History Detectives

Third graders become archaeologists for a day, unearthing the process of how history is discovered.

Once a year, the 3rd grade team bands together to bring history to life for students through a beloved Sidwell Friends tradition: the 3rd grade archaeological dig.

“History is still being written, but some kids think it’s static, that it’s only in books,” says Elizabeth Bacon, who teaches the 3Y class alongside fellow teacher Sarah Tiamiyu. “When they look at archaeology, they see that it’s being redefined as different knowledge comes up.”

The archaeology project was begun by Barbara Szoradi, who taught 3rd grade for 20 years before retiring in 2014. “We inherited the project from her,” says Gladys Daniels, teacher of the 3Z class. “Previously, it had only been a one-classroom endeavor.”

“We mix groups across the grade level,” adds Franny Cannizzarro, co-teacher of the 3X class with Noemi Rodriguez. “We want them to venture into this project with all the 3rd graders, not just their classroom communities.”
The dig usually takes place in the fall. Elizabeth, Sarah, Gladys, Franny, and Noemi take students to a site on the Lower School campus where a variety of objects have been buried. (The identity of the people responsible for the burying remains a mystery. Were the artifacts placed there by Bethesda residents of long ago, or by the 3rd grade team themselves? We may never know.) Third graders break into groups consisting of students from all three classrooms, and they move between five stations to learn about the process of uncovering history. In some years, the 3rd grade even goes to Jamestown, to do some digging at the archaeological site there.
“The students really learn that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure,” says Noemi. “That’s the really fun thing about it—watching them figure out what things are.”
At the Lower School site, students uncover everything from pottery to beads, discussing among themselves how their discoveries might once have been used. Then they head to the other stations, where they can apply their ideas to new understandings about the past.
“We include a geography station, a media station, a station where the kids have to analyze broken pottery, and a station about primary and secondary sources,” says Elizabeth. “The idea behind all of it is that you may think you know something, but then you realize that you have to reach beyond your own judgment. It’s a very experiential way of unpacking that essential question of why we study history, rather than having a teacher explicitly tell them the answer to that. It’s learning through discovery.”
Learning the difference between primary and secondary sources is particularly important for young historians. The station dedicated to this part of the students’ history unit includes several different bins with artifacts in them, giving the students the chance to figure out what kind of source each artifact is. Once they’ve decided, they can think about who might have owned an artifact like the one they’re looking at and what it might say about their role in the past.
“We have three essential questions that we ask students: Why study history, whose story and perspective is this, and what does studying the past reveal about the present?” says Gladys.

“All these essential questions are the result of two years of summer grant work we were all a part of,” adds Sarah.
“The archaeology project is interactive, it’s hands-on, it’s everything that speaks to this age group,” says Elizabeth. “The students learn to understand how we study history. The actual dig really hits home with the fact that historians have to be detectives, the same way our students are being detectives with this project.”

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