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Designing a Course Around an Object: Thinking Locally as a Way to Think Globally (Part Two)

January 16, 2012

The Kline & Brown Churn

In my last post, Designing a Course About a Point on the Map: Thinking Locally as a Way to Think Globally”, I described a course centered around a specific location. The spark for that thinking was a purchase I made at an auction recently of a large pottery five gallon churn made by pottery makers Kline and Brown who very briefly in the 1880s worked together within walking distance of our home and our school in Atlanta. Today one would have to risk one’s life walking to the spot where the churn was made—the traffic does lend itself to pedestrians.

Another course possibility would be to center the work we would do in a course around the churn. Like the course centered on a single area, creating a course around a single object reverses the usual way we teach content. Most often we teach from a macro-view, and in order to support that wide-view we find specific examples. The two course ideas I am thinking about would operate from the opposite direction—we would start with a desire to learn as much as we can about specific place or object and use that knowledge to help us develop a wider perspective.

Some possible questions for the course focused on the churn:

  • What is the science relevant to understanding the creation of the churn?
  • What can the churn teach us about traditional pottery making?
  • As an artifact of Reconstruction, what can the churn teach us about building an economy out of the rubble of the Civil War?
  • What can we learn about Kline and Brown?
  • What can we learn from the Kline and Brown family geneologies? Many of the major pottery-making families operated for generations (some are still continuing a tradition going back well into the 19th Century). Such a study would reveal how these families moved in order to support themselves, and like the Kline and Brown partnership. Members of the Brown family, for instance, helped bring techniques of making pottery with them from North Carolina when they moved into North Georgia after the war.
  • What glimpse can the churn provide us of life before electricity?
  • What forces in the twentieth century doomed (or perhaps better, marginalized) the way of life represented by the churn?

Just like the course focused on a particular location, meeting the demands of the course would require:

  • Working outside the confines of any single academic department.
  • Seeking the expertise of people outside our school community. [In the case of the course about the churn, we would need to see exactly how these potters worked using kick-wheels and locally dug clay.]
  • Careful research in libraries and archives.
  • Extended time. It would be challenging and likely impossible to do this well in the confines of traditional fifty minute a day classes, particularly when our ability to be flexible and leverage off-campus resources would be so significant.

I am not proposing that everything in our curriculum be taught this way; however, I do believe there is a significant role for this type of course to play. This approach promises deeply engaging, as well as highly relevant, learning.

Kline and Brown Churn Close-up

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