By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — On Oct. 15, the first day of an annual lesson that has become a rite of passage at Rosendale Elementary School, all three fourth-grade teachers and their students dressed for a day of construction.
They marched out behind the school, crossed a short wooden bridge and hiked a winding path through the trees to a clearing where their predecessors, now fifth-graders, had left piles of supplies.
The piles of precut sticks and bark may not have looked like much at first, but the kids were determined. They started early, around 8 a.m. Within six hours, including a break for lunch and recess, they were standing in front of an Iroquois longhouse.
Every fall, students at Rosendale meticulously build a model longhouse, large enough to walk through, in the woods behind their school. For two weeks, they take classes outside to make the most of their creation, lighting a fire to cluster around when the weather is cold. Then, they tear it down.
The project has been a tradition at the school for more than two decades, but fourth-grade teachers there say it’s still a relevant way to teach students. Its hands-on focus and novelty grab students’ interests.
Even though the project is the very first step in teaching the fourth-graders about the Iroquois people, the children had begun to soak up the subject matter before formal instruction began.
“The Iroquois were quiet people, and they considered all the animals and nature their brothers and sisters,” fourth-grader Luke Eaton said.
His classmate Mark Miano thought about the practical, architectural aspects of the longhouse.
“They made the bark so the water flows down,” he said.
Building and learning
Anyone who wandered back into the woods during the build would see students chattering excitedly, obviously enjoying a day away from their routines. They would witness teachers coaching kids patiently, teamwork evolving in small groups and, of course, an unusual structure taking shape in the small clearing where they worked.
But something nearly invisible, apparent only to the teachers on site, was also occurring. Secretly, students were learning about almost every instructional subject, from math and science to social studies and language.
Connecting different academic disciplines is a focus of the recently implemented Common Core standards. Many methods of teaching and testing have been forced to evolve, but Rosendale teachers said the longhouse project didn’t need to change at all. Its scope is naturally wide.
For example, foundational math skills are hiding in the longhouse project. Teachers might ask the students to estimate the difference in size between their model and a real Iroquois home, which could’ve been two or three times as large. The Three Sisters Garden, where the Iroquois traditionally planted beans, corn and squash in groups, reinforces multiplication and division by threes.
During the course of the unit, the fourth-graders will read historical documents, which will push the boundaries of their reading skills while also teaching history. Then, they’ll compare and contrast what they’ve learned about the lives of the Iroquois with the house they created. For example, the Rosendale students topped their longhouse with a tarp — a commodity their predecessors couldn’t have imagined.
It feels natural to the students to discuss these similarities and differences. They often move independently to compare their own families, homes, traditions and heritages with what they discover. However, the process of doing so actually advances and serves them in a number of academic ways.
“It’s a really integrative unit,” teacher Roseann Maurantonio said. “It’s just something that sticks with them more. . . . It becomes our world.”
The “stickiness” of the lessons was especially obvious during conversations with the students themselves. Fourth-grader and budding longhouse expert Ella Moskov was eager to share the facts she’d learned about the Iroquois.
“They had bunk beds and made them out of sticks,” she said. “There were all different families in one longhouse, so they’d make friends.”
She continued to tick off facts she’d learned through early discussions in class. A real Iroquois village, she said, would have 10 or 20 longhouses with multiple families in each. But when it came to explaining the garden in front of the building, though, she was a little stumped.
Fourth-grade teacher Lisa Meyer stepped in to fill the gap. She told Moskov that the Iroquois planted individual clusters of corn, beans, and squash because they discovered the three grew better together than they did separately; in other words, they sustained each other. They talked about the word “sustain” in a quick vocabulary refresher.
The beans, Meyer offered as an example, added nitrogen to the soil where the other plants fed off it — an impromptu science lesson.
These crops were so important they became sacred to the Iroquois, who believed in the “Legend of the Three Sisters.” Meyer said in the near future, the classes would discuss what, exactly, makes a story into a legend. That discussion would fuse English skills with a cultural lesson.
That was all fine with the students, who seemed to be under the impression they were getting a day off to play in the woods, rather than an intensive, interdisciplinary lesson.
Parent volunteer Lisa DePalma stood by as her son, Frankie, shuttled sticks and bark to their proper locations. At first, DePalma said, she was skeptical of the project. She wasn’t convinced it was an efficient use of classroom time. But after helping out with the build, she quickly changed her mind.
“As a parent, I think it’s an easier way to learn than just a book,” she said.
And Frankie loves it, too — in fact, at home, he can’t stop talking about it.
“He gives us a dissertation every day about everything they’ve learned,” she said with a laugh.
Parent and PTO member Cyntha Fairbanks agreed that the combination of learning and excitement the longhouse project produces is hugely valuable for Rosendale students.
“Everybody remembers their time at the longhouse,” she said. “It’s this mystical, phenomenal experience.”