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Preserved and Adapted: The Third Grade Haudenosaunee Study

The Big Questions

How does the environment shape culture? 

How do cultures change over time? 

How do cultures resist and survive colonialism and white supremacy? 

These are the big questions that Brooklyn Friends School third grade students explore each year in their social studies inquiry of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy–a beloved and vital curriculum tradition year after year. This pandemic school year was no different. Despite the challenges facing teachers and students during the 2020-2021 school year, the Haudenosaunee study carried on and students even experienced some unexpected benefits in the virtually-oriented world. 

The Third Grade Haudenosaunee Study: A Curriculum Tradition

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, commonly known as the Iroquois, is a confederacy of Indigenous Nations (made up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora Nations) in the Northeast. About their study of the Confederacy, third grade teacher Sarah Gordon said, “our social studies curriculum is something that really anchors the third grade experience. It is a look into Native American history and culture.” In reference to the “big questions”, Sarah shared, “those are big, big topics. But third graders are really ready to explore. They start by thinking about the environment. What natural resources are available in New York? How are basic needs met through these resources? From there, they learn about traditional homes, transportation, clothing, food, and how these changed over time.”

The People of The Longhouse

The Haudenosaunee are also called “The People of the Longhouse.” Third grade students center much of their study around these iconic homes, which pre-date the European arrival in North America and were remarkable in their engineering and construction. Third graders learn that the size, style, and structure of a culture’s homes tells us a great deal about its people. Students learn through research, reading, and film that as an agricultural society, the Haudenosaunee lived in villages of thousands and their longhouses housed anywhere from 50 to 400 members. Students then build their own model longhouses, and in the process, learn about all aspects of the home and why it was designed the way it was. Students who attended school remotely were sent the materials and were able to build their own models as well. The simple change of using pipe cleaners to secure pieces of the house instead of string allowed for students to build on their own instead of needing a friend’s extra set of hands. The study of the Haudenosaunee longhouse then transitions into a look at the homes of other nations and how they are different from longhouses because of weather, available materials and resources. The third grade team of teachers is proud that they were able to continue this important aspect of the study despite the restrictions of the 2020-2021 school year.

A Silver Lining: A Virtual Field Experience

A visit to the Iroquois Museum, located several hours away from Brooklyn in Howes Cave, New York, has always been a dream of the third grade teachers. But it’s just too far a journey for a field trip. However, as a silver lining to the pandemic, the Museum now offers virtual visits for school groups. Gathered together on Zoom, students met with the museum’s Cultural Interpreter/Education Program Coordinator, Brenda LaForme (Onondaga, Beaver Clan). She introduced students to her culture, history, and traditions, using the art and artifacts in the collection at the Museum. Their classroom learnings were reinforced and the remaining pieces of the Haudenosaunee study were previewed. It was an invaluable opportunity for the students and teachers, one that is sure to carry on for the next group of BFS third graders. 

An Ever-Evolving Study for Both Teachers and Students

While the Haudenosaunee study has been repeated year after year, it is anything but static, even beyond the evolution brought about by the pandemic. Sarah Gordon said, “there is a lot of work to be done to do this study and to do it well, with both a critical lens and in a way that is age appropriate. It doesn’t shy away from hard things. There is sometimes a fear of teaching a culture that is not your own–especially if you are white. We are constantly doing the work to center Indigenous voices and check ourselves and our materials.” Teacher Megan Glionna added, “I always try to demonstrate to the students that I have a lot to learn. We are all continuing to learn. There is work to be done.” 

Moving Up to Fourth Grade 

This third grade Haudenosaunee study also sets the groundwork for the fourth grade curriculum. When the students enter fourth grade, they launch into a study of New Amsterdam, the 17th-century Dutch settlement established at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, and the Lenape, Indigenous people of the New York City area. Students take the knowledge and skills learned in their study of the Haudenosaunee, and apply and grow them for another study. The thread begun in the third grade about Indigenous peoples and colonialism carries through for our students in the fourth grade.

Closing Out the School Year

As the students approached the end of the school year, they engaged in a light hearted activity in their Haudenosaunee study. They traveled to nearby Cadman Plaza to play traditional Haudenosaunee games in the fresh air and sunshine. To celebrate the end of third grade and to share all that they’ve experienced and learned, students then hosted a gathering for their families at the park. They proudly shared books that anthologized their entire Haudenosaunee study and also served as mementos from their BFS third grade experience. The 2020-2021 third grade teachers and students will forever be the group who were able to preserve and adapt this BFS curriculum tradition for future BFS students.

Reading Recommendations from the Classroom

The Third Grade teachers recommend two picture books for you and your children. Rabbit’s Snow Dance by James and Joseph Bruchac with illustrations by Jeff Newman presents a funny take on an Iroquois folktale about the importance of patience, the seasons, and listening to your friends. Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message, by Chief Jake Swamp with illustrations by Erwin Printup, Jr., is a traditional Iroquois celebration of the beauty and spirit of Mother Earth, as told by a contemporary Mohawk chief.