Today we know with certainty that segregation is dead. The only question remaining is how costly will be the funeral.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the beauties of being an outdoor educator is having a range of environments at your service. Here on Bainbridge Island, we have the benefit of a historical (and current) cemetery, plus an historical society that shares histories of some of the older graves with us. We have used that information to create informational cards that students can use to teach each other. This allows the students to discover at least partial stories of historical lives, often socially charged lives, with our students and helps to create discussions around those issues. I am often surprised the insights that even 9 year-olds can have when given the chance. Here are a few thoughts on how to establish a social/historical perspective in a cemetery with students:
1: First, check-in: While they can be powerful teaching tools, cemeteries sometimes expose a lot of uncomfortable baggage for students. A student may have a recently deceased relative or a cultural norm that makes a cemetery very upsetting to them. If possible, try to respect those circumstances and avoid the cemetery with those groups unless they give you the go-ahead.
2: Establish boundaries: When your students are comfortable (or relatively so) entering a cemetery, make sure they know how to respect it, and why. Clearly establish your views: do you want your group to avoid walking on the graves? Should they avoid climbing on the headstones? Can they make rubbings of the markers? What volume level is appropriate? How will you get them back to you when time is up? Do they understand why their behavior is important?
3: Let them explore, but give them a task: Send your students out into the cemetery with a mission – “Find this headstone, prepare to teach the group about it, and then explore until you hear my call” – so that they have some direction. This gives them time to notice features of the cemetery while they’re exploring, but also saves time so you don’t have to give multiple sets of direction (free explore, then assignment). Informational cards of specific graves, with pictures, are helpful for this. Be sure to wander around and check in with groups as they’re exploring to gain a sense of any discomforts, questions, and to keep them on task.
4: Hear from them: After your students have found their stones and explored the area, call them back to share out. Most of the time, students are intrigued enough by what they’ve seen in the cemetery that they’re engaged and ready to listen. Ask “what did you notice?” and if you want more, “how did you feel?”
5: Have an observation up your sleeve: Save a big observation for yourself: “I noticed some headstones that were out in the woods – not in the main cemetery. Did anyone else notice that?” * or, “I noticed the cemetery seems to be arranged in sections.” If you’ve explored the cemetery before your lesson, sometimes it’s possible to come up with observations that are both unique and unsettling for your students. WHY would someone be buried in the woods instead of in the cemetery? What does that mean? Why wouldn’t someone have since maintained that grave as part of the main cemetery?
6: Take a group tour: Beginning with your own observation that links to social inequality issues, take a group tour of the cemetery. By modeling a presentation of your chosen headstone first, the students will have a clearer understanding of what they should be thinking about during their presentation. Have each student (or pair of students) lead you to the headstone that they researched and teach the group about its highlights. Be prepared with questions like: “Why do you think that happened?” “Have you heard anything from anyone else that might add to that?” to encourage students to get creative with their answers. This can assist them in connecting more emotionally to the history of the people.
7: Debrief: I like to round out the cemetery visit with an introspective piece such as a perspective story (the students write a story from the imagined perspective of a person who once lived in the area) or an ‘I Am From’ poem (the students write a poem about their own lives and the challenges they have/strengths they have following a template and example that you have). If you’d like them to share pieces of their writing, however, be sure to tell them upfront. Sometimes students write very personal things and they’d rather not share the entire piece, so give them your expectations before they get started.
* Disclaimer: As of May 27, 2015, I have not yet received confirmation from the Bainbridge Island Historical Society that the grave-markers in the woods are remnants of past social inequalities. This disclaimer will either be removed once I receive confirmation or I will update the information.