By Lauren Goldberg
If you are a fifth grader, there are not many topics that are more engaging than mummies. Corpses, techniques for removing organs, the properties of salt as a dessicant, and amazing stories of the afterlife offer compelling details to ponder.
Foote's ancient Egypt unit, a perennial favorite component of the fifth grade social studies program, is well underway. This month, Adam Solomon's students have been learning about the rise and fall of the Three Kingdoms along the Nile. They have studied pyramids, pharaohs, mythology, the daily life of Egyptians, the role of poor people in society and religious ideas. Books, maps, photographs, drawings, websites and artifacts have brought the culture alive. A few recent covers of The New Yorker, featuring Egyptian imagery, serve to emphasize our continuing fascination with the ancient culture. "One day, we came in and the room was transformed," a student told me, gesturing to the display of books and the posters on the walls.
Those reference materials are now in the hands of the children as they learn and practice research and note-taking skills. For their mummy investigations, they are using technology, rather than traditional index cards, to record their findings. Our 1-to-1 Chromebook program enables the students to create digital notes which they can edit, sort and classify. On the day I visited their class, students were working in partner pairs to identify and document information from a set of text-based resources. The core lesson focused on careful reading and analytical thinking: the class had generated a list of questions about the history, process and beliefs related to mummies and mummification.
Students used highlighters and colored pencils to mark the photocopied pages when they found useful material. Partners discussed the information and worked together to phrase ideas in their own words. They took turns entering their ideas into their Chromebook apps. "The computer makes it way easier to take notes," a girl told me. "Plus, we can't lose them!" Her partner added that the digital tool helped with classification. "We can decide which category the note belongs to, and we can move it if we need to," she explained. These higher-order skills of information management, comprehension, analytical and synthetic thinking are as important to the teaching as the content that the students are learning.
Adam circulated among the students, simultaneously supporting the technology as well as the learning process. "Does this fact belong on the same card as the information you already have?" he asked one team. The students decided that they really needed to start a new card. "Keep reading this page," he suggested to another student who was puzzling over a question about how mummies were preserved. "When we talk about 'process,' we mean something people did on purpose."
At every desk, energetic conversations reflected the students' interest and fascination with the topic. "I didn't know that back in ancient days, some mummies happened just because their bodies were buried in dry sand," someone commented. "I was surprised to know that they stuffed the bodies with salt after they took out the organs," another child remarked. "Which category does this fact belong to?" a girl asked her partner. "It's kind of about history, but it's also about the process."
Adam explained that this week's research is only one part of the data-gathering process. In the coming days, the class will visit the mummies at the Peabody Museum, collect pictures and consult additional resources. The final step in this project will be a demonstration of their knowledge. Once the students have assembled their notes, they will work together to prepare a digital slideshow using a presentation tool called Prezi. This dynamic tool allows the students to think about the connections and relationships among the facts and ideas they are learning. The old world and the new world will be on full display!
Lauren Goldberg is Foote's curriculum coordinator.