Student Activities

What Is That Used For?

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Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Social Studies
State Standards:
Iowa Core: SS.3-5.BS.1, SS.3-5.BS.4, SS.3-5.BS.6


Students form discussion groups and study images of everyday household items found within the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Cottage. They make inferences about what each artifact might be used for in the home.

This lesson can be done in a single 45 minute class period, after preparation. It can also be split into two 20- to 25-minute class periods.

Classroom teacher Ashley Keenan developed the activities and materials as part of the Teacher to Ranger to Teacher Program, inspired by the many wonderful artifacts housed in the historic buildings, archives, and exhibits at Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. 

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  1. Relate parts of or all of each artifact to something their family uses in the home.
  2. List their ideas on their worksheet independently.
  3. Explain their ideas they have written down to their small groups.
  4. Identify the function of items used in the past by comparing them to items used today.
  5. Compare and contrast the artifacts of the past and the items used today.
  6. Discuss the similarities and differences within their cooperative groups to promote group understanding.
  7. Explain the use(s) of their artifacts to other groups within the classroom.


Analysis: a detailed examination of the elements or structure of something

Artifact: a usually simple object (as a tool or ornament) showing human work and representing a culture or a stage in the development of a culture

Churn: a container in which milk or cream is stirred or shaken in making butter

Culture: a) a particular stage, form, or kind of civilization; b) the beliefs, social practices, and characteristics of a racial, religious, or social group; c) the characteristic features of everyday life shared by people in a particular place or time

Primary source: a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study

Summer kitchen: a small building or shed that is usually adjacent to a house and is used as a kitchen in warm weather

Washboard: a grooved board to scrub clothes on


Step 1:

Divide the class as evenly as you can into 3-4 groups.

Give each student a copy of the artifact worksheet. If the class is divided into 3 groups, each group gets four photos. If they are divided into 4 groups, each group gets three photos. Lay the photos out in front of the students so they can all look at them. Explain that these photos are of household objects from the 1800s, and each one has the function that one of our own appliances at home has.

Step 2:

Give students time to complete a box on their artifacts sheet for each photo in front of them. Adequate time would be 8 to 10 minutes, but let your students guide you on time. Make sure to walk around and encourage those students who may be having trouble or who are working more slowly.

Step 3:

Once each child has finished, or is close to finishing, have students share their findings with their group. Encourage students to compare their answers and look for things they found that match their classmates and things that are contrasting. Direct groups to discuss their ideas and to state their reasons for writing what they did. Each student needs to be able to give reasons for their answers! Make sure not to correct them until the next set of photos has been handed out.

Step 4:

Pass out the “modern” appliance photos that match the artifacts the group has in their possession. Direct them to match the modern appliance with the artifact that does a similar job. Once this is done, have them discuss in their group what they had correct and what they did not. Check to make sure each group was able to successfully match up their comparable photos. If they were not, you can now step in to help them match their photos.

Step 5:

Have each group choose 1 or 2 students to speak to the class. While the rest of the group holds up the photos, have the group representatives share a quick summary of what they talked about and discovered in their group time. Limit the groups to about 2 to 3 minutes. Guide them with open ended questions if the speaker is struggling with their summary.

Step 6:

As a whole-class formative assessment, check understanding by having each student write on scratch paper to answer these two questions and hand in:

  1. What was the most surprising thing you discovered in the artifacts today?
  2. What was most difficult about this activity?

You can use these answers to gauge how well the activity was received and to identify those students who may have been struggling.


Assess student learning through their willingness to participate in the group activities and their ability to explain their artifacts to the other students in the classroom. Use formative assessments that promote student-centered and independent learning. See also step 6 in the lesson procedure.


This lesson could be completed with photos of artifacts from any number of historic sites. You could use this lesson to cover American Indians, the Revolutionary War era, Civil War, etc. This could also be done with a travelling trunk or other travelling history extension.

Have students pick one of their favorite items to use, or something they use often, (iPad, DS, laptop, waffle maker, toothbrush, curling iron) and have them write a journal entry from the point of view of a student in the future. If the future student was studying the item as an "item of the past" (like they just did with the photos) how would they describe it?


Print color photographs of household artifacts from the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Cottage. Laminate for reuse.

Download Artifact Photos

Print worksheets with questions to answer as students study and discuss photographs of artifacts.

Download Artifact Worksheet

Print color photographs of household artifacts from the Herbert Hoover Birthplace Cottage. Laminate for reuse.

Download Modern Appliance Photos

Use this as a reference to identify the artifacts.

Download Teacher Reference

Last updated: July 9, 2016