The Power of Descendant Community Voices in the Classroom

The Power of Descendant Community Voices in the Classroom

The Power of Descendant Community Voices in the Classroom

By Erika Malo, Special Projects Coordinator (2020)

Today, we want to focus on something that is at the core of Project Archaeology curricula – Descendant Community Member Voices. We want students to link archaeology to the people connected to it today. Understanding this connection helps students explore the importance of archaeology, their own culture and the culture of other people, and how they can become engaged citizens. Project Archaeology’s founder, Dr. Jeanne Moe, wrote about how descendent community member collaboration was essential to the creation of our curricula. The collaboration resulted in descendant community members acting as a guide throughout the curricula. This voice not only shares vital information about the archaeological site and its connection to a culture, but the person also shares about their life today.

Project Archaeology curricula teach four overarching Enduring Understandings:

1. Understanding the past is essential for understanding the present and shaping the future.
2. Learning about cultures, past and present, is essential for living in a pluralistic society and world.
3. Archaeology is a systematic way to learn about past cultures.
4. Stewardship of archaeological sites and artifacts is everyone’s responsibility.

Descendant community member voices, when combined with archaeology, present great opportunities for classroom discussions around race, socioeconomic differences, gender identity, and many other topics that can be difficult to address in the classroom. Facilitating these kinds of conversations helps students meet the four Enduring Understandings. Students who learn about culture, critical thinking, and multiple viewpoints, as well as understanding those topics in relation to archaeology, have the potential to become engaged citizens that shape the future, support a pluralistic society, and are agents in the stewardship of archaeological sites.

While piloting Project Archaeology: Investigating Shelter’s regional investigation, Investigating a Shotgun House, researchers Linda Levstik and A. Gwynn Henderson (2015) used the curriculum to represent the perspectives of residents in the working class neighborhood of Davis Bottom in Lexington, KY. Davis Bottom was a historically integrated community that started as a neighborhood for free or newly freed African Americans after the Civil War. Students learn about residents through oral histories and documentary films that feature the people who live or lived in Davis Bottom, census records, and the material objects from archaeological excavations of a neighborhood house. Levstik and Henderson reflected on the connection between archaeology, descendant community member voices, and race.

In emphasizing the importance of understanding working class people and the significance of integration in Davis Bottom, students called attention to the power of studying race as a connective rather than divisive feature of community, and identifying collective agency as a powerful response to racism. As one of the seventh graders explained, people were “willing it to stand up for their rights, stand up against racist people” in order to “change… how life would be for future generations” (HM7).
(Levstik and Henderson 2015)

Students are the future. Curricula that feature descendent community members’ voices as experts, residents, archaeologists, scientists, and activists can make an incredible impact on students’ understanding of the past and today. Bringing these voices into the classroom has to potential to create a future with citizens who are engaged with not only policy, but each other, their communities, and their peers. Think about the power of people and place next time you pick out curricula, teaching tools like video and readings, or bring a speaker into your classroom. Seek out resources compiled by archaeology and outreach organizations/programs like Archaeology in the Community, the Society of Black Archaeologists, the
Smithsonian’s Native Knowledge 360°, and the Alaska Native Knowledge Network.

References Cited:
Linda Levstik and A. Gwynn Henderson.
2015        Will We Ever Get to Do This Again? Early Adolescents Investigating the Lives of the Working Poor. Paper presented at the College and University Assembly Annual Meeting, National Council for the Social Studies. New Orleans, LA.