Classroom of the Week: Nessacus students devise new pyramid schemes in social studies project


DALTON — It turns out, some pyramids can be built in a day.

For Dane Radwich, a seventh-grader at Nessacus Regional Middle School, it took a Saturday afternoon, a team of friends, a handy father, dozens of 1-by-3-inch wood strips, patience and "a lot of math."

Initially, he wanted to create a fortified metal structure, but he soon found out that the materials needed would cost him more than $200 to complete the class project.

"So, I switched my idea to use wood," he said.

Dane ultimately produced a neat, nearly 2-foot-tall model structure with a hinged top and security traps made of wooden ice pop sticks, glue and fishing wire.

Asked how he felt about the project, Dane said, "I loved it. I like doing 3D models. I love the Nile [River] and learning about Egypt. And I like that Mr. McComish is my teacher so that we can create stuff like this."

For nearly a dozen years, Nessacus social studies teacher John McComish has supplemented his curriculum with creative components, like asking students to recreate models of ancient artifacts and catapults from Rome and Greece, and building a pyramid for the unit on Egypt.

For the past couple of years, he has put "a more modern twist" on the assignment.

It formerly was known as the Pyramid Project, but McComish now calls it the "Legion of Tomb." The students' assignment is to fulfill the request of a fictional "King Bockmenra" (a name play on a previous assignment, during which a class mummified a chicken) to build a tomb "even greater than the Great Pyramid at Giza."

Bockmenra, a thrifty leader, and his advisers request a cost estimate from the students on each proposal for a tomb, details about how their designs will be executed and why the materials they chose will last for centuries.

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"In this class, we talk a lot about how you have to make a claim and back it up with evidence," McComish said.

Students also had to track the hours of labor they put into building their models, then produce a written or visual documentation of their process.

"In general, it's a chance to show what you know," McComish said.

McComish said that in giving his students an alternative to writing up a report, students have become more thoughtful and creative in describing their processes.

"When I gave them another option, they showed more information and felt good about it. Some of them have made videos, and a lot of them like using Google Slides," he said. "The quality has been much better than it was."

With the mission of improving at least one feature from traditional pyramids, this year's student submissions were innovative, and several structures produced traps and security mechanisms worthy of a feature in an "Indiana Jones" film.

"When we introduce a problem and a challenge, it makes the work much more interesting," McComish said.

In their proposals, students included facial recognition and laser security technology, old-school moats, and human and animal guards to protect their treasures and mummies from tomb raiders. Some adorned their tombs with fairy lights and flowers, while others propped up their designs on stilts or columns. One group of students even opted for a cylindrical shape over a pyramid. Another student took the time to include hieroglyphic and Arabic translations for the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

McComish said that making these tweaks and changes in the project and curriculum has helped to evolve his teaching practice and the way students learn.

"I think we've all enjoyed mixing the old with the new," he said.


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