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Connecting with the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

Analyzing a Culture — The Story Continues

Students become archaeologists, analyzing artifacts from other student-created cultures. They then design a museum exhibit from those artifacts. This program is the second of two parts.



FAIR School (Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School)


Crystal, MN




Visual Art
Social Studies
Language Arts


Students analyze artifacts and create exhibitions.

The Integrated Instruction

Rick Wright, 6th-Grade Teacher
After spring break, the creation part of the unit is over. The kids bundle up all of their artifacts and hand them off to another group in a different classroom. Students then get to wear the hats of archaeologists. They have to interpret another group’s culture through their artifacts and figure out what that civilization was like.

Rachael Hoffman-Dachelet, Visual Art Teacher

Near the end of the Island Cultures project, I took all of the sixth-graders to the local art museum and we looked at art from a variety of ancient cultures. We paid a lot of attention to how the exhibits were curated, because the kids take the artifacts that the other groups created and curate little mini-exhibits. They needed to start thinking consciously, not just about the artworks, how the artworks are created, and how those artworks relate to culture, but also about how archaeologists and art historians present the artworks of ancient cultures to the pubic.

Watching the Video

Students showing artworkBefore You Watch
Respond to the following questions.

  • What are cultural artifacts? What do artifacts communicate about a culture? Language? Environment? Social structure? Rituals?
  • How do you help students decode and interpret an artifact’s symbols?
  • What role could the arts play in a unit about the remnants of past civilizations?
  • How do museums display artifacts? How does this influence how the artifacts are viewed?
  • How do curators arrange exhibits? What information do they include on their display cards?

Watch the Program
As you watch, note how the task of curating a museum exhibit is used to help students look at artifacts and what they symbolize from multiple perspectives. Also note how the challenge of interpreting ambiguous symbols and deciphering messages with spelling mistakes refocuses students’ understanding of the significance of good writing and visual communication skills. Write down what you find interesting, surprising, or especially important about the teaching and learning you see in this unit.

Reflect on the Program

  • How did the museum visit and exhibit project serve to deepen students understanding of culture and artifacts?
  • What kinds of preparation do you think preceded the lessons seen in the program to make these activities successful for students?
  • How do the culture and resources of this particular school help support the type of instruction shown?
  • Which components of the study – social studies, visual art, theatre, or music – would be most challenging for you and your colleagues to incorporate in an integrated unit?
  • What evidence, if any, did you see of the ways students benefited from this unit of study?

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice

  • Are field trips to local cultural institutions commonly used in your school?
  • Consider the cultural organizations in your community. How might they participate in one of your units?
  • If a class trip is not permissible, what about inviting a curator, archeologist, or other professional from your local museum or nearby university?

Adaptations / Extensions to Consider

Scale it back: Work together as a class on analyzing, cataloging, and presenting one set of artifacts with tasks spread among different student groupings.

Connect to writing and presentation skills: Try solving a mystery. Have groups of students analyze one set of artifacts for clues to the culture’s universals and what happened to the culture. Have each group present their findings and supporting evidence to the class.

Connect to today: Bring in a set of everyday items and have students analyze their archeological value and what they communicate about today’s cultural universals.

Additional Resources

Print Resources

Carter, Howard & Mace, A.C. The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen: Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter: The Annexe and Treasury. London: Duckworth Publishing, September 2000. ISBN: 0715629646

McIntosh, Jane R. Eyewitness: Archeology. New York: DK Publishing, 2000. ISBN: 0789458640

Panchyk, Richard. Archaeology for Kids: Uncovering the Mysteries of our Past. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001. ISBN: 1556523955

Video Resources

Heinemann, George A. (Executive Producer), & Welles, Orson. (Host). (1978). Tut: The Boy King [Television Broadcast]. United States: Monterey Home Video. ASIN: 630286996X

Capelle, Ed (Executive Producer), & Neibaur, Bruce (Director). (1998). Mysteries of Egypt [Motion Picture]. United States: National Geographic. ASIN: 0792297520

Web Sites

ArtsConnectED/Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Simulated approaches to learning which make arts education timely, engaging, interactive, and pertinent for both teachers and students

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Online collections, educational resources, and a timeline of art history

The Ology Website
Explore scientific topics including archaeology on this interactive site created by The American Museum of Natural History

Resource Center of the Americas
Informing, educating, and organizing to promote human rights, democratic participation, economic justice, and cross-cultural understanding in the context of globalization in the Americas

About the School

FAIR School, Crystal, Minn.

The Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource (FAIR) School is a grades four-to-eight magnet school located in Crystal, Minn. that provides intercultural learning opportunities to 558 students from Minneapolis and the surrounding suburban school districts. The mission of FAIR School is tri-fold: intercultural learning, fine arts performance, and academic excellence.

FAIR School was created by the West Metro Educational Program (WMEP), a voluntary consortium of 10 urban and suburban school districts in the Minneapolis metropolitan area that was formed in 1989 to cooperatively address integration issues. WMEP’s mission is to promote student success and community acceptance of differences by providing opportunities for students, families, and staff from diverse backgrounds to learn from and with each other.

Student admission for the FAIR School is based on an enrollment lottery held in each district. While there is no formal audition, it is important that students enjoy some level of success and interest in at least one area of the fine arts. Fine arts offerings include dance, vocal and instrumental music, theatre, visual art, and media arts.

School information compiled from the FAIR School Web site:

Q&A With Teachers

Rachael Hoffman-Dachelet,
Visual Art Teacher

How did the arts teachers contribute to the planning and teaching of the Island Cultures unit as it progressed?

The classroom teachers were the leaders on this one. They know what I teach and made use of similar concepts. In turn, all year I taught to their ten “universals of culture,” so the students had a strong basis in the visual discipline and were used to thinking of culture and its impact on visual art. But I didn’t get directly involved until the end. In the future I will be more directly involved in the visual projects at an earlier point.

How do the arts teachers work with the grade-level teams?

We have lunch at the same time as the sixth-grade team, so we do a lot of casual conversing rather than formal meeting. The whole arts team is building units one at a time with the grade-level teams so that over time we will have a more integrated curriculum. I also try to act as a resource, finding images, suggesting projects, and teaching vocabulary and arts concepts to the teachers in the hopes that those things will seep into their curriculum.

Your use of museums goes beyond what most teachers do to include the study of curating and presentation. What value do you think this has for students?

It is very helpful if students can think critically about museums, since a museum itself can be viewed as an artwork. The more you look at the how and why of anything such as museum curating decisions the more interesting it is. So I try to teach art history methods as much as content. I have taken kids to the museum without preparing them and without asking them to think about the exhibits, and it was awful! When kids have some knowledge of what they are seeing, and why, and are asking the tough questions, then behavior takes care of itself because the kids care.

Rick Wright, 6th-Grade Teacher

How do you keep the fact that the cultures are going to be conquered a secret from year to year?

We impress on students the value of the shock they felt when they themselves were conquered and ask that they not let the cat out of the bag. So far they have been very respectful of this. When one student did tell about the conquering stage of the unit, he largely met with disbelief. Students couldn’t believe that after all the work they’d done on their cultures, that teachers would be callous enough to conquer them.

What makes the Island Cultures unit particularly appropriate for sixth-graders?

Students in sixth grade are for the most part entering adolescence. They are very concerned with themselves and relationships with friends. They are concerned with issues of fairness, justice, and how they themselves fit into the adult social order. They are at a stage where they are beginning to be critical of the adult world and imagine that they’d be able to create a better society if only allowed the latitude to do so. They are also at a developmental stage where they are better able to understand the impact of cause and effect relationships, so repercussions or consequences of their choices in creating their utopias make a more profound effect.

Do the students have an opportunity to share their conclusions about the cultures that they’ve analyzed with the creators of those cultures and the rest of the school community?

The museum exhibits were unveiled at our spring Learning Festival. Students and their parents had an opportunity to see the exhibits for the first time at this event. The students were quite eager to attend so they could find out what the “archaeologists” determined their culture to be like. Archaeologists’ findings were presented in the form of the exhibit catalogues that each archaeology team was required to prepare for their display.