Archive for Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Digging up the past

Students document cemeteries to preserve history

April 24, 2007

If you ask students in Nieman Elementary's CSI program about the television show the class got its name from, they don't know much about it.

Most of these sixth-graders are not allowed to watch "Crime Scene Investigation" on CBS. But the students aren't learning forensic science; they're learning about cemeteries.

The Nieman Enhanced Learning Center calls its new class CSI: Cemetery Scene Investigations, and invites students to look at cemeteries as primary sources that need to be preserved and recorded. As part of the class, students traveled to local cemeteries to document gravesites, and now they are putting all the information they found at their Web site,

Staff members first heard of the program through the George Lucas Education Foundation magazine in an article about a similar class in California. Gifted teachers Nancy Bosch and Courtney Moffitt started the project in January after receiving $3,107 in funding in November through the Shawnee Mission Education Foundation's Excellence in Education grants.

Moffitt said students involved in the class note all the details about the graves they are researching. Students will write down names and dates for all the graves, as well as any other identifying marks on the stone and any signs of corrosion. She said this information would be used by local cemetery preservation societies.

"They use this to know which stones need to be replaced or have been vandalized," Moffitt said. "Sometimes the cemeteries don't have very accurate records, so the kids have to read old stones and map the cemeteries. They're getting a feel for what it's like to be real scientists."

The science students used to map the cemeteries ranged from new Global Positioning System devices to simple paper tricks. Sixth-grader Russell Gray explained how paper can be used to read older graves.

"You get a big piece of white construction paper and do a rubbing with your pencil," Russell said. "It can be completely illegible, and someone does a rubbing to figure out what it said."

Students took a trip April 10 to the Antioch Pioneer cemetery at 75th and Antioch. Most of the graves at this location were documented and had little decomposition, but the students collected all the information as practice for other cemeteries.

Sixth-grader Annie Cronenwett described how most of these more recent graves looked.

"They are mostly raised top tombstones," Annie said. "That means it is a plain rectangle six inches off the ground."

Other stones included block markers that are two feet tall with a rounded top. Students included this information to better identify the graves in case of physical or chemical wearing in the future.

Moffitt said many of the early stones in this area are made of sandstone and limestone, which have not aged well.

"People thought for a while that marble was the best choice, but that seems to be just as bad," Moffitt said. "The wearing is caused by weather, pollution, vandalism and just time."

For some of the graves, research must be done outside the cemetery. One unique headstone at Antioch Pioneer features a black obelisk with a swan at the top. Tim Dormandy investigated the site.

"The swan is from a poem on the back, and I think it's in Arabic on the side," Tim said. "He died kind of young of brain cancer and wrote a poem in his will."

Tim said he would need to research to find if the writing is Arabic and if the swan has a religious significance.

Moffitt said the detective work of research, as well as using new technology, is what made the program attractive to the Enhanced Learning Center.

"Some kids are into the video or GPS and some we found are gifted photographers," Moffitt said. "We're hitting a lot of interest levels by doing this class."

Moffitt said this program has been very popular with the students. She said while some people might not like hanging out in graveyards, sixth-graders don't seem to mind it.

Russell said what he most enjoyed was the technology and being outside instead of in a classroom.

"I like doing big projects like this," Russell said. "Sometimes it makes you sad to see all these people who died, especially the ones that are only a year old or something."

Last week the students finished up their "field work" with a trip to the Shawnee, Pleasant Hill and St. Joseph cemeteries along Quivira Road in Shawnee.

The students' work there was able to benefit Linda Lewis, cemetery coordinator for Johnson County GenWeb organization, who is working to create a database of all people buried in cemeteries in Johnson County. In the Shawnee Cemetery, they found a grave of a person who fought in the war of 1812 -- one Lewis knew existed, just not where it was.

Now, the students will spend the rest of the school year entering data, creating charts and graphs and formatting their Web site. Moffitt said some students are using the pictures they've taken to create scrap blogs and slide shows.

"We're going to be pretty bogged down with entering the data, because we had 700 headstones to enter from the Antioch Pioneer cemetery alone," Moffitt said.

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