Mayan Pot project 2009.03.11

Written by David Green.


Not all of the young archeologists succeeded in their quest to interpret stories recorded on shards of broken pottery.

In one case, drawings of wolves were seen as turtles. A camping trip evolved into the classic race between the tortoise and the hare.mayan.starting_pots.jpg

That was all right with Morenci Middle School teacher Doug Rupp. It’s a writing class that he’s teaching; not a study of ancient cultures.

Mr. Rupp got the idea from a colleague at Clinton’s middle school and reworked it for his sixth grade classes.

“The Mayans [of Mexico and Central America] were great story tellers,” Mr. Rupp said in the introduction to the assignment.

The project began with a fictional narrative. Each student wrote a story that included dialogue and incorporated elements of creativity such as foreshadowing, flashbacks, similes and metaphor. Students were urged to keep the main idea of their tale to themselves.

This was followed by a trip to the school computer lab to view samples of Mayan art on websites.

Next, each student received a Mayan pot—a terra cotta flowerpot that would soon be transformed into a centuries old piece of decorated pottery.

With paints and brushes, each student retold their story by drawing it onto the pot—no words allowed.

When complete, each pot was placed in a grocery sack and stapled closed. Then came a step that was a little difficult for many students. Holding the sack high, they dropped it onto the sidewalk in front of the school.

After all that work, there was some hesitation to break it into pieces, Mr. Rupp said.

He had a different form of anxiety. He never tried out this step of the project ahead of time and he wasn’t sure what was going to happen. mayan.it_broke.jpg

Three students lined up, lifted their sacks and let go. Mr. Rupp scurried over to check the damage. It was perfect. Complete destruction. There were only a few cases where he had to give an extra crushing blow.

Bags were traded and reconstruction got underway. Piece by piece, each pot was glued back together so the painted story could be read.

“I didn’t know how the gluing was going to go,” Mr. Rupp said. “Some were really difficult to reassemble.”

There were three or four kids in each class who couldn’t get the pot back together—much better than the 50/50 split Mr. Rupp feared might happen.

At this point the project was about three-fourths complete. Now the archeologists became writing students once again. The pots were reconstructed; now came the reconstruction of the story.

By looking at the painted drawings, students had to put the tale back into words, trying to interpret what they saw into another fictional narrative.

“The challenge was to be more elaborate than what was on the pots,” Mr. Rupp said. “Some kids gave a lot of detail and ended up with a longer story than the original.”

The final segment of the assignment was a comparison between the original story and the reconstructed tale.

Many stories matched up fairly well. Others—like the wolves that became turtles—provided a good laugh.

“The kids were rolling,” Mr. Rupp said. “We had a good time with that one.”

In Mr. Rupp’s opinion, the Mayan Pot Project was a complete success. He sees the assignment as a lot of fun, but also as a meaningful way to approach writing.

Attention, fifth grade students: You will experience this project next year when you move into Mr. Rupp’s English class. This one is a keeper.

• The Mayan Pot project was funded by a grant from the Morenci Education Foundation.

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