South Orangetown Central School District

Cottage Lane Elementary School rolled out a new Ancient Civilizations unit this fall which blends history, geography, ELA and technology–and incorporates a Teachers College Reading and Writing Project nonfiction feature writing unit and a problem-based learning approach.

Fifth-graders are researching the Aztec, Inca and Mayan civilizations to discover what makes a complex society through a series of whole class, small group and individual activities. Students can choose which civilization to study, which three aspects of that civilization to focus on (such as agriculture, architecture, traditions and inventions) and which sources to use for research. Over the course of the unit, students take virtual field trips to Macchu Picchu and other ruins with Google Expeditions virtual reality viewers and software.

“We did our first session before they chose which civilization they wanted to research,” said Bill McAuliffe, who co-teaches with Kristin Cavanagh. “It makes it so real for them–it’s a big motivator.”

Mr. McAuliffe and Ms. Cavanagh are in their fifth year of teaching together. Within their classroom, there is a mix of general education students, students with special needs and students who are English language learners. “We want all of our students to be exposed to the same material. They’re researching the same topic and discovering the same information. They work on skills at their own pace and tackle articles appropriate for their reading levels, whatever they may be. It’s important that everyone feels that they’re a part of this class,” Ms. Cavanagh explained. “Our teaching philosophy is the same, which makes it easy. Although he’s the general education teacher and I’m the special education teacher, we’re both lead teachers at different parts of the day so all the kids see us as equals. All students have access to both of us, that’s the whole point of the inclusion model.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. McAuliffe led a mini-workshop on organizing and categorizing notes for a small group in the corner, while Matthew M. and Justin R. pored over books and web resources for facts at a table in the center of the classroom. “The Mayans focused a lot on time, astronomy and math,” Matthew noted. “I like learning about where they were and what led to the point where we are now.” Justin was impressed by the Mayans’ inventive spirit and intelligence. “They were curious,” he said. “They didn’t go to school like us. They had to learn things for themselves.”

Antonina and Tatiana chose to study the Aztecs together. “They wrote poetry,” Antonina noted, pulling up a favorite poem on her Chromebook screen. “This one is about fishes. It taught me that fishing was important to the Aztecs for food.”

Katherine R. took a break from working solo to share her favorite fact about the Mayans. “They used jade masks to hide their identities.”

The teachers agreed that the new unit may be as exciting for them as it is for their students. “It’s an adventure doing this for the first time,” said Mr. McAuliffe. “We’re navigating uncharted waters together.”

For more photos, view the SOCSD Facebook post.

CLE teachers Kristin Cavanagh and Bill McAuliffe