Earliest Americans Unit Study

Our Earliest Americans unit study will focus on the different ways humans may have arrived in the Americas. We’ll also look at how the different climates around North America may have influenced lifestyles. Before the unit I asked the kids if they had any specific projects in mind that they’d like to do, and my oldest wanted to incorporate Minecraft, so they’ll be researching and building a structure in Minecraft, and possibly recording and making a movie about their work. You can also check out our book/video list for this unit with links and reviews to many of the resources we used.

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Week 1

Our study of the earliest Americans began by looking at different migration theories. There’s quite a few around! We used the book Who Really Discovered America? by Avery Hart. We’ve used several books in this Kaleidoscope Kids series before, in our Geology, Ancient Greek and Ancient Egypt unit studies, and this one didn’t let us down. This book asks the reader to read and evaluate evidence for and against each theory, and come up with their own conclusions. I whipped up a quick recording sheet to go with the book’s theory ranking system.

Over three days I read all the pre-Viking, pre-Columbus theory aloud while the girls did map work (more below). On the third day each of us had come up with our own favourite theory. The girls then used graphic organizers to plan opinion paragraphs to state why their idea was the most likely. My 5th grader was required to use at least one additional text (The First Americans, by Joy Hakim, or Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann) for further concrete evidence. My 2nd grader was required write three complex sentences using because or so to explain why she thought a fact made her theory the most likely. She actually ended up looking through the Before Columbus book too.

While the girls were listening to the different theories, they did map work showing the geological history of the land. First, I printed a map of the current outlines of North America and Eastern Europe on water color paper, which they painted. Then, I sized three maps from a history of Quebec and Canada site to match and printed them. The girls used tracing paper to trace the differences in each map and then used oil pastels and markers to color. They used address labels to label the map and map legends. Each tracing paper map can then be laid over the painted map to see how things have changed over the last 30,000 years.

To go along with this, we watched the first episode of PBS’s First Peoples, and started watching The Real History of the Americas before Columbus.

Week 2

During our second week of the unit, the girls revised, edited, and re-wrote their paragraphs. We also dived into CKLA/Amplify‘s third grade unit, Native Americans: Regions and Cultures. We are only using the Speaking & Listening sections of this unit. Since the Who Really Discovered America? book more than covered the first CKLA lesson, we started at lesson 2. This was still a general overview detailing how lived changed over time and how civilizations in general begin. The third lesson introduced ancient Mississippian cultures, including the Adena, Hopewell, and Cahokia settlements.

We took this a little further exploring the farming relationship between corn, beans, and squash that developed in this region. I found and read the story of The Three Sisters (the three crops working together), and we had Three Sisters stew for dinner.

One reason these three crops grow so well together is because the beans (legumes) can add nitrogen to the soil, which the other two plants use. This relationship sparked the perfect opportunity to give a lesson on the nitrogen cycle. I made a felt mat based on this blog, and used a script linked at the bottom of that blog. We reviewed the parts of a biome, and used three part cards (purchased with their biomes curriculum – totally worth the $12 for the digital download version) and blackline masters (free) from Waseca. I also used our molecule making kit and molecule cards to visualize the different ways nitrogen moves through the cycle.

To keep little hands busy during our read alouds, I prepared some cardboard bead looms. The girls had fun learning the weaving technique to make wampum style bracelets. For now, we’re working on the skills of threading the loom and weaving. There’s a Dragon in My Art room has 5 different posts on Wampum weaving, all linked from this post. I’ll bring in history and more traditional patterns when we get to the appropriate cultural groups. I also provided design templates from manyhoops.com. This activity was a big hit. I did buy a weaving loom for seed beads, but it proved just too small and fiddly for all of us. These wampum bracelets were fully achievable by the kids (except for a little knot typing help for my youngest), and could be completed in 1-2 sittings.

Lastly, the girls looked through a variety of library books to made a choice about the peoples, region, and housing type they’d like to focus on for future research. We also continued to watch The Real History of the Americas before Columbus.

Week 3

Our CKLA read alouds this week focused on the Ancestral Pueblo and a modern current tribe, the Hopi. Along with one of our read alouds the girls looked at pictures of Kachina dolls. We talked about the purpose of the dolls and related them back to shabti dolls we made during our Ancient Egypt unit. My instructions came from Hands on History: Native Americans. The girls chose to make animal themed dolls that embody the qualities of love and adorableness. I wish I’d found this book, Kachina Tales from the Indian Pueblos, earlier so that we had it this week, but hopefully the girls will want to return to it when it comes in. Kachina doll making supplies, along with Hopi Kachinas: The Complete Guide to Collecting Kachina Dolls will remain available for future inspiration. The book is not an ideal resource, but it is what our library had available.

