A typical history lesson on an ancient civilization is anything but typical at Episcopal. Recently, a study of the Lascaux caves had sixth grade students cheering and exploring under the guidance of “InDAYana Jones.”
Middle School history teacher Virginia Day brought history to life for students studying the 20,000 year old cave paintings in southwestern France. Dressed in safari-inspired khaki from head to toe and calling herself InDAYana Jones she led students through a lesson on the paintings and their significance. Students entered an everyday campus classroom that was suddenly transformed by dimmed lighting and a large canvas cave in the center of the space. Students used flashlights to explore the cave symbols adorning the cave’s walls and traveled to additional stations where they made observations about strange-looking objects and their potential uses. They even had an opportunity to view fossils unearthed by Day during a summer trip to Wyoming.
On day two of the caves study, students had the opportunity to use a replica spear thrower or atlatl to launch a makeshift spear across the rain garden. There was excitement and cheering as each member of the class stepped up for their turn at using this primitive tool. Cheering and excitement in a Middle School history class!
The Lascaux caves were painted by ancient people during a time known as prehistory or the time before humans had a written language. Day says because of this, a classroom study of the period feels more like a scientific expedition than a traditional history lesson. Similar to social scientists, students use their powers of observation to draw conclusions about the physical evidence. They then compare their own observations to those of archeologists who have actually studied the site more in-depth. Day stresses the importance of this corroboration, especially in regard to this time period. “Our knowledge of prehistory is based on thousands of social scientists who go through this same process of making observations, drawing conclusions, and corroborating their findings. It is not just the result of what a small number of people have found,” she says.
While the spear exercise is exciting and memorable for students, the goal of the lesson is much more meaningful. “The spear thrower activity demonstrates the importance of technological advancements,” says Day. Day wants students to understand that their ancestors actually created highly advanced and thoughtful tools with important purposes. For example, the spear thrower was used to give ancient people greater distance from the animals they hunted to increase the speed and safety of the hunt. “Hunting during the Paleolithic Age was no walk in the park. It required much more skill, patience, and strength than hunting today does,” says Day. She hopes students walk away from the experience with an appreciation for the obstacles ancient people had to overcome in order to survive.
“We are all the result of the people who came before us. Similarly, we are building the foundations for things future generations will use. What our ancestors did millions of years ago matters, and what we do today matters to the people of the future,” says Day. What a fitting way to sum up a lesson that may have simply seemed fun for students. In the end, the students not only sharpened their critical thinking skills with hands-on learning, but they also gained valuable insight as to why we look back to move forward.