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Sunday, November 1, 2015

History, Geography, and Environmental Studies

On a recent trip to northern New Mexico, I found myself in a thought provoking situation. We spent the first part of a day visiting Bandelier National Monument, hiking the canyons and cliffs that were home to the Ancestral Pueblo people. The beauty of the natural surroundings were breathtaking and imagining life in that setting without modern civilization was inspiring. That afternoon we traveled to nearby Los Alamos, New Mexico, which was the site of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bombs that were used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Visiting museums and learning about that terrible time in human history was a stark contrast to the morning visit to Bandelier. The reflection that resulted remains in my mind even today. 

One specific understanding I have reached is that many people today do not feel the same need to honor and respect the land as did the native people. An obvious reason is that we no longer depend on our immediate environment to support our lives. Goods and materials from around the globe are easily obtainable for shelter and clothing. Our food source is the local supermarket. We can easily take our world for granted. 

The lesson idea this week is closely linked to that experience. The study of Native People is a topic that captures the interests of most students. Interwoven in their story are invaluable lessons about geography, habitats, natural resources, and environment. While this is not a new idea and is part of many curriculums, there are a vast number of resources available. I will share those I used.

Although the lesson I created was for second graders in the United States, most of the ideas can be modified or adapted for older students or those in another country as well. The lessons for my students followed a study of our local habitats as they pertain to wildlife as well as social studies lessons about basic needs. Making the connection to the effect of habitat on people is quite easy to do when teaching about history and the lives of our ancient native people. We always began with mapping and a geography lesson about our country. In addition to small individual maps, one of the key elements to the unit was a large class created relief map:

Our map was made with a mixture of 1 cup of any brand powdered laundry detergent (the least expensive and scent-free) to 1/2 cup liquid starch. Add powdered tempera paint or food coloring for the color. I covered a table with plastic, then taped a large piece of butcher paper with the map outline over the plastic. The students worked together to color in bodies of water, and the connecting countries of Mexico and Canada. We looked at relief maps online, traced in mountain ranges and the desert region. Students used wadded up paper towels and masking tape to build up mountain ranges. After mixing the detergent, liquid starch, and coloring in a large bowl, each child took a turn covering the land with the thick mixture. Leaving the desert uncovered to be filled in with glue and sprinkled with sand. To illustrate forested regions, the kids cut double-sided green triangles and glued them over straight pins to be stuck into the woodland and mountain regions of our map. The map became the focus of our learning and included a compass rose and map key.

We used four geographic locations and the Native Americans who lived there to learn about the variety of land and habitats in our large country. The Woodlands, Great Plains, Desert Southwest, and the Northwest Coastal regions were our targets. We learned how the people of each region met their basic needs with the resources found in their environment. For each region we watched videos, read nonfiction articles as well as Native American legends, stories, and poems, created a craft, tasted a food, and wrote a report. The reports, poems, pictures, and maps were gathered into a student made book to be taken home at the conclusion of the unit.

One of the most beneficial parts of the learning was the use of video I originally obtained from United Streaming. Re-enactment videos are rich resources for young children. The ability to visualize helps them comprehend written accounts and details. I have since located the videos I used on Youtube. They are available at no cost. Each video can be divided up into shorter sections for discussion. I did not include the portions at the end telling about the arrival of the Europeans and the conflicts that resulted. For the purpose of these lessons we were focused on the land and how it was used to meet the needs of the native peoples. We did talk about the end of the Native American way of life at the end of our study, but not as we learned about each region. Preview the videos to decide which parts are relevant for your lesson targets. Here are the links:

Our crafts were related to learning from the videos and reading. There are many possible choices. We created birch bark baskets for the Woodlands, teepees for the Plains, kachina dolls for the Desert, and totem poles for the Northwest Coastal region. The links to crafts here are only examples. Check Pinterest for other ideas.

The National Museum of the American Indian has a wonderful website with ready made projects for middle school students. It highlights the current day stories of Native Americans in four regions as they tell about environmental problems affecting their land. 

The National Park Service also has a variety of related resources for all ages that connect to this lesson. Ready made lessons and informative passages can be found at the site. One example for older students is a lesson titled Who Uses the Land? For younger students a great resource is Deciphering Pictograph Messages.  Although we are not able to visit the National Parks, we can benefit from their educational resources.

I have also used expert sessions through Skype in the Classroom to take virtual field trips with my class. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody Wyoming has a beautiful Skype session about the Plains Indians. 

More Than Moccasins is a valuable resource for teaching young children as well. 

Finally, take time to extend the lesson into a project-based experience. There were native people all over our land. Which ones lived in your region? How can your students show honor and respect for those who first lived in your location? How can they help preserve the history and preserve the land where you live?

Through these lessons focused on history, geography, and the environment, children will hopefully gain a greater appreciation of the land around them. 

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