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Is your school shown on a postcard such as this?
Primary school: Watsonville, Calif.

"Using Postcards in the Classroom"

by Bruce Ellison

This pamphlet is one of a series on using postcards, playing cards, postage stamps and paper money as inexpensive but fascinating teaching aids in your classroom.

(Copyright © 2005)

Postcards are an easy and fun way for increased student participation in classroom activity and learning. They are a form of show-and-tell in which each student, or team of students, is provided with a card or cards that become the basis for research, oral presentation or a written report.

Postcards were extremely common from all across the United States and around the Western world from about 1900 through the 1960s. Since then, the number of subjects depicted on cards has declined, though the cards still are highly popular.

With a little imagination from the teacher, subjects shown on cards can cover almost any part of the curriculum, and almost any grade level, including college and even master’s degree programs.

In the early part of the 20th Century, itinerant postcard salesmen, who often also were photographers, traveled the nation’s byways, selling newly made and photographed cards in bulk to merchants, druggists, companies, chambers of commerce and tourist attractions. The cards proved useful as an early economic-development tool.

It wasn’t just views of Yellowstone or Yosemite that were popular: vistas of a shady or dusty Main Street, the local bank or hotel, the druggist or pharmacy, the telephone building, railroad station, churches and schools -- all were popular subjects and proved how the town or area was growing.

Example: Is your school depicted on a post-card? If the building dates back to the 1960s or before, the answer is "probably yes." That’s particularly true in smaller towns. See if your students can find such a card.

Once that card is in their hands -- well, when was the school founded? When was the building built? Was it enlarged? How can we find out? Who was it named after? Why? If it’s Lincoln School, is that Abraham Lincoln? Probably, but maybe not.

Who was LaSalle, or St. Ignatius or Pierce, or Longfellow?

Is it in the Peoria (AZ) district? Wasn’t that one of the first school districts in Arizona? When was it set up? Peoria? Was that named for the town in Illinois? Why? By whom? The questions can just keep coming, and a stimulated class can just keep seeking answers.

Finding postcards is easy. They can be sought as a class project, in a kind of treasure hunt or scavenger hunt (supervised by parents, please.) Or, students can ask grandpa and grandma if they have any cards. Grandparents, sometimes retired, may have lived elsewhere in the country, or emigrated from another nation. Is there something in their attic your youngsters could borrow?

You can buy current cards in drugstores, variety stores and tourist shops, or ask at local Chambers of Commerce.

What about other relatives? Parents may know who’s gone on a trip. And neighbors, too, are a good source. If students get older cards, see if they can find updated pictures of the same thing or area, and discuss the changes. Social studies: What happened and why? Did the town decline after the mine closed? Did the town grow after the railroad was built thru it?

You could make a class project out of writing to grandparents who live elsewhere. Determine if cards thus acquired should be sent to the grandchild at home, or maybe to the class. If sent to the school, the request looks more educational… but may bring personal matters into the open. The teacher has more control over the introduction and examination of cards if they are in his/her hands before being looked at, but youngsters lose the thrill of discovery. You may want to provide postage stamps for the return of cards, so that lower-income students whose relatives might not have a lot of cash, also participate easily.

Maybe, if you teach report-writing or high-school journalism, a few youngsters could interview grandparents about life in another country or state "ages ago," and prepare an oral presentation accompanied by cards to illustrate it, then write it up, like this little brochure.

Using postcards in the classroom can require preparation from the teacher to make them an effective teaching tool. Here are some thoughts:

The State Capitol. Where is it? What does it look like? Can we get a card? (A classroom letter to the Secretary of State or similar official often will bring a card and probably a brochure about the structure. The Internet, too, offers much information on capitols.)

This is a good way to make geography in lower grades more interesting. Did parents or your family live in another state (or country)? Which one? Do you know the capital? What is it? Can we get a postcard from there?

Maybe students could collect postcards of all 50 state capitols (all such cards exist and are not expensive.) As a class project, prepare a v e r y large map with state outlines, and let the students who have the cards mark the locations of the capitals. Paste the cards onto the map near the site of the capital. Use photo mounting corners to keep the cards available for another class later.

Look at the cards and compare the capitols with the US Capitol in Washington. Are they similar? Many will be, because many states took the national Capitol for a model. But a few state capitols won’t look at all like that. Which states do not have a dome on their capitol building? (A few do not,) This is the state Capitol in Iowa. Oklahoma which planned one in the early 1900s finally finished it in the early 2000s.) Which are like office towers?

