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C U R R I C U L U M    M A T E R I A L S

Malcolm Moore


Main Ideas
All buildings are more than functional. Each tells us something about the time and the people who built and occupied it and those who have used it and occupied it through the years. Looking into the histories of buildings makes the study of history more immediate and personal. These two lessons, The History is in the Building and If Buildings Could Talk, allow students to explore the histories of public and private buildings through use of local research facilities, documents, photographs, and oral history.


Man pointing

Connection with the Curriculum
The best use of these materials would be in a U.S. history class where the teacher teaches a local history unit or a unit on the methods of studying history. Buildings provide insights into local history. There is a natural connection here to language arts or writing classes.

Teaching Level
Grades 7-12

Objectives for Each Student

• Explore ways to conduct local historical research

• Access and use local historical resources

• Conduct oral history interviews

• Present results of historical research in a variety of ways

• Draw conclusions based on historical research


Materials for Each Student or Group

• Photographs and locations of buildings to be studied

• List of local resources that can be used by students

• Handout containing description of assignment, criteria for successful completion of assignment, and list of due dates for assigned project

•Activity 1—Researching Buildings with Primary Sources


Preparing to Teach the Lesson
As this information will be different with each location in which the lesson is taught, some prior preparation will be necessary by the teacher. Take your camera and go to some of the older buildings in town. Take pictures of the facades and any cornerstones, tablets, or inscriptions that might appear. Check out the public library's local history department, the local historical society, and the county clerk's office, etc. You will need to know the hours of each, the extent of the collections, and the persons who can help you and your students.

An alternate preparation could have the students take the pictures as part of a field experience and make the calls to local sources based on the discussion that occurs in Opening the Lesson.

Opening the Lesson
Open the lesson with a questioning strategy:

• What is the oldest building in town?
• What makes you think so?
• What is it used for?
• Was this its original purpose?
• How could we find out?
• Where would you go for this information?

Developing the Lesson
Assign a building to each student or group of students. Tell them they are to use the resources developed in Preparing to Teach the Lesson to tell about the original purpose of the building, what it originally looked like, what it looks like today, and its current use. Depending on the time, age, and ability of your students and the availability of the information, you may choose to have them trace several changes in the building's history.

Concluding the Lesson
• After research is concluded, students or student groups should prepare a poster showing their findings and give an oral presentation to the class.

• As a culminating activity, a timeline showing the history of the community can be developed as each poster is presented and each presentation is made.


Flying House

• A large group debriefing should occur that draws together what the students learned about doing research using local sources, what they learned about their city, and what misconceptions were uncovered and corrected by this activity.

Extending the Lesson

• Take the culminating activity a step further and add to the timeline in a different color important events in American history that were happening at the time these building were making local history.

• Ask the local library or historical society to display the posters.

• Assign students to write the history of the building they researched.

In the last century, and even into this one, it was not unusual for the newspaper to run a lengthy article describing in detail and showing photographs of an important new public building or business. Provide one of these to students and have them compare it to the current building. Results could be presented in a Venn diagram. A Venn diagram is used for comparing and contrasting two items. It consists of two intersecting circles. The outside part of each circle shows one item's unique characteristics. The overlapping part of the circles show details of how the two items are alike.

Venn Diagram

Assessing the Lesson
Assessment should be based on the posters and presentations given, it will be much easier if you have given the directions and criteria in writing and you develop a checklist based on these. Intermittently during the project have student/groups write an update of what they have accomplished, what they have left to do, and what help they need from you.


Materials for Each Student or Group

• Handout containing possible list of buildings and persons to interview

• Handout containing description of assignment, criteria for successful completion of assignment, and list of due dates for assigned project

• Handout containing oral history selections) for students to read as samples

• Activity 2—Researching Buildings with Oral History

Preparing to Teach the Lesson
• Prior to assigning this project, it will be necessary to compile a list of possible local buildings that students may use. Churches, post offices, courthouses, libraries, schools, and stores, are all possibilities. The buildings need to be old enough and need to have at least one person who has a significant history with the building who can tell about it over a period of years. In the case of a church, an older member, an older member who is second generation to the church, or a church historian would be ideal to interview. In the case of a public building or a local store, someone associated with it for a long time, such as a custodian, might know more about the building than someone who worked there. But any person who has a long history of regularly using a public building (i.e., a lawyer for a courthouse or a longtime patron of a store) will be able to provide the necessary information for the student.

