Tona Hangen

Thinking About the Cardboard Box

Caine’s Arcade came along at just the right moment this past semester, when I was feeling tired and jaded about everything and its infusion of wonder and joy was a like a refreshing breeze. I showed it in a couple of my classes, just for fun. Caine’s Arcade, just in case you’ve been under a rock for a few months, is a taped-together cardboard-box arcade created by an ebullient 9-year old from East L.A. in his father’s car parts storefront, and in the film (made by a social media marketer whose imagination was fired by a chance encounter with the arcade) Caine’s optimism and creativity are contagious.

I stumbled onto the film the day, or maybe just the day before, it went massively viral on the internet so I was able to watch its meteoric rise. That evening, I showed it to my husband and he decided to donate a few dollars to the fledgling scholarship fund and it kept climbing even as we were logging in to PayPal so we waited to click “Submit” until our donation was the one to push the fund over $10,000. I’ve been following some of the news coverage as Caine Monroy has become the poster child for entrepreneurial young “makers” everywhere, with appearances at UCLA’s DIY Days and as the youngest-ever speaker to USC’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. And I was delighted, but not really surprised, when the film inspired lots of other kids to make cardboard projects and share them online, as it seemed to give new permission for kids to put down the consumer electronics and try something homemade.

Making stuff out of boxes is dear to my heart, I have to say. One of my favorite books as a kid was Patricia Lee Gauch’s charming tale of the sloppy, creative, indomitable Christina Katerina and The Box, which we read to tatters. Our yard and house, too, had box projects of all kinds and we had this space under the basement stairs which was called “the boxplace” where all the empties got tossed. My grandparents, who lived about 20 minutes away from us and were raising four of my cousins, saved boxes all year and then donated their garage each summer for my brother and cousins to make a gigantic box maze space ship and occupy it as astronauts until it gave out or school started, whichever came first.

What’s been interesting, and what I didn’t really expect, was that Caine’s story would have such legs in the K-12 educational community. In a nation of educational systems stultified by standardized testing and hands-off learning, many educators (and students!) are hungry to take back their classrooms for messy “making.” There’s even a Facebook group for K-12 educators who love Caine’s Arcade to find ways to bring those ideas, and that energy, into their classrooms. But, of course, as this article in Slate this week points out, that impulse is not really new but old, old as in a hundred years old, as in the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century and John Dewey’s educational theories that pushed back—hard and effectively—against an educational culture of rote memorization and nailed-down desks. And here it is again a century later, back but rocket-fueled by Web 2.0 loci like Etsy and Craftsy and Makerbots and public library “hacker” spaces.

What has all this got to do with college-level history education? I’m beginning to try to figure that out. What can playfulness and “maker culture” teach historians like me about how to help students spark curiosity and hands-on learning in history classrooms – which are the last frontier, as it were, of unreconstructed lecture-and-rote learning in the college landscape. In almost no other field are students expected to learn *about* something without actually practicing *doing* it, but that’s still commonplace in history.

A colleague of mine this past semester gave her students an extra-credit challenge to make a shoebox diorama depicting a historical event using Peeps as the actors. She got some great ones – the DDay landing, a slave ship en route across the ocean, the Boston massacre, the Little Rock nine, and it’s clear the students were being both silly and thoughtful about how to depict an event by making something real in three dimensions.

So I’m thinking this week about what the equivalent to a kid’s cardboard arcade would be in the US history survey. What could my students build that looks like, acts like, and simulates-but-also-becomes something real? What tools and raw materials would they need? Could I make my classroom more like a hacker space and less like the Phil Donahue show? (oops, mighta showed my age there). The truth is that I talk a good game about my course being a “history lab” class and about discussion being valued, etc, but in reality some of my students know so little about US history that the default is I’m still doing a lot of the talking or modeling scholarly give-and-take with the most chatty participants and most of my students are just passively watching or taking notes, rather than doing or making something.

It’s a cop-out to say that historians “make” intangible things like questions or interpretations or narratives. Even making a timeline is still a cop-out—although it’s somewhat better when it’s tactile, like having students arrange sticky notes on the board, or my standard Day 1 exercise where I give each student a “name tag” sticker with an event on it (but no year) and they have to sort themselves into a human timeline. I like this activity because it gets them out of their seats and talking to each other on Day 1, but it’s still top-down with me as the expert and there’s only one right answer, so it fails on a number of levels as a good “maker” activity.

This is a post with more questions than answers. I really like the idea of making-as-learning, and I am looking for ways to talk less and get students talking/doing/making more and I want history to seem more to my students like something they can hack, play with, build with, iterate with, and a LOT less like something in an old-style museum in a don’t-touch glass case.

Photo credit: CC licensed by marcia.furman from Flickr (no, that’s not me in 1979, although gee, it coulda been)

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4 thoughts on “Thinking About the Cardboard Box

  1. Joseph M. Adelman

    I’ve got an example of doing something of the sort, though it’s from a European survey, not the US. (And I was not the originator – a friend passed on the idea.)

    Around World War II, the reading we had done was about memory (I forget what it was), not least about remembering the Holocaust. So for the in-class discussion, I divided the class into groups and assigned each a country: come up with a WWII/Holocaust memorial for that country. What would you include? Where would you place it? If I recall, we did France, Germany, Russia, and Poland. After that, we discussed actual memorials.

    Most intriguing for me (to finish the story) was one section that insisted that the German Holocaust memorial ought to be near the camps, not in Berlin, which led to an interesting discussion once I revealed to them that the actual memorial is in fact in central Berlin, just a few blocks from the Reichstag.

    The lesson could be adapted for a number of purposes around wars and other major events – there have been debates in Boston/Massachusetts about Crispus Attucks monuments, for instance, and of course the Civil War debates could be an entire course unto themselves.

    In that vein, I think memory is therefore one way to do making-as-learning in a history course. Show students a debate, ask them to interpret for the present, and then compare it to the actual memory in public space (whether with a big reveal or not).

    Hope this is useful, and that you get some good discussion going here. It’s an important question.

  2. Tona Post author

    Picking up on that thread, Ed O’Donnell at Holy Cross has effectively used memorial markers & plaques as a way to have students make something to show history learning. He draws on the database (which can also be uploaded to). I have tried digital documentation projects, but they somehow don’t feel “cardboardy” enough, if that makes sense.

  3. Charlotte

    Love it! No answers yet, but I’m thinking.

    When Jack Mino came a few weeks ago to talk about Learning Communities and the First Year Experience (he is doing fantastic work at Holyoke Community College), he mentioned has been inspired by preschool teaching and pedagogy to think about the ways that learning can be made visible.

  4. Sara Mayeux

    Interesting set of questions! Not exactly cardboardy, but here’s one example of an innovative approach to history teaching that I have read about:
    This professor had each student adopt a persona for the length of a German history class, and write response papers in the perspective of that persona.

    For the methods seminar I’m currently teaching, I gave the students the choice to do either a straightforward final paper or a “creative” assignment where they create a film clip, song, scene from a novel, diary entry, comic book, etc. from the period we are studying, but then also write a companion paper where they explain their creative choices and thought process, why they think their piece is historically plausible (citing sources), what ideas they came up with but scrapped for not being plausible for the time, any remaining questions they had or further research they’d want to do, etc. I guess I will see how they turn out, but so far I’ve been impressed by the students’ ideas.