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Uncovering the Past, Clue by Clue

Third graders are examining artifacts found on a farm in rural New York—silver coins, square-head nails, a doll's torso—and they have a few questions. Actually, they have a ton of questions.

"Why is the silver coin worn out?" one student asks.

"What made the nails dull?" another asks.

"Why doesn't the doll have limbs?"

"How did the coins get stuck in a tree?"

Seated in a circle in Ashley Schnabel's classroom, the students pose more than a dozen additional questions as the teacher patiently records each one on a big yellow easel pad. Within a few minutes, they have generated a long list of curiosities.

These artifacts are part of an archeology mystery that has engrossed Foote third graders for most of the fall. The project-based unit is based on a story about a farm in the fictional town of Portageville, New York, owned by the Green family. While exploring outside, the family's young daughter, Jenny, finds a doll torso with a head made of porcelain, some old coins, nails with square heads, and three limestone slabs.

How did they get there? And what do they tell us about what this site used to be?

For more than two months, third grade classes have been using the mock artifacts as well as maps, books and other resources to solve this archeological puzzle. The project is both exciting and challenging, requiring students to work together to act as scientists, historians and detectives—following a trail of evidence to form hypotheses about what this place used to be.

"It's very hands-on and very collaborative," says Grade 3 teacher Amanda Diffley. "Kids work in groups to come up with ideas of what it could be and hash it out. It's the first time in a scientific unit that they are documenting, and changing their hypotheses along the way in light of new evidence."

Part of their study of early Connecticut, the unit begins in early October with an overview of archeology. "We talk about how people lived in the past and about using artifacts as clues," Amanda says. "We discuss the difference between features—things like a fence, wall, or stone slab that can't leave a site—and artifacts, which can be taken away."

Next comes a simulated archeological dig on the Lower School recess field. Students grid a 40 by 60-foot plot of grass into 10-by-10 squares that were pre-seeded by teachers with modern-day items. "For instance, we put bathroom items in one area," explains Amanda. "The students write down what they found and draw the grid to scale. Then we talk about what they found and use evidence to guess what this place was."

All that is the warm-up for the big mystery on the farm in Portageville. The story centers on the Greens, a present-day family that is considering selling their property to a developer. Then young Jenny finds the doll torso and other artifacts (which we later learn date to the 1830s) and an archeological surveyor is brought in for a dig.

The farm site in Portageville is exactly the size of the students' recess field dig—40 by 60, divided into 10-by-10 squares—and is represented by square cards that fit together like a big floor puzzle. The cards start face-down and as students turn each one over, they see a piece of an aerial photograph indicating what was found in that section. Each section comes with a bag of "artifacts" that students examine, measure, sketch and use to form hypotheses about the site they are investigating.

Students examine the squares and choose one or two that interest them to use as the basis for a detailed drawing and examination of the artifacts. Eventually, the students come together to share their individual findings so the group can start to recognize patterns across the site. At that point, the whole picture begins to come into focus: the remains of two structures, a foundation with two compartments, pieces of an inkwell, chalk residue on the ground.

What was this place? At this stage, the students' excitement is welling but it will be many more weeks before the final answer is revealed. There's more to investigate.

Along the way, students learn about concepts like stratigraphy (the analysis of the layers of archeological remains, and what that indicates about a site's history), scale and soil compaction. They also keep archeology journals with all of their findings, read a memoir called When I Was a Boy (about a child who lived on a New York farm in the late 19th century), and work together to create a class map of the excavated site, square by square.

With that hand-drawn site map as the centerpiece, the students then turn to their final hypotheses. In Ashley's classroom, the teacher gives final instructions to her students. "I want you to share your hypothesis and one piece of evidence that supports your thinking," she says.

The children are bursting with theories about what Jenny Green unearthed on her fictional farm in Portageville, and the clues upon which they built their conclusions.

"I think it was a schoolhouse and that could be the flagpole," one student says, pointing to a ring of darkened earth on the map.

Another student agrees. "I think it was a schoolhouse and a privy because there is decomposed organic matter in that building. And also the pieces of slate and chalk—I think that could have been the chalkboard of the school."

A third student offers a different opinion. "I think it was some type of store," he says. "I remember looking at the map and the school was in a totally different place on the map and I don't think a small town like Portageville would have two schoolhouses."

After 10 minutes of respectful, back-and-forth debate, Ashley offers a final thought. "Everyone has shared their thoughts. It's okay if we disagree. There's no wrong opinion because it's what you think, based on the evidence. As long as you can give a reason why you come to your conclusion, that's a solid hypothesis."

Then comes the big reveal. Ashley reads the final section of the Portageville story and shares the archeological site was in fact a ......well, you'll have to ask a third grader about that! As of this writing, one class had not completed the project, and the other two classes were sworn to secrecy.

Though the mystery is over, the story goes on. Now the Green family must decide whether to sell this piece of history or preserve it. The story's characters disagree about which road to take, as do the third graders. It's more grist for the mill, as Foote students unearth new layers of knowledge and a deeper love of learning.

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