Expanding Young Minds by Exploring Ancient Worlds

What was daily life like in the Indus River Valley? How is the Chinese New Year celebrated? Who participated in the very first Olympics? An encyclopedia or Google search could provide these answers—but you would get a much more exciting response from an Ellis second grader.
Throughout their interdisciplinary Discovery units on ancient civilizations, grade 2 students have been enthusiastically exploring early India, China, and Greece. Each interactive lesson provides them with compelling insight into different cultures, all while strengthening their language comprehension and encouraging them to find connections to what they’re learning in the world around them.

Discovery units are an integration of traditional social studies and science-based learning. They incorporate read alouds from a variety of books that connect to the unit theme. A fundamental element of these read alouds is that they are purposefully above the students’ reading level. This exposes the young learners to more advanced words and concepts, which expands their knowledge base, develops curiosity, and enhances their reading comprehension skills. 

"Through listening to the read alouds, students are introduced to rich vocabulary and build a strong foundation of background knowledge for the learning they’ll do throughout their Lower School years," says Grade 2 Teacher Harry Frazee. "They’re hearing about higher-level subject matter in developmentally appropriate ways. They’re also gaining perspective and being provided with language to talk about what they are learning in class.”

Along with the read alouds, the ancient civilization units feature immersive class discussions that revolve around key components such as geography, leaders, religion, and societal contributions. Students learn about the same components as they study each civilization so that they can identify similarities and differences between the cultures. During the units about ancient India and China, students discovered how and why people of these civilizations chose to settle along rivers. But in the ancient Greece unit, students learned about city-states, which instead of being by rivers were divided by mountains and had independent governments. The students found it fascinating that geography influenced how the civilizations were formed and governed, and they were equipped with the words necessary to voice their interest.

"The students really impressed me with how much they remembered across the course of the unit,” shares Grade 2 Teacher Katie Jordanoff. "When we did our unit review, students were actually using the language from the read aloud—it’s not everyday you hear a second grader talk about fertile soil and use the word "irrigation”! That’s real proof that the Discovery units are working; students are internalizing this vocabulary, and they’re effectively and accurately using these new words they’ve learned.”

Students were particularly excited to connect what they were learning in class to a special world event that serendipitously aligned with the second grade's first year studying ancient civilizations: the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. After a lesson about how the Olympics first began in ancient Greece, the class discussed how many different countries participate in the Olympics today. Each student then chose a country to be an "ambassador” for and complete research about, collecting data including the country’s location, native language, and number of participating Olympic athletes. The girls kept a running tally of the medals earned by each country, and a friendly competition was held between the two grade 2 homerooms to see whose countries would take home the most medals.

Students also enjoyed bringing up references to aspects of their Discovery lessons that they noticed in their own lives. One student mentioned seeing a commercial during the Super Bowl that featured Zeus, the sky and thunder god in ancient Greek religion. Another student lit up when the ancient India conversation turned to Buddhism, sharing with the class about her family and the Buddhist statues in their house. While the connections between what the students are learning in class and what they’re encountering and experiencing in their daily lives already seem endless, the goal is that the Discovery unit connections will only continue to expand in the coming years, building across grades and weaving throughout disciplines. 

Current grade 1 students are learning about ancient Central and South American civilizations, so they’ll have that prior knowledge to draw from when they learn about India, China, and Greece for themselves next year. The grade 2 teachers are also looking forward to continuing the interdisciplinary work they’ve been doing with other Lower School faculty to integrate concepts from the Discovery units into students’ art, library, STEM, and physical education studies. Research shows that when students are engaged with these types of learning experiences that are enriching, interactive, and cohesive, their comprehension and retention levels can soar.

"We’re eager to see how next year will be different, when students will be coming in with previous knowledge that they didn’t have for this year’s units,” says Ms. Jordanoff. "We’re also already starting to think about how we can look at the Discovery units on an even larger scale and try to interconnect with other disciplines as much as we can. The more opportunities we can provide for young students to gain diverse background knowledge and rich vocabulary now, the stronger their ability will be to read and comprehend text they encounter in the future.”
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