Monday, November 2, 2009

Clues from the Past

Making History Relevant

Historians of the Mediterranean may be breathing a sigh of relief after the recent announcement that our 4th grade class has joined an investigation that has puzzled experts around the world. The case involves the whereabouts and most recent activities of “Sarah Jane,” an archaeologist whose last known location was in the vicinity of the ancient city of Pompeii. Last week, authorities from Sarah Jane’s university met with our own Mrs. Holman. They shared their concerns about Sarah Jane’s peculiar behavior before she was last seen, as well as the disappearance of several artifacts from the research site. University officials also provided Mrs. Holman with a copy of Sarah Jane’s video diary, which includes notes and images from her discoveries.

Our students have examined the video entries and the photographs and resources included in Sarah Jane’s journals, and they are applying all of their skills-- in careful observation and historical research, as well as their own knowledge about the site that Sarah Jane was studying. The video diary presents countless clues about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79. Since the ruins of the city of Pompeii were first discovered, archaeologists have viewed it as a priceless “moment in time,” capturing details of daily life nearly 2000 years ago. Despite the wealth of information in the diary, Sarah Jane omitted curious details that our students are working to decipher.

It comes as no surprise that our fourth grade would be selected as investigative partners on this endeavor. The fourth grade social studies curriculum emphasizes exactly the skills that are required for such a careful analysis. Students learn to observe an artifact closely, considering all possible aspects of the item such as workmanship, materials and tools that may have been used to form the object, and possible uses it might have served in the culture. They learn to conduct research using multiple sources, and to compare the information presented in these resources. They develop theories and test their own analytical evaluations, looking for evidence to support or contradict their ideas. Finally, they work in teams to collaborate and build knowledge together, sharing what they have found and coming to a deeper understanding of people from long ago.

Sarah Jane’s diary included many images of architectural details and decorative items from the city of Pompeii, Is it possible that she had come upon a new discovery that would expand our understanding of the once-buried Roman city before she disappeared? Our fourth grade may soon be able to provide an exciting update to this mystery.

Do the students know that they are involved in a clever simulation, or do they believe that Sarah Jane is real? Although there were some questions about the truth behind Mrs. Holman's story, this detail didn't really matter. Nine- and ten-year olds are at a wonderful age for such a project, in which they can combine imagination with intellectual skills to devise intricate scenarios, make connections among different categories of information, and enjoy the experience for the sheer fun of the narrative.

Regardless of age, I believe that role-playing experiences build children's confidence and interdisciplinary skills. In later grades, these tasks can become more grounded in reality, in which students tackle engineering challenges, debate social issues, or participate in research and data collection. When students can envision themselves doing the job of an expert in a particular field, the content area becomes more interesting, more useful, more purposeful. It is our job as educators to create situations that are meaningful and appropriate opportunities to apply the skills they need to solve problems and think critically.

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