A set of guidelines with appropriate due dates needs to be set for the project.

Opening the Lesson
• Ask students to name a building whose use has changed in the last year or so. Examples might include a video store that moved in when the local mom and pop grocery store closed, a gas station that has been remodeled into a bakery thrift shop, etc. Students will understand that some buildings' uses change on a regular basis.

• Ask students to name buildings that have been in their current location and serving the same purpose for a long time. Remember, students' perspective of a long time may be different from the teacher's.

Building Metamorphasis


• Tell them that this lesson will deal with collecting information about these buildings using oral history.

Developing the Lesson
• If the students have not done oral histories before, take the time to explain to them that oral history tells how the information is collected, not how it is reported. It would be good to provide an oral history selection or two for the students to read. The writings of Studs Terkel are good for introducing oral history. For the technique of conducting interviews, review suggested reading in the Bibliography at the end of this volume under the heading "Oral History Examples and Techniques."

• You may want to conduct an oral history interview with someone connected with the students' school as a modeling exercise for the class. Be sure to include the interviewed person's biographical and background information. The information in the oral history is much more valuable if we know who the interviewed person is and understand how the person is connected with the building.

• Provide each student with a handout listing the possible buildings to investigate. Discuss them and ask students to help you add to the list. It would be helpful to have photographs of the buildings because students often recognize a building but do not know its name.

• Distribute and discuss the handout listing the requirements and timeline you have set for completing the project.

Tea Time

Concluding the Lesson
• Students' oral histories should be presented to each other in small groups of three to five where each student can read each other group member's oral history. Each group should discuss what their oral histories have in common and what they learned about the community and its buildings by doing the project. Each group should present its findings to the large group as a debriefing exercise, including suggestions as to how to improve the project for the next group of students.

Extending the Lesson
• Bind the histories and present them to the school library, public library, and/or local historical society.

• Host a tea/reception to thank all the persons who were interviewed with this project. This gives students the chance to ask follow-up questions and get leads for more projects, or they can just stand back and listen as the guests share more information with each other.

• Allow students to repeat this activity with a different building.

• Students can interview another "old timer" associated with the building that was the subject of their just completed project and compare the two oral histories.

• Conducting oral history interviews with a parent, a grandparent, and each other, have students compare changes in housing over the last fifty years. Things to look for would be numbers of rooms, numbers of bathrooms, numbers and uses of outbuildings, terminology changes (family room, living room, great room, etc.), ways houses were heated and cooled, and the number of people living in houses compared to the number of rooms in the houses. If a significant number of students collect this information, a large data base could be constructed and generalizations made.

Assessing the Lesson
• Read the students' oral histories, assessing them based on whether they followed the written guidelines provided by the teacher and met the deadlines in a timely manner.

• Assess the overall project by listening to the groups' presentations in the large group debriefing.

Old General

Activity 1 - Researching Buildings with Primary Resources

Outside of School Building

Inside of Classroom

  1. Photograph of the building—interior and exterior

  2. What changes in the building can you see?

  3. What was the building originally used for?

  4. Is it still used for that purpose?

  5. What other purposes has it served?

  6. Where will you research the building?

  7. What do you hope to find in your research?


handout 2 - Researching Buildings with Oral History

(Schools, theaters, stores, offices, courthouses, etc.)

  1. Who is your interviewee, and what is his/her relationship with the building?

  2. What is the building's present use?

  3. Is it still used for that purpose?

  4. How has the building changed as its use changed?

  5. How has appearance changed, both exterior and interior?

  6. What people used this building during its history?
    Remember people who used it on a regular basis, not just celebrities.

  7. How did people use this building?


  1. Who is your interviewee, and what is his/her relationship with the building?

  2. When was this building built?

  3. Who built it?

  4. How many people lived in it? How has this changed over the years?

  5. How has the building changed on the exterior? On the interior?

  6. What do you remember about the colors used in this building? Furniture? Wallpaper?
    Floor coverings? Lighting? Heating/cooling source?

  7. Do you have any old photos of this building and its inhabitants?
    Do not forget family albums. What do they tell us about the building and its family?

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