Creating A Civilization In One Class Period

The team of Alison Armstead, Zach Chenault, Rorie Cleckler, Colton Miller and Britney Daniels dominated the others with their war machine — the trebuchet/catapult.

The team of Alison Armstead, Zach Chenault, Rorie Cleckler, Colton Miller and Britney Daniels dominated the others with their war machine — the trebuchet/catapult. Photo by Michele Nelson. |

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The two sixth-grade girls from Barbara Potvin’s social studies class scrunched up their faces as they pointed to hand-drawn pictures.

They could speak no words to each other as they sought to trade for what they needed.

One held up a fork, the other a rubber band.

Grinning, the girls made the trade and triumphantly returned to their groups with their spoils.

However, another girl who had silently offered a marshmallow in trade, returned dejectedly to her group — no fork in hand.

Trading represented a small portion of the History in a Bag project Potvin decided to use as a wrap up her ancient civilization unit.

“History was my favorite class,” said Potvin. “I remember a re-enactment we did of the decision to drop the atomic bomb (between Truman and his advisers).”

She said her class had to go behind the scenes and imagine what it would take to organize a complete civilization from laws to language, art and architecture.

But Potvin had a twist; she required her sixth-graders to build a machine with material she provided in a bag, except each bag held only pieces of the machine. The students would have to create a language, not based on words, to trade for the pieces of the machine they needed.

Oh — and they only had one class period to create a civilization that would interest archaeologists and anthropologists from the future.

Potvin said the project’s success depended on the groups of students. She randomly placed students in groups of five to seven.

“It depends on group dynamics how far they go,” she said. “I saw one group that had power struggles. I saw personalities I had not seen before.”

Other groups elected a leader and worked diligently.

The most difficult part of the exercise for the highly curious, energetic and talkative group had to do with the trading circle.

The circle had strict rules, no talking except using a teacher-approved language, only bartering allowed, and if no one had any interest in the trade the students had to sit down and wait for the next trader to arrive.

So it was with marshmallow girl. She had to wait for the next trader — one of the girls who’d traded the fork for the rubber band earlier.

The room buzzed as the project moved forward. One group excitedly drew up elaborate plans for a temple.

Another group in a corner spent time debating the laws intently.

The laws the sixth-grade students created would have made Gila County judges and lawyers cringe:

For the murder, “You must die the same way you killed them.” For littering, “You must eat any food litter you see.” For hurting others, “If you hurt anyone in any way, the town may torture you any way they want.”

Potvin said none of the students knew it, but she determined which group “won” after they completed the trebuchet/catapult.

“In ancient history, the civilization with the most complex war machines dominated cultures around them,” she said.

“We’re finished!” said the group with Alison Armstead, Zach Chenault, Rorie Cleckler, Colton Miller and Britney Daniels.

Potvin walked over and checked out their work. It threw a marshmallow beautifully.

But Potvin said building a war machine did not necessarily mean that team had won. She said the team in the corner that had worked so diligently on its laws left a lasting legacy as the Codes of Hammurabi.

The whole class period had looked chaotic and disorganized, but the students produced creative and amazing results fully engaged in their work.

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