Teachable moments:

Difference between capitol and capital.

How many capitals carry the names of presidents? Which? (Washington, DC; Jefferson City, Mo.; Madison Wis.; Jackson, Miss.; Lincoln, Nebr.) Which were actually named for presidents? (Jackson, MS was named for Andrew, Hero of the Battle of New Orleans; he hadn’t yet run for President.)

How many have French names? Names of kings or queens? Names in Spanish? Religious names. (More than you think, like Des Moines.)

Capitol buildings aren’t the only things you can find on cards from each state. Often, there are maps of the state or portions of it. Try to get a few of those, then see if students can tell why certain locales are featured on the maps. Arizona, for instance, will have the Grand Canyon marked… but what else and why?

How did the capital cities get their names. In the case of Oregon, for instance, who was Salem? (Not a person.) Who was Austin? Why is it Columbia, S.C., or Topeka, Kans., or Santa Fe, New Mexico?

And is Santa Fe, the oldest continuously occupied state capital, really Santa Fe, or is that just the shortened version of its Spanish name? (the words mean holy faith.) (The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.)

What else can you do with inexpensive postcards?

Do you teach English Lit? Why not a card from the House of Seven Gables in Salem, Mass.? Or the area in the Plains where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived? There are cards showing the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays first were performed. Maybe your class can find postcards of theaters in the U.S. where Shakespeare is performed these days, often in summer stock, in smaller towns.

Teaching art?

Postcards of almost any well-known art treasure are just 50 cents or so. Write any museum or gallery that might house the work for the cards. Postcards showing the area that Andrew Wyeth painted in Pennsylvania or Maine are easy to come by. Why not compare the actual site with the artist’s impressions of it? (Shown is a Calder work from the Hirschhorn Gallery in Washington.)

Cards also may be used to compare Renaissance art with modernism, cubist with impressionism, and so on.

Teaching biology?

Ask the kids to find postcards with animals. Maybe you can find one with your state’s "official" animal, or bird, or flower. (All states have an official bird and flower, and they were depicted in a set of U.S. postage stamps a few years ago). One thing leads to another here. Why this animal, bird or flower? How is it important to our state? Why is the sunflower so important in Kansas? (Shown is a cougar, also called mountain lion or puma.)

Get a few cards from zoos, or, less commonly, from Africa, with lions, cougars or other big cats. How are the animals similar? Where do they live? [Part of the world; type of environment (jungle, mountain, plains, water)]; how are they adapted to that life? What do they eat? How did they get their name? All animals have scientific names, mostly Latin-derived. Felis leo. Felis concolor. What do they mean? What does a man named Leo suggest about him? A town named León? Or a dandelion? (from French, dent de lion, lion’s tooth.).

Teachable moment.

Question for investigation: Do lions actually have bright yellow teeth? How can we find out? (Visit a zoo, call a zookeeper. Have an adventure and find out! Carefully.) [Teeth here refers to the sharp-pointed leaves.]

Learn language from the rhinoceros. Hmmm? Ever hear of a nose job like some movie stars get? Anybody know a rock star or move star who’s had a nose job? Can we find a postcard with him or her on it? Technically, a nose job is called rhinoplasty, done by a plastic surgeon. Is there a clue here about the rhinoceros? Rhino means nose. Rhinoceros, well, look at the rhino (nose) on this postcard. It sure does have something on its nose, right… and "cero" - OK, teacher, what’s that?

Teacher: now we’re on a new subject, and you can seek as many answers as there is curiosity, all from one postcard. Do the same thing with a horse (equus), much easier to get in the southwest than a rhino card. Or a fox or moose. An armadillo. A buffalo.

Teaching science? Where was Alexander Graham Bell born? (There’s a card, yes!) Who invented the dial telephone? Who invented the switchboard? When did the first satellite phone call get made, from where to where? (A card, yes, and postage stamp.)

Where did Edison spend his winters? (Another card.) Edison’s winter home in Florida may be the nation’s first prefabricated or modular home. Built in Kennebec County, Maine, it was disassembled and shipped by sea to the site in Florida where it was later reassembled. (The museum has a Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers, Fla.)

