In social studies this year, we have been learning about the history of Chicago, using machines as a lens to guide us. Recently, we studied the Great Chicago Fire. Students were fascinated with learning about the second star on the Chicago flag and one of the reasons Chicago is nicknamed the “Second City”.
I set the mood for students by explaining that they were going to hear about a terrible time in Chicago’s history. I began by telling them that in 1871 Chicago was the fastest growing city in the United States. Buildings went up every day—most made out of wood. The summer of 1871 had been very dry with little rain. Along the boulevards and streets of the city, the grass and trees were brown and brittle.
I read to the students the historical narrative Chicago is Burning that was provided by the Chicago History Museum. Next, students transformed into artifact detectives. They had to investigate photographs of objects that were found after the fire and try to guess what the objects were before they were melted, how they were used, and who used them. In pairs, students took their time looking carefully at the photographs and discussed their ideas. After answering these questions, students presented what they thought the artifact was and let peers comment and respond. I then revealed what the object really was. Some example were glass marbles, ceramic cups, and iron nails. We all let out a giggle for a few of the more challenging ones when we were way off in our guessing.
One week later on our field trip to the Chicago History Museum, we saw most of these melted artifacts on display. A very exciting find!