Putting the Pieces Together

If you’re not quite sure you could quickly identify The Seven Markers of Civilization, here’s a lesson you’ll want to stick around for. The very Wildwood approach taken by Alexis Lessans and Becca Hedgepath in their Division One humanities class doesn’t make it easy, necessarily, but it’s interesting work that requires some higher-level thinking. Here’s what their students were grappling with last week when I dropped in.

Throughout the history component of Division One humanities, students study past civilizations, like the Greeks and Aztecs, as a vehicle to understanding how societies make their voices heard—through their accomplishments and legacies.  Students study the lens through which many historians and archaeologists have examined in the past: The Seven Markers of Civilization—seven key elements that denote a true civilization.  For history buffs out there, the markers are:

  • Stable food supply
  • Social Structure
  • Government
  • Religion or formal belief system
  • Culture
  • Technology
  • Oral and written language

Sixth graders Max H., Sirena W. and Fiona B. organize their puzzle pieces

Alexis and Becca designed today’s lesson to allow students working in small groups to identify the seven markers themselves by categorizing concepts that relate to each.  To do that, Alexis and Becca created “tools” for the students: 35 multi-colored paper puzzle pieces, each marked with a word or phrase relating to one of the seven markers.  Working together, the groups of students set to work identifying relationships among the pieces and categorize them accordingly.  For example, the “grain” and “fish” puzzle pieces might seem related and be added to a category that also includes the “meat” puzzle piece.  Through conversation and categorizing, students may decide to label this category “Food,” something very closely related to the key marker of “Stable Food Supply.”

During my visit I spent much of my time in class observing one particular group of four students: Fiona B., Max H., Maddy M., and Sirena W. Through their interactions, I saw the lesson’s academic objective unfold and gained insights into the collaborative process so valued at Wildwood.

Finding a pattern

The students received their puzzle pieces, spread them out on a table in the classroom, and began their deliberation.

“I think that ‘architecture’ and ‘engineering’ should go together,” says Maddy.  “And so should aqueducts,” adds Siren. “They all have to do with building things.”  Fiona, holding another puzzle piece, complements the conversation. “And so does ‘wheel,’ she adds. “That goes with engineering, too.”

The group builds a “food” category

The students put their other puzzle pieces together into categories to which the students give names: “Where’s the ‘Beliefs’ pile?” Maddy asks, while Max works to add to the pile with concepts related to food.  After about 15 minutes, the students have created 8 different categories—not far off from the seven markers that they will learn about later on in class.

However, there is some controversy: Max is concerned that the group’s final design doesn’t look like the other groups’.  Seeing what another group has done he says, “we need to make ours a square.”  This opens up even more debate among the group regarding what the final product looks like.  Teacher Alexis Lessans overhears the conversation and asks the group if it needs some guidance.

Teacher Alexis Lessans leans in to offer advice

“Yes,” says Fiona. “Are we supposed to make a square?”  Maddy and Sirena echo this anxiety.  “Let’s see what you have,” Alexis says, leaning in to take a look.  She studies how the group has constructed its puzzle pieces and says, “Can you explain why you organized these the way you did?” Alexis knows that if they can verbalize the relationships that they built with the puzzle pieces, the students have accomplished their task. Satisfied with what she hears, Alexis follows up with another question: “Do you have a better understanding of the things that make up each of the Seven Markers of Civilization?”  When the students answer affirmatively, she tells them not to worry, because: “It doesn’t matter what shape the puzzle is in.” I watch the anxiety in the students’ faces turn to relief, and ultimately satisfaction as they realize that they’ve accomplished their task and deepened their understandings of civilizations.

Once the tasks are completed, all groups reconvene to discuss their reasoning in creating their categories.

Finally, the big reveal: Alexis teaches the class the seven markers identified by historians.  It’s interesting to learn that each group’s work clearly approached the same categories— demonstrating that, given enough time and freedom, these students could find their own voices and think like historians.  The fact that they came up with these on their own made the experience all the more meaningful.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching and Learning

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