Dig into Art and Culture

Article excerpt

As an eighth grade teacher, my biggest joy is to be able to stand back and watch students totally driven by the desire to learn. One way to spark that interest in learning has been "The Dig" -- an interdisciplinary program that integrates math, science, the creative arts, and the humanities.

What's unique about the "The Dig" is that it is completely student driven, and it has become the perfect laboratory for students to be inquisitive. As a teacher, I try to be invisible in this progress. At this age, students are used to teachers rushing to help them. But some of the most important learning comes when the students are frustrated and have to come up with answers on their own.

Learning on Their Own

Students in this program really learn the unit because they have to use their knowledge to come up with the answers. Invariably, the students say how much fun it was, how they were forced to think, and how they valued the skills they learned.

The program was started to help us integrate our English and History departments into what is now the Humanities Department, a decision we reached in working with the Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). CES is a national reform initiative that was established by Theodore Sizer in 1985, based at Brown University. Our school is a member of CES.

The Coalition believes the best way to teach children in through interdisciplinary courses and by allowing students to become "workers" and teachers to become "coaches," or guides in the learning process.

Bringing Civilizations to life

In "The Dig," eighth grade students dig up fictional civilizations invented by their classmates. The students bring to life two different civilizations with their own unique history, cultural arts, political systems, and language. We bury artifacts from those cultures and students must piece together the life of that culture based solely on excavating and examining the artifacts. The six-week program teaches students about cultural attitudes and values, archaeology, science, mathematical coordinates, observation, teamwork, history, art, creativity, and self-evaluation. It is a unit that can be scaled to any middle school or early upper school curriculum.

Making Sense of Cultures

To begin the unit, students discuss the necessary elements for a culture or civilization. These include things like geography, cultural values, attitudes toward death and the unknown, division of labor and economy, recreation and leisure, numbers and written systems, etc. Next, we divide the entire class into two separate groups and play a cultural sensitivity game called Bafa Bafa (this is a published game) where students simulate entering a foreign culture and try to make sense of the values that drive it. Students find this to be a fun game, and it shows them how difficult it can be to make sense of an entirely foreign culture.

Working in Cooperative Groups

We move full steam ahead into the actual dig. Students are separated based on their Bafa Bafa groups into two "cultures." They are told from this point forward that they cannot share work between the two groups. All group work must remain confidential. Students understand that they will create their own culture that can be set in either ancient times or the future. Independently, each student becomes the "expert" in one of the cultural universals, such as the culture's social, political, or value system. …