 Teaching Black History? The U S Postal Service has helped you with more than 20 stamps over two decades showing notable Black Americans and their accomplishments. But, the postal people also have reproduced the stamps on oversize postcards, and provided biographical data on the back. Ask your local Postmaster about the cards before Black History month in the spring, or before Martin Luther King’s birthday. Not all offices have the cards, but officials may be able to order them. Cost is about 40c each in packages of 10 to 20 cards.

What else? In 2003, you could have used postcards that would have helped you explore:

-- The 200th anniversary, or bicentennial, of Ohio Statehood. (Ohio gave light and flight to the world; Edison was born in Milan, Ohio.)

-- The 100th anniversary of powered flight (Wright brothers, December 1903.) There can be convincing arguments made that the Wrights were not first: that a man named Santos-Dumont from Brazil, was ahead of them technologically. Want to set some students on that chase?

-- The 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Panama Canal by Americans. This topic opens up a whole course from map- making to engineering to medical science to fund-raising. There is an abundance of postcards from the 50,000-plus people who worked on the canal for a decade. It also allows you to The Panama Canal map card costs about $12. Teach history with one of the longest palindromes in English: A man. A plan. A canal. Panama. The man was Teddy Roosevelt, the plan was to connect Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the canal was the Panama Canal. A palindrome is a phrase that reads the same spelled forwards and backwards. Take another look at A man. A plan. A canal. Panama. Read it from right to left, letter by letter, spelling out loud as you go, ignoring spaces. Would your students catch this? A teachable moment, in English.

More ideas for cards.

Note: Some of these ideas may require development of a plan that will integrate the cards and the ideas with the rest of a required curriculum. That’s up to the teacher; the author isn’t a specialist in curricula or state requirements.

Physical geography: Use cards with maps or state outlines to introduce the idea of latitude and longitude. Look at a map of Colorado. Are the east and west sides parallel? Looks like it, but… get a globe. Parallel lines don’t intersect but longitude lines do, at the poles. Latitude lines ARE parallels.

Teachable moments:

The Korean War and the 38th parallel. US disputes with England over Canada, and "54-40 or fight." The Mason-Dixon line. Where, at what latitude, and why important?

Borders. Get a card from the Four Corners, the only place where four states touch at a common point. What four states? AZ UT CO NM. Are there cards you can find that show the U.S. border with Canada? (The Canadian border is marked at one-mile intervals by concrete or stone monuments [above, right]; there’s a Joint US-Canadian International Boundary Commission.)

(This is not the Campobello bridge) The world’s shortest international bridge, US-Canada. Are there parts of the U.S. that can only be reached by land by going to or through another country? (Yes, quite a few.) How about parts of Canada reached only by road from the U.S.? (Try Campobello Island, New Brunswick, accessible by bridge from Lubec, Maine.)

Teachable moments:

Franklin D Roosevelt’s "cottage" on Campobello; his attack of polio there; his return many times during his life. The play, "Sunrise at Campobello," (see a video of the movie). The Roosevelt home there is now an international park run jointly by the U.S. and Canada (research that subject in high school; who runs the park, who pays for it? etc. Why are both countries involved?)

Time zones. There are 24 hours in a day, but it isn’t the same time everywhere. Check the globe again. Teacher explains time zone idea; students draw some lines. The base for this is the prime meridian, at Greenwich, England. (Teachable moment: Meridian, from Latin, "middle of the day." AM and PM; ante meridian and post meridian (i.e., before and after mid-day. So, what’s 12 noon: AM or PM? Technically, it’s just M (meridian).

What’s the International Date Line? Why do we need one? Why is it where it is? (Many cruise ship lines have commemorative postcards or certificates for passengers who cross the line; so does the military.)

Standard time in the U.S. When was it set up, and officially divided into four zones? Was there political fighting over what cities or states would be included in what zones? Maine, for instance, probably should be on Atlantic time (Canada’s extra eastern zone) because it’s so far east. Bangor, Maine, was the last city in the U.S. to agree to the standard time idea, because of that.

This pamphlet is one of a series on using postcards, playing cards, postage stamps and paper money as inexpensive but fascinating teaching aids in your classroom. Some programs are available as PowerPoint presentations for projection or on-screen study.

For more information, write the author:
Bruce Ellison – P O Box 492 – Youngtown AZ 85363

Be sure to include your e mail address
if you’d prefer an electronic reply

Any corrections to content accuracy gratefully accepted; any comments on how you might use or have used cards in class, welcomed. Thanks. BE

Contents copyright 2005 by Bruce Ellison, Youngtown AZ
Please do not reproduce this material without permission. Thank you.


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