Learning from graveyards

oldsectionhillside-017Starting with the town in which they lived, North Andover, Massachusetts, Caroline Donnan’s third-grade students physically entered history. They each adopted the family name of a European settler from the 1640’s period and thereafter assumed an historical role. A story centered on one of the historical characters would then form the basis of a study. That led to holding meetings, making maps, studying architecture, and discussing issues of the time as their assigned characters might do. (Photo by Ron Taylor, 2005).

Unraveling the town’s history, then, became the common vehicle for covering many skill and subject areas. It was also a wonderful excuse to put students in the position of discoverers, gatherers, and inquirers.

Their trips to a graveyard sparked scientific inquiry.

“People say settlers didn’t live as long as we do these days. What can you find here to prove whether or not that is true?” The class spread out to inspect gravestones. Scribbled columns of notes later turned into graphs and charts, subtraction and regrouping, smallpox and diptheria, questions and conclusions…Putting [the findings] together with a tally of how many people died at what ages, we came full circle to questions, connections, information. In point of fact, if settlers survived the first five years of life, their chances for survival were the same as they are today.

johnsoncottageI’m guessing that there are no surviving homes from the 1640’s era in North Andover. But there is the Johnson Cottage, built in 1789. According to the North Andover Historical Society is the “last surviving artisan’s cottage in North Andover’s Old Center.” The students made an expedition there and discovered low ceilings and short beds. This led to further inquiries into what it was like to live in the even earlier period.

The photo of the Cottage, shown here, is used by permission of the Historical Society. Their archives contain the largest amount of information on the Cottage and on the burial grounds in North Andover. They also host educational programs based on the first burial ground.

The students’ inquiries developed as multiple forms of literacy woven through the daily life of the classroom:

When we couldn’t get to real locations, we worked on constructing our own original one-room “town founder’s house” (located at one end of the classroom) or practiced scenes that eventually became “Starting from Scratch,” a full length musical relating the town’s earliest history. We also spent a substantial amount of time writing settler diaries, field notes, notices for the meetinghouse, town records, sermons, poems, trip lists, hymns, project progress reports, hypotheses, and conclusions. And we drew maps and charts, costumes and scenery, fences and rooftops.

It seems odd that a world tied to the past, even to graveyards, could be so alive for the students and Donnan herself. It’s even odder that this fantasy world became closer to the lived experience of the children than did their usual curriculum. But it’s less odd when we realize that it was based on their actual physical and social surroundings, and related to their own experiences of living spaces, health, family, and neighborhood.

Any learning activity raises questions. I’m curious to know how the class related their experiences in the 1789 Cottage to their simulation of life in 1640. I also wonder how much “Starting from Scratch” recognized the culture and lives of the Wampanoag people who lived in the area before 1640. What I can guess is that Donnan’s students were better able to engage in productive dialogue about these and other issues following their year in her classroom.

Donnan’s article is out of print. That’s a pity, because it’s an impressive example of how learning can be connected to life, offering a model for any age of students. Donnan even addresses the standard curriculum problem:

We had but one problem. In all the pages of the neatly typed, carefully bound, district-required social studies curriculum, never once was there mention of any of this.

She concludes by saying that we don’t have to wait:

With all there is to learn and do in the outside world, we really shouldn’t wait until June to get started.


Donnan, Caroline (1988). Following our forebears’ footsteps: From expedition to understanding. In V. Rogers, A. D. Roberts & T. P. Weinland (Eds.), Teaching social studies: Portraits from the classroom (Bulletin No. 82) Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies.
Gorvine, Harold (1970, May). Teaching history through role playing. The History Teacher, 3(4), 7-20.
Levstik, Linda S., & Barton, Keith C. (2001). Doing history: Investigating with children in elementary and middle schools (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

One thought on “Learning from graveyards

  1. Pingback: Mapping cemeteries « Chip’s journey

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