In the summer of 2030, visitors will enter the newest museum on the National Mall, brushing aside flowering vines as they pass through the Great Hall. Hanging gardens of exotic plants will cascade from stone terraces, showcasing the extensive irrigation systems—and wealth—of ancient Babylonia. Down a corridor to the right, museum-goers will walk among hundreds of ancient Qin Dynasty terracotta warriors then climb onto a full-scale replica of a segment of the Great Wall of China. In the museum’s aquatic exhibitions, visitors will board low-draft Viking ships and cross ancient Roman bridges to Aztec floating islands. Mayan cacao paste will be served on the terrace. Attentive guests will read a plaque at the museum entrance: “Founding concepts and original designs courtesy of Georgetown Day School 6th graders, February 2020.”
This month, February 2020, 6th graders completed their research of six ancient civilizations to answer the questions: “How do ancient civilizations remain influential in our daily lives?” and “What components of culture lead to the development of a civilization?” At the heart of the project—and driving their work—was the concept of a “Mythsonian Museum,” a fictional museum celebrating the contributions of ancient civilizations. Groups of students developed detailed exhibitions on their assigned ancient civilization as part of a contest to determine which pieces would be displayed in the museum. Teachers asked, “How will you create an exhibit to show the achievements and legacy of a civilization?”
This week, teams presented their thoughtfully crafted speeches and hand-made artifacts to persuade audiences that—as we heard time and time again—“no other civilization makes a better case for inclusion in the museum than [insert name of their ancient civilization here].”
The Vikings were a nomadic culture, one group explained. The rocky, Scandinavian grasslands were prohibitive of “large-scale agriculture,” so the summer months were spent raiding, specifically targeting wealthy churches along the English coast. Somewhat ironically, it could be argued that Chritianity dissolved the Viking civilization, according to the students.
The “artificial islands” and irrigation channels the Aztecs constructed contributed to the strength of the ancient Aztec civilization, their legacy, and is one of the more memorable “aspects of the Aztecs,” another group contended. Also, they gave us cocoa and guacamole, so...obviously.
As part of their presentation reflection, students were asked to choose a highlight that they felt was particularly persuasive or meaningful to them. “Zero is an extremely important concept in math,” Alec wrote. “Without it, many great human achievements would not be possible. However, it is not very well known that the Mayans first created the concept of zero. The Mayans should be in the Mythsonian because of the legacy they left behind, the impact they had on modern sports, and their innovation.”
“Mali established itself as the first Muslim state in Northern Africa,” Sosi highlighted from her group’s speech. “Mali is also historically important because of the powerful legacy it left us when it established the University of Timbuktu, the first university in the world. It can be argued that thanks to Mali, there are universities in virtually every country in the world today.” Sosi added, “This was one of the last pieces of evidence we mentioned because it’s so powerful. It’s something the viewers will remember, not only because it was last, but because it’s so important.”
The sixth grade welcomed audiences from 4th through 7th grades. Fifth grade classes enjoyed a preview of a project they will dive into next year. Audience members voted on the presentation that made the most compelling case for inclusion and explained how they came to that conclusion. History teachers Kate Maloney and Toussaint Lacoste observed audience members across the grades taking their voting roles seriously.
Aside from the opportunity to navigate differing opinions in a group setting, the project offered many options for student engagement. Some students, for whom more traditional models of academic work come more easily, struggled to construct a clay model of a pyramid or relied on the support of a classmate to construct a background for their diorama. It’s an important struggle, Kate explained, connected to their class expectation they call the “Power of Yet”—the understanding that students will approach each struggle, each challenge, as a learning opportunity.
Although there were tricky Middle School moments that teachers needed to help students negotiate, students seemed generally comfortable as they delegated group tasks and collaborated. “Our collaboration improved over time,” Alexandra and Nile explained for their group of four. “We didn’t see eye to eye, especially at the beginning, but we worked on it together.”
In an especially sweet moment, Ryan turned to groupmate Leo with her fingertips covered in glue and paint. “My hands are messy can you tear me a tiny piece of tape?” Leo then had some difficulty finding the end of the tape, but after Ryan located it for him, he prepared the piece she needed. Then, as she poured paint artistically over their project background, someone exclaimed, “Wow, have you ever done that before?”
Still concentrating, she answered simply, “No.”
But Leo, who stood nearby, chimed in: “She’s just doing a great job.”
When you visit the “Mythsonian Museum” during its grand opening in summer 2030*, remember the 6th grade students who designed the exhibits and enthusiastically made the case for their inclusion.