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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hands On History

4th grader burning a bowl into a birch log
As a part of Vermont’s Framework of standards, 4th graders learn about Vermont’s cultural history and how the way people live has changed over the years. With the onset of winter, we decided it was the perfect time for students at Union Elementary School to explore the cultural practices of some of the first Vermonters, the Abenaki and some of the techniques they employed to survive in our Green Mountain State.

Testing out the Christmas tree bed in the wigwam
We wanted to cover some of the most basic needs such as shelter, fire, water, and food. These four things combined make up what is known as the “Sacred Order.” Of the four, shelter is the most important, especially in a cold VT winter! So this is was we started with. We began by breaking into groups to build a fairly simple, A-frame style survival shelter with sticks and snow. There was a freshly fallen hemlock limb that we were able to tear the branches from and use as insulation from the ground. These survival shelters were only large enough to fit one student. On another day, we built a wigwam style shelter with freshly cut saplings and a tarp. As with the survival shelters, we lined the floor with evergreen boughs (this time from abandoned Christmas trees) to insulate us from the snow. This shelter was able to accommodate up to 9 students!

Using the bow drill with a partner eases the stress on your arm.
For the other three elements of the sacred order we spent a day going through station rotations, with each station focused on a different element/skill. At the first station we learned how to use a bow drill to produce a coal that could then be used to light a fire. Fire is often placed before water in the sacred order because of its use to purify water.  Forming a coal with a bow drill can be difficult so students broke into teams to work the bow back and forth, similar to cutting a log with a crosscut saw.  Since this was the first time ever attempting a bow drill for most students, we weren't concerned with forming an actual coal. Our primary goal was to work on our form and technique and to get the spindle spinning for several strokes, which everyone was able to do. One team actually produced smoke!

Taking turns blowing the coal
The next station covered our need for potable water by utilizing fire in the form of a burning ember to burn out a container in which we could boil and purify water. Teachers and parent volunteers tended the fire and helped students transport the hot coals from the fire to the log.  Once a coal was on the log, students took turns holding the coal down with a stick and blowing on it. We were sure to take turns because if we didn't we would get light headed from all of that blowing!

Food was the topic of our third and fourth stations. Unlike the first 3 elements in the order, we can survive weeks without food. Eventually though, we do need to eat.  One of the foods that the Abenaki relied upon were ducks, and to lure them in, they would weave and tie decoys out of cattails. So, armed with only a few pictures to serve as an example and a pile of cattail leaves, students attempted to make their own decoys.  Not only did our decoys look like ducks, but they also floated when we dropped them into the North Branch River on our way back to school. At our final station, we honed our skills with a throwing stick so that if our decoys worked, we would possess the accuracy to successfully harvest our food.

These are ancient skills that are no longer necessary in our everyday lives. However, we are inexplicably drawn to them, emboldened by the deep heartstrings they strike. To better understand and appreciate who we are, it is important to understand how we got here. Then maybe we can better choose where we are going. This is why we study history. Studying it outside during ECO takes the lesson out of the history book and puts it directly into the hands of the student.

Piling snow for a quinzee