Students at the Children’s Workshop School in New York City have created a fantastic project: Closet Archaeology!
A few years ago, student Bobby Scotto, already a budding numismatist and archaeology enthusiast, began pulling small items out of the crack between the floorboards in the closet of his classroom. Mostly wheat pennies, Bobby’s treasures attracted the notice of other students, who also began examining the floorboards.
Rather than directing the students back to the original schoolwork, teacher Miriam Sicherman found ways to incorporate the exploration into her curriculum and the whole class began researching and developing good recovery habits and documentation of finds. Sicherman even brought in a working archaeologist to discuss how she preserves finds to make sure as much information about each find is retained. The students have learned to document where and when each item was found, the condition it was found in, and more. They have also learned how to research their finds and put them into historical context.
And what finds! Apart from dozens of old coins of many varieties, they have found baseball cards, candy wrappers, a 1921 Red Cross pin, and more. They actually managed to track down the original owner of an envelope with $2 in it that came out of the floorboards: Alan Lederman, who attended the school when it was P.S. 61. Alan said, “I did remember that we would bring in to the teacher a dollar or two every week and then around the winter holiday we would get back a nice lump sum amount for holiday presents. P.S. 61 was fine, I still remember several of my classmates there. I really don’t remember losing the $2. But as I recall, a slice of pizza was about 15 cents to 25 cents at that time, so I guess I could have had a lunch or two for the $2. I was stunned to learn that someone had found the money after all those years. And it was amazing that they had simultaneously found a composition by my then classmate Jane Itzkowitz, who I remembered from so long ago. And it was amazing that Miriam was able to track down two of my other P.S. 61 close classmates. One is now an official of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, and one is a Professor at the University of Washington. I was then able to track down recent YouTube videos they made. It was amazing to see them again on the screen!”
Teacher and overseer of the project, Miriam Sicherman, said, “My students pursued a project that was invented by them, and through that, they came to see the world as a place where something interesting might be hiding around every corner. Teachers always want to cultivate curiosity in their students, and in this case, the students were nurturing their own curiosity. At first, my role was mostly to stay out of their way, and let them develop that curiosity as well as the technical skills of extracting artifacts through the gap in the floor. As the project progressed, I helped logistically in terms of creating time in our schedule, scheduling excavation sessions in other classrooms, obtaining storage materials, contacting experts for their advice, and teaching them some basic online research skills. I tried to facilitate rather than to direct the project.”
When asked about how the project helped her students better understand history, she elaborated, “I have often seen kids connect more viscerally to historical artifacts than to other sources of information, like informational books. I often take students on field trips to places like the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum (a Dutch farmhouse in Brooklyn that was built in the 1650s and has many artifacts) or the African Burial Ground, which has many replicas of skeletons and artifacts. Kids love learning from these objects–guessing what they are, comparing them to what we use nowadays, and imagining the people who once made or used them long ago. When it came to our project, this interest was magnified because the kids themselves had discovered the artifacts–they weren’t chosen by a teacher or museum guide; they were unmediated by adults. So this made the kids even more curious and engaged with the background of many of the artifacts.”
The students continue to make discoveries, and have even ventured into the closets in other classrooms. Bobby continues to be interested in numismatics, history, and archaeology, and hopes to be able to add metal detecting to his skills soon. You can follow the Closet Archaeology project on their Instagram.