Posted by: Mary Anna Thornton | February 21, 2014

Re-enacting History with Augers and Ice Saws

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In history class, students have started to learn about Ernest Shackleton’s famous Antarctic adventure, which became an endurance marathon in unimaginably difficult conditions once the expedition ship became trapped in Weddell Sea ice and then crushed. As part of this unit, students re-enact elements of the experience in order to better understand the hardships the crew endured, the skills that helped them survive bitter below-zero weather, and the keys to Shackleton’s successful leadership. Astoundingly, not a single member of the expedition was lost even though the Antarctic ordeal lasted almost two years.

When Shackleton’s ship first became caught in the ice, crew members could see open water not far away. They therefore attempted to cut the ship free and create a channel through the ice. Conserve School students got a taste of how strenuous this attempt must have been by breaking into teams, each of which strove to cut and then lift a small block of ice out of Big Donahue Lake, one of our seven campus lakes, using historically accurate hand tools. At the end of this activity, students analyzed their leadership and teamwork skills — what worked, what didn’t, and what they might do differently if they attempted the same task again.

When reflecting on this and other re-enactments designed for history class by Conserve School Teacher Michael Salat, students often report that at Conserve School they realized for the first time that history can be interesting. In high school, history is too often presented as a confusing mass of dates, names, and events to be memorized and then forgotten once the test is over. By contrast, Conserve School’s compelling, hands-on historical simulations wake students up to the fact that studying historical events and personalities can be both fascinating and instructive.

Embedding learning in an exciting, challenging context makes it more likely that students will remember what they learn for years — not just for the next test. While watching students struggle to heave slabs of ice out of the lake, I heard one student yell, “This is the most exciting class I ever had!!” That student will probably remember this experience — and Shackleton’s persistence, ingenuity, and dedication to his crew members — for years to come.

At Conserve School, we make it even more likely that students internalize and remember what they learn by asking them to reflect on their studies frequently via their e-portfolios. For more information on the Shackleton ice-cutting activity, take a look at this e-portfolio post from a CS6 student’s award-winning e-portfolio. For more details on Shackleton’s expedition, see the American Museum of Natural History Shackleton Exhibit website.

Mary Anna Thornton, Assistant Head of School

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