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Showcasing Linda Prather and "Walking Through the Cemetery"


"For the first couple of years, students weren't really sure what to think when, at the beginning of October, I started talking about going to the Cemetery," recalled Linda Prather. "You could see the look in their eyes -- has this lady gone nuts? Now that I've done it for eleven years, they all know it's coming. They know it's an eighth grade tradition, so on the first day of school, they come in asking if they're going to get to go to the cemetery. They've heard older brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends talk about the trip, and there's no way they're going to be cheated out of the day!"

 

Prather's students caught this image of a "ghost" while on a field trip to a cemetery in 1999! -- Photo courtesy of Linda Prather.

Prather teaches eighth grade language arts, eighth grade practical living, and an enrichment class for seventh and eighth graders at Silver Grove Independent School in Kentucky. The district is small -- with about 300 students in grades pre-kindergarten through twelve -- and each year, she typically takes about twenty students on the annual trip to a local cemetery.

"I had always loved walking through the cemetery, looking at the old monuments and appreciating the artistic detail of some of the older ones," Prather told Education World. "I felt that many were more like pieces of art than gravestones. Years ago, before I was teaching, I came across a teaching magazine that had an article about taking students to the cemetery as a field trip. It stuck in my mind."

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE

During her second year teaching, Prather proposed the cemetery field trip, and the school's principal was as excited about the idea as she was. He allowed almost all the middle grade teachers and students to go. Prather developed a cross-curricular unit that was fun for students and emphasized the beauty of cemeteries. She has improved upon that initial plan with every annual excursion. The unit now spans a month, and includes work before and after the trip itself!

"Students first are given an hour-long tour by someone at the cemetery," said Prather. "After that, they have time to work on worksheets containing many data-gathering questions. Many of the questions then are used in the classroom, in several different subject areas. In addition, every teacher has an assignment related to the trip that is completed after the trip."

One important art activity that students complete, for example, is to design a headstone. They use interfacing and crayons for that activity. The art teacher talks to students before the trip about the symbols that are used on tombstones and what they mean, and about what will make a headstone design appealing. In an effort to get students to think about how people see them, and what their futures might bring, Prather has them write three personal obituaries -- one dated for the current year, one 25 years into the future, and one 50 years in the future. Students do a good deal of preparation, sometimes complaining that there is a little too much work!

"One of the reasons for all the work at the cemetery is that I don't want students to run around," Prather explained. "I want them to notice the beauty of the monuments, so much of the work forces them to slow down and really stop and look at things. That's one of the main things that I want them to take from the day -- cemeteries are outdoor museums and history books all rolled into one. They are not ugly old places you only visit to mourn the dead."

CALMING FEARS

Some students have expressed a little apprehension regarding the cemetery field trip, but they've usually been students who were new to the district and unfamiliar with the trip's history.

"One of the writing assignments students can choose to do when they get back is to write a letter about the trip to the next group of eighth graders," said Prather. " I keep those in a binder and let students read them. We also use the cemetery's Web site before we go, so students get to see some of the monuments ahead of time."

Prather also plays a video about the cemetery study made by senior students from the University of Cincinnati. The video shows scenes from the cemetery, and talks about a "ghost" the group photographed during a 1999 visit.

"Students see that this trip is going to be fun, and I think that helps," she explained. "We also have high school students in the building, and never do I not have a class of high school students begging me to take them back to the cemetery. The eighth graders see that and think, 'The high school kids want to go back, so it must be cool!' I usually get to pick one or two high school kids to go with me to help. It is a huge honor."

Parents often contact Prather with questions in advance of the trip, and she invites them to come along as well. At the end of the day, tired though they are, most parents thank her and tell her how much they enjoyed the trip and how much they learned from it.

Other parents have had concerns about how their children would deal with the trip, but the experience always has been positive.

"We had one girl whose older sister had died just two weeks before the trip," recalled Prather. "Her mother called me, and we talked a long time about how her daughter would handle the day. She came with us and said that the day helped her more than anything to really start the healing process."

TRIP TIPS

The idea of studying history and art through a cemetery trip is catching on. On at least two occasions, Prather has had other schools join her class for activities at the cemetery, and she has received e-mail messages from many others who have taken similar trips.

Prather advises teachers to visit the cemetery before they arrive with students, and to learn as much as possible about the cemetery's history. It is also important to coordinate the students' visit with cemetery staff, so it occurs at an appropriate time.

Prather also offers a few suggestions for when students are on site:

  • Give students enough work to do so they don't have time to run wild. You want them to really look at the monuments, the plant life, and the wildlife.
  • Remind students that although they can have fun, a cemetery still is a place in which manners are important.
  • Tell students to bring plenty of water and take sips, not gulps.
  • Plan bathroom breaks. One of the biggest problems we encounter is access to restrooms, and that can be even more of an issue for the adults than for the students.
  • Bring backpacks.

An adult chaperone travels with each group of students, and Prather distributes a pack of items to each group. The packs contain masking tape, scissors, extra pencils, tissues, bandages, a clipboard, hand wipes, and paper towels. For the tombstone rubbing, she provides crayons and interfacing, and a small squirt bottle and scrub brush with soft bristles to clean the stone. She also includes small plastic bags for science treasures, an extra water bottle, and cameras.

Coming Soon...

If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 10/11/2004
Last updated 10/11/2006