Why Artifacts Help This History Teacher Captivate His Students

Mark Westpfahl teaches 6th and 7th grade History at Capitol Hill Magnet School in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He doesn’t want to teach in a lackluster environment,  so Mark fills his room with engaging “artifacts” that tell stories.

“A classroom that’s just dull, drab, or a little bit boring doesn’t inspire kids to want to learn,” said Mark. “One of the things I wanted to do when I started my career was get artifacts in the room. Find engaging things that–even if we didn’t use them in the classroom right away–students could go up and touch, and play with, and try to figure out.”

_MG_5418Mark’s students are the first to say that his classroom is far from boring. According to Joe, a student at Capitol Hill Magnet School, Mark’s classroom is fun and filled with “a lot of cool stuff.” Some of the “cool stuff” that Mark brings to his classroom has personal meaning, like a “Mark for Mayor” button from when he ran for Mayor at 21 years old.

Other classroom artifacts have historical meaning and are organized in trunks based on the lesson he’s teaching. He has trunks that help teach lessons on subjects like World War II, the Civil War, immigration, and mining. Each is filled with authentic and replica artifacts from the time period he’s teaching, such as ration books, draft cards, military apparel, and flags.

When shopping for items to put in his classroom trunks, Mark can spend anywhere from $10 to $70 on a single purchase. To find affordable artifacts that fit his lesson plan, Mark goes to garage sales and antique shops, where he can attempt to “cut a deal” on costly items.

students hard at work on a project

Before making a big purchase for his classroom, Mark says that he needs to first think to himself, “How can I use it in my classroom and can I afford it?” His school isn’t able to provide more specialized items. “They’re great tools, but it’s not in their budget,” he said.

It’s not just classroom artifacts that his school can’t afford, even basic materials can’t always be supplied. To help students who can’t afford supplies, Mark spends $400 to $500 a year out of his own pocket to purchase basic classroom items like binders, folders, pens, pencils, and rulers. He does this because his classroom budget is “virtually nonexistent.”

“I have three or four kids who say, ‘I don’t have a pencil today,’ or ‘I don’t have a notebook, what do I do?'” said Mark. “There’s a genuine need and the family can’t afford it.”

It’s hard for Mark to explain to some people why a few parents need his extra support when “it’s just a notebook, it’s just a few dollars.” He’s seen how hard it is for parents to continually buy supplies for all of their kids, especially when they each need materials like notebooks and folders for every class.

To help bring materials to his classroom, Mark uses AdoptAClassroom.org to fundraise. Currently, Mark hopes to use donations he receives to revamp the seating in his classroom.

“One of the things that drew me to AdoptAClassroom.org was the fact that you’re reaching a bigger audience and you have the potential of raising money a little bit faster or in bigger amounts,” said Mark.

student writing during a social studies class

Mark wants the seating options in his classroom to reflect those found in the “real world,” like at a library, coffee shop, or the open space at a university. Students have to sit in his class for 45 minutes at a time, and some of them require special seating because of their juvenile arthritis or height. Mark wants standing stations, stools, comfortable seating, and alternative shaped desks or chairs for his students to choose from.

Seating is extra important in Mark’s classroom, since currently there aren’t enough chairs for all of his students. According to Zosh, a student in Mark’s History class, there are so few desks in the classroom that one student sits on the counter space next to the sink.

“Some kids have to sit on the floor,” said Joe. “That’s frustrating to me; I feel like we should just have more desks and chairs.”

students chatting during classTo take focus away from the materials and desks his students are missing, Mark keeps them engaged with fun lesson plans and artifacts. Despite the high costs required for his curriculum, Mark continues to spend time and money each year to ensure the success of his students.

“You do want to put forth the effort, time, and energy to give them educational opportunities,” said Mark.

Help Mark build a classroom where his students can thrive by making a donation to his classroom page.

Check out the new ways donors can give here.