From the moment Myeashea Alexander heard the American Association of Anthropology announce there would be a day dedicated to the celebration of anthropology she knew she wanted to celebrate through outreach. Taking a hands on approach Myeashea created a forensic anthropology lab for the kids at local Brooklyn public school, Bedford Village Elementary. Exploring the processes of human life and death. This workshop took death out of the realm of abstraction and put it up close and personal.
– Myeashea Alexander –
“Is that a real bone?”
“It’s a cast or a mold of a real bone,” I answer while trying to hand. the pelvis to the student.
“Whew! Okay, because if that were real I’d be scared!”
“Why,” I asked. “You have real bones in your body.”
“I do?!” exclaimed the student, as she ran away, circled back and took it so that she could explore the sciatic notch.
I love working with kids. She knew she was in a safe space, so curiosity won over fear.
From the moment the American Association of Anthropology announced that there would be a day dedicated to the celebration of anthropology I knew that I wanted to celebrate through outreach. For the past two years, I have partnered with local Brooklyn public school, Bedford Village Elementary, to provide the students with an opportunity to learn about anthropology. The first year was a more general overview of the kinds of topics that the discipline tackled. However, this year, I chose a more hands-on approach and created a forensic anthropology lab for the kids to explore.
My idea came from the Smithsonian’s public lab that was set up as a part of their ‘Written In Bone’ exhibition. After volunteering for over a year in that lab, I knew the benefits of being able to provide tangible, tactile elements to a learning opportunity. Research suggests that hands-on learning helps make concepts and information easier to understand, more retainable and memorable. “The more parts of your brain you use, the more likely you are to retain information,” says Judy Dodge, author of 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom (Scholastic, 2009). “If you’re only listening, you’re only activating one part of the brain,” she says, “but if you’re [engaging] and explaining to a peer, then you’re making connections in the brain.”
The challenge of this exercise was not simply developing a presentation, but also figuring out a way to have children feel comfortable in exploring the processes of human life and death. A hands-on workshop would take death out of the realm of abstraction and put it up close and personal.
This consideration was especially important for the group of kids that participated in the event. The school is an underfunded and underserved institution situated in Bed-Stuy- an underserved and underfunded New York City neighborhood with a history systemic and street violence, inequality, and other issues that make death very real and scary. Although the children in this school are very young, some have already experienced horrific acts of violence, brutality, abuse and loss. I needed to find a way to discuss death in a way that was not confrontational or too personal.
In order to achieve this, I created a case that did not involve the students examining blunt force trauma or gun shot wounds. I stuck to skeletal examples that could be examined for occupational markers and certain diseases that occur with less frequency in the modern U.S. Setting the case in historic New York City, provided a historical aspect that allowed the students to develop a personal connection with human remains due to geographic location, while still being detached because of the time period. I also did not bring the full skeleton. I used a color image so that the students could see what a full skeleton would look like in anatomical position. Most importantly, I was honest, used proper terms, provided full explanations to the best of my ability, and allowed them time to touch and examine the bones as they saw fit.
I created a hypothetical case that was linked to the actual African Burial Grounds monument in lower Manhattan. This added another dimension of accessibility to the event. Lower Manhattan was a place that many of the students had a personal reference for and could visit.
Curiosity took over the space quickly. Students of all ages asked smart and engaged questions, they weren’t scared to touch or examine anything. They shared the bone casts between each other, made connections between the case and themselves, and had a great time.
Anthropology is the study of humans. I don’t believe that there is a way to effectively study humans without including the process of death.
“So, we can figure out how a person lived through their death! That’s so cool!”
“These bones aren’t scary! We all have them.”
“I need to take better care of my body.”
Yes! Hearing the students make these observations, hold the bones against their bodies to better understand what they were seeing, and discuss what they were seeing between each other, was a clear indication that the plan was successful. Even more exciting was watching the teachers get equally involved and enlivened about the case and artifacts for the same reasons. There is a tendency to focus on the education and engagement of children, but it is important that adults are actively included in these types of events. Adults need these opportunities, too. Children are inherently curious because the world is still new and being discovered. Adults should also be invited into these processes with the same intention and purposefulness.
Anthropology, as a discipline, has a unique ability to cross, question, and intersect the boundaries of the social and life sciences. This lab simulation would not have been possible without math, anatomy, history, social studies, geography, art, empathy, and more. I’d like encourage more public and professional interaction, hands-on opportunities and school partnerships. Awareness is about creating a well-informed interest and understanding of a subject matter. This requires experts to get into the field, provide jargon free explanations, and create spaces that are inclusive and fun to explore.
Photography by Damari McBride. Casts, provided by Myeshea, are from Anatomical Chart Co and Bones and Clones.
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