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"Eighteen ninety-two! Wow!"

by Chick Moorman

"Hey, look at that big one over there!" "This guy lived over seventy years." "Eighteen ninety-two! Wow!" "What's this name?" "I don't know, but look at this!" And the excitement raged on.

These comments came from third-grade students in a rural Michigan town. They were engaged in learning in the middle of a cemetery within walking distance of their school. The students' teacher, Helen Haggerty, and the students themselves had planned and conducted the trip.

These third-graders were doing what increasing numbers of school children of all ages are doing: they were making constructive use of the environmental resources close to their school. The immediate neighborhood became the raw material for study, the motivational tool for piquing student interest, and the delivery system for interrelating the curriculum.

Helen Haggerty is a teacher who believes that school walls confine learning. She recently scouted the area surrounding her school and found several areas of potential study. One that stood out as a natural was the old cemetery a few blocks away.

Helen suggested to the class that they investigate the cemetery. Her students responded with enthusiasm and immediately began to create a plan. Questions arose: "Where do we go?" "What do we want to find out?" "What data shall we collect?" "What questions do we want answered?" "What materials do we need?"

The class decided to organize themselves into teams, each team being responsible for one section of the cemetery. How each team went about completing its tasks was left up to its members.

Helen laid out minimum assignments and conducted a brainstorming session with her class about additional options. Each team then discussed the optional tasks and made decisions as to what elective assignments to complete.

At the graveyard students participated in a wide variety of experiences. They took notes on information copied from tombstones, measured distances, computed ages, did tombstone rubbings, and wrote in their journals. They listed facts, compiled unanswered questions, made sketches, and accumulated names and dates.

The students were fascinated by such unfamiliar first names as Elijah, Agnes, Sophie, and Pharoshima. They discovered that some last names were also the names of streets in their community. They were surprised by the beauty of their tombstone rubbings, and that activity quickly became a favorite of many.

When students returned to the classroom that day, they continued their in-depth study. Subject area lines blurred as students regularly crossed disciplines to complete their investigations. They wrote stories and created displays. Follow-up reading, recording of experiences, combining data, creating a replica to scale, solving math problems, building graphs, writing poems, arranging bulletin boards, and making diagrams resulted from this experience at the cemetery.

These third-graders returned to the cemetery three more times to collect additional data and search for answers to their questions. They found it to be a fascinating place, one in which history, art, math, and language arts came alive for them in new and unexpected ways.