The Raven: A Mini Unit for Middle School

I have been fascinated with ravens since I was a child. I recall my mother reading aloud Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven at Halloween. Poe was one of her favorite authors and she delighted in reading this glorious poem in narrative voice.

Ravens Mini Unit @EvaVarga.netNew research has found that ravens remember prior interactions with people and even communicate these interactions with others of their kind. I’ve read stories of ravens leaving trinkets and gifts for those who have shown them kindness. My father has a pair of ravens that visit him regularly and when we visit, they can always be seen perched nearby keeping an eye on things.

Raven Mini Unit

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an Audubon post, How to Tell a Raven From a Crow on Facebook and the wheels in my head immediately started spinning. Would not this make a wonderful Halloween themed mini unit? Yes! I must put something together …

Science

The Audubon link I shared above is the perfect place to begin. While ravens and crows may look similar in some ways, there are several distinctive traits that help set them apart.

You probably know that ravens are larger, the size of a red-tailed hawk. Ravens often travel in pairs, while crows are seen in larger groups. Also, watch the bird’s tail as it flies overhead. The crow’s tail feathers are basically the same length, so when the bird spreads its tail, it opens like a fan. Ravens, however, have longer middle feathers in their tails, so their tail appears wedge-shaped when open.

Go outside and watch them. Bring along your nature journal and record your observations. How many do you see? How do they interact? What are they eating? Do they scratch at the soil with their feet? What sounds do they make?

Consider adding several quick sketches in your journal or taking photographs. When you return indoors, take more time to illustrate the birds you observed. Feel free to use a field guide or photograph to help you.

Literature

Ravens are perhaps the most common bird symbol in the mythologies and religions of ancient cultures. They assume a variety of roles, ranging from messengers of deities and sages to oracles and tricksters. They play a central part in many creation myths and are typically associated with the supernatural realms lying beyond the ordinary experience.

The Raven: Mini Unit for Middle School @EvaVarga.netThe history of ravens as mythical birds can be traced as far as the 1000-year-old Norse mythology. Odin, the chief god in Norse mythology, had a pair ravens called Hugin and Munin perching on his shoulders. Each morning they were sent out into the world to observe what was happening and question everybody. They would come back by sunrise and whisper to Odin what they had learned. Sometimes Odin himself would turn into a raven.

Hugin and Munin
Fly every day
Over all the world;
I worry for Hugin
That he might not return,
But I worry more for Munin.

Huginn ok Muninn
fljúga hverjan dag
Jörmungrund yfir;
óumk ek of Hugin,
at hann aftr né komi-t,
þó sjámk meir of Munin.

I encourage you to research the symbolism of ravens in a culture of your choice. Here are two of my favorites:

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

How Raven Stole the Sun (Native American Myth)

Art

Ravens have appeared in the mythology of many ancient people. It is no surprise, therefore, that ravens are also popular subjects in art.

I have often been inspired by children’s books. My kids and I will periodically try to recreate the illustrations we enjoy in picture books. I am not alone.

Ravens Mini Unit @EvaVarga.netOn the website, Native American Art Projects and Lesson Plans, I found two lesson plans centered around children’s books featuring ravens:

A Man Called Raven (Oil Pastel)

How the Raven Stole the Sun (Crayon Batik)

 

Etowah Indian Mounds

We enjoyed many historical sites in Georgia, taking advantage of this opportunity to experience the history we had read about first hand.  Many of the sites we visited were a part of the Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites, enabling the kids to complete an activity book to facilitate their understanding of the cultural and natural history of the area.  Upon completion, they were able to turn in their work to earn one of four Georgia Junior Ranger badges (according to age).  Proudly, despite his age, Buddy chose to work for level three just like his sister.

One of the highlights of the state parks was the Etowah Indian Mounds near Cartersville.  This major Mississippian Period Cultural Center was home to several thousand Native Americans from 1000 to 1500 AD. The largest mound stands over 63 feet high and covers three acres. The impressive archaeological museum interprets life in what is now known as the Etowah Valley Historic District.  Beyond the mounds lies the Etowah River and Pumpkinvine Creek where a V-shaped rock wall impedes the water of the rivers.  At least 500 years old, the wall is one of the lasting reminders of the Mississippian Culture who resided in this portion of Northwest Georgia.

Known colloquially as the mound builders due to the large earthen mounds, flattened on top for homes of the elite, the culture flourished at this site until the arrival of Hernando de Soto, who visited the area in 1540-41.  Those that survived the illnesses brought by the Spanish abandoned the site and eventually blended in with the nearby Creek Indians along with their agricultural skills and past times (lacrosse, for example).

Fortunately, we arrived shortly before a bus load of school kids.  The interpretive volunteer invited us to take part in the talk he would be giving them and we were able to get a sneak peak at some of the weapons and materials (not on display) used by the Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans.  We enjoyed this museum very much as it was a very distinct contrast to the way the Native Americans lived on the Pacific Coast.  While only 9% of the site has been excavated, examination of Mound C (pictured in the collage above) and the surrounding artifacts revealed much about the people who had lived here.  One of the things that surprised us, however, was the extent of their trade routes … artifacts include Obsidian from Central Oregon and Idaho as well as asphalt from the La Brea Tar Pits in California.

California Coastal Native Americans

Over the past few months, as we have traveled to various parts of California and Oregon, we have had many opportunities to learn about the Native Americans of this region.  It has been a gratifying experience – made even more rewarding because the learning opportunities have occurred naturally and in context to our daily lives.  I’ve always believed that seeing artifacts, standing in the same surroundings, and being able to truly experience what life was like in the past has a greater impact than reading about it in a textbook. 

I have had a profound memory of a field trip that I must have experienced as a little girl.  Every time I travel on the coast – either north or south from the county in which I grew up – these memories come flooding back to me.  Sadly, I don’t recall exactly where I had visited but I clearly remember sitting in a Native American longhouse and hearing tribal elders share stories of their ancestors and demonstrate their tools and lifestyle.  I have always wanted to return – particularly now so that I can share that experience with my own children. 

When we were in Trinidad a few months ago, we traveled to Patrick’s Point State Park – where we visited the recreated Yurok village, Sumêg, consisting of traditional stye family houses, a sweat lodge, a redwood canoe – and Redwood National and State Parks – where we further explored the dynamic ecosystem of the Redwood forest.  As we wandered about and as the kids completed the activities to earn their Junior Ranger badges, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was where I had come as a child. 

The Northwest Coastal Indians lived in what is now Alaska along the Pacific Ocean down the coast to Northern California. This was a rugged strip of land with many small islands, deep inlets, and narrow beaches. The mountains rise to the shore in many places. Thick forests of spruce, cedar, and fir dominate the area supplying and endless supply of wood. Many rivers and streams cross the land. By the 1750’s more than 100,000 Indians lived in this area because it was richer in natural resources than any other area of North America.

While this territory was crisscrossed with thousands of trails, the most efficient form of transportation was the dugout canoe (pictured above) used to travel up and down rivers and cross the wider and deeper rivers such as the Klamath. These tribes used the great coast Redwood trees to build their boats and houses. Redwoods were cleverly felled by burning at the base and then split with elkhorn wedges. Redwood and sometