework and a lot of the foundational context, but then the real deeper learning comes here. And that’s what’s really valuable about it.”