Uncovering Ancient Life at Aztalan: A Social Science Unit for Middle School

as of April, 2017

by Linda Orie
Presenting to school children
Linda Orie presents to Fort Atkinson Middle Schoolers.

This innovative unit is organized into four parts, or conceptual clusters of lessons that work together to teach content with similar learning goals. Students begin this unit by orienting themselves in the first cluster, Our Place: Jefferson County, while reflecting on the area’s physical and cultural landscape and their experiences as part of the community. Students create posters about their home cultures and use these to teach peers, creating a safe space for discussing ethnic diversity and conflict between groups of people in history. The second conceptual cluster, Timelines: World Context, Local Context, provides students with a basic background in major events in world history leading up to the time of Ancient Aztalan (1100-1200 AD), highlighting the achievements of many major civilizations throughout the world. Students also orient themselves in a local history context that helps them understand the physical and human landscape of Southern Wisconsin during the same period.

Introduction to Archaeology, the third cluster of lessons, provides hands-on activities and simulations that give students the opportunity to think and act like real archaeologists, tracing the treatment of artifacts from underground to museum, learning about ethical issues, and practicing using scientific thinking and inferencing skills. After students have used the archaeological site of ancient Aztalan to learn about Archaeology in the last cluster, they explore more deeply the artifacts and data uncovered by historic and modern excavations in the fourth and final conceptual cluster, Life at Ancient Aztalan. In these final lessons, students use primary source documents, photos and descriptions of real artifacts from Aztalan, maps and drawings from archaeologists’ field notebooks, and scholarly research articles to learn more about the different cultural groups who coexisted peacefully at Aztalan from 1100-1200 AD. Through exploring a variety of resource documents, maps, and artifacts, students begin to imagine what daily life was like at Aztalan and represent their learning using perspective-taking stories, drawings, annotated dioramas, and/or original skits. Students conclude the unit by putting several popular myths about Aztalan “on trial,” where evidence is presented on both sides and the class-jury must decide whether each is true or false.

Following the unit lessons is a final stewardship project that involves students selecting a way to give back to their community through volunteering, spreading knowledge about Aztalan, fundraising, or other community service projects invented by students involving stewardship of local historic places. The unit includes a student interest inventory to help teachers personalize their students’ experiences in the unit, as well as a pre/post test to demonstrate intellectual growth from beginning of unit to end. Students keep a journal that acts like a field notebook and learning companion, allowing a metacognitive space for students to not only record notes but also process their learning and ask questions. In Uncovering Ancient Life at Aztalan, most lessons use an investigative approach that places the intellectual burden on the students, sometimes also giving them an opportunity to be the “expert” on a topic to teach peers. Students build community as a simulated campfire setting is used for class discussions about lesson content including archaeology in general and Aztalan in particular.