As their “big project” for this unit, the girls asked to build a Native American dwelling in Minecraft. As was pulling the unit together I looked at some other similar projects, tried to learn a bit about Minecraft, and we agreed that they will choose a traditional housing type. Over 4 weeks they will research the biome, research the locations used for housing and natural resources available, research how the home is built, and also research the material items that would be used in and around those homes. Each week they will need to research and write a paragraph before they start the related Minecraft build. Then, they will screen record a tour of their build. They’ll also edit their paragraphs and record themselves reading the paragraphs aloud. They’ll edit it all together in CapCut to make a tour-guide style movie. This week my oldest researched the Southwest desert biome, and my youngest researched the Arctic tundra.

Along with continuing to watch The Real History of the Americas before Columbus we also read Hopi and Zuni stories from Native American Animal Stories by Joseph Bruchac. This was only a 3 day week for us, so we accomplished quite a lot!

Week 4

Our week started with some more map work. To help the kids sort out all the information they’re getting, I wanted them to have a visual when we talked about different geographic regions. I also wanted to build more familiarity with landmarks like the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains. I gave the kids the option to trace a map or have a printed version. We then used this map. The kids drew in boundaries and painted the map while I read more Native American Animal Stories by Joseph Bruchac, and the Iroquis creation story from In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World by Virginia Hamilton. Another book that came out and has been enjoyed this week is Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection.

Both girls continued research for their Minecraft builds. My oldest if very independent, and doing well. I’m really impressed with what my little one is pulling out, taking notes on, and turning into sentences – and that she’s not complaining about doing it! Her writing is really coming along.

Later in the week I read the CKLA Northeast Native American cultures chapter aloud. I also wove in extra information from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The PDF goes much more in depth on the Haudenosaunee people, the Iroquois confederacy, housing, society structure, wampum, etc. I changed out our wampum weaving work from a couple of weeks ago to reflect some traditional patterns and colors.

This week I also introduced a basket weaving activity. I purchased a kit. It’s tough! This is a joint project amongst all of us. So far I’ve started the project, and I hope the girls will pick it up and add on. I purchased a kit this time, but if we get the hang of it I think we could collect pine needles and start our own baskets pretty easily.

Watching the World Cup is really infringing on our completing The Real History of the Americas before Columbus! We’re still plodding through!

Week 5

Our fifth week focused on South East and Plains Native American groups. We actually looked at the Plains groups first. I found a great book, Tipi by Paul Goble. The book gives a history of tipis, customs and stories behind them, and lots and lots of illustrations with pages to photocopy. I had some old vegan-suede type fabric from a project years ago. I cut the fabric to the template and as we read through the book the girls picked out patterns or motifs they liked to include on their tipis.

We used a CKLA lesson to learn about early Native Americans of the Southeast regions. The lesson included a really nice assignment for the kids to compare the Southeast cultures with the Northeast cultures. We folded paper in half and they took notes about both cultures. We then used highlighters to match similar or contrasting notes. My oldest daughter wrote a long paragraph based upon our observations. I gave my younger daughter some Writing Revolution style sentence starters to complete to scaffold her thoughts.

Kachina Tales from the Indian Pueblos came in from the library this week. We’ve been enjoying reading the stories of the Kachinas from the book. Some of the stories remind us of other myths we’ve read, and I love seeing the girls make those connections.

Week 6

The week my little one has been waiting for! Arctic peoples week! I actually started the week with a geometry lesson on the point. We then talked about scrimshaw, an art form practiced by many different people, but also by the Inuit. We looked at some example of Inuit scrimshaw, and then the girls drew a simple picture on a post-it note. We laid the note over a disc of oven-bake clay and used a pin to poke out our designs. Later, when the clay was baked, we used paintbrushes to push black acrylic paint down into all the holes and wiped off the excess. I think they look great! The next morning we read through the CKLA lesson on Arctic and Sub-Arctic peoples.

Later in the week we used a chapter from Build It Yourself: Native Americans to learn about the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. To go along with this lesson I wanted to make fry bread, and I also gave the girls the choice of two projects from the book – line form art or creating a totem pole, but, being real…we’re tired. It’s almost Christmas and they had various presentations and performances 4 days out of the last week. The kids both wanted to spend their time finishing up their research for the Minecraft projects, and making their builds, so that’s where they spent their time.

Week 7

Our final week on the unit was a short one. We touched on Native Americans of California by visiting the Oakland Museum of California. The girls also screen recorded tours of their Minecraft builds and added voiceovers of all the paragraphs they’ve written during the unit. Even though our unit is at an end, we’ll continue to read some of the myths and stories we didn’t get to. My oldest read and took notes on The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdich, but my youngest didn’t get along with Children of the Longhouse, by Joseph Bruchac, so I’ll start that as a read aloud soon.

Here’s my 7 year old’s video. My older daughter didn’t want hers shared.

That’s it for this unit. Don’t forget to check out the book/video list for a great set of resources for your unit.

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