A history kit is a collection of hands-on materials focused on a subject and designed to help students and educators come face to face with the past. Highly produced kits include user’s guides with lesson plans, annotated bibliographies, a range of student activities, and a variety of media, objects, and images. They also tend to be grade-specific. Many history museums and CESA media centers provide these to educators, though they may call them discovery kits, traveling trunks, exhibits in a box, or even simply, school kits.
Often times, it is more time efficient and cost effective to check out a kit from your local museum, CESA, or school media center, provided that one exists on the subject you plan to teach. But there are many times when the subject-appropriate kit doesn’t exist, or it’s checked out, or you just need a few objects or images to help make history “real” for your students.
There are three types of primary sources found in most kits: objects, reproduced images, and reproduced documents. Some kits also include video and sound recordings and/or trade publications. Collectively, the individual items tell a larger story and work best when they complement one another. Selecting a historic photograph that includes an object in the kit shows the reality of the object and offers students the opportunity to physically enter into the photograph.
For example, let’s say you’re collecting items for a history kit about the Great Depression. You have a wonderful set of photos of young men who were in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the New Deal programs that put people to work. One photograph shows them eating lunch at a work site, one has them playing softball, another shows their bunkroom, and another is of them clearing the roads. Finding an object to go with each photo — a softball glove, a canteen featured in the bunkroom, a mess kit shown in the lunch photo, a mattock used to clear roads — strengthens the photos and the message that the CCC was more than a work program, it was a program to help young men succeed in life. See an inventory of the materials in an actual CCC kit.
When gathering materials for a kit, it is important to hunt for materials with the central story in mind. Just as with other classroom activities, there are key objectives you want to teach and everything in the kit should point to that objective.
The National Archives and Records Administrations (NARA) has produced wonderful analysis worksheets to help students study materials found in kits and to just generally used in classrooms: objects, photographs, written documents, maps, cartoons, motion pictures, sound recordings, and even posters. The worksheets help guide students along the path of discovery. Other areas of this Making America, Making Americans website demonstrate how to study photographs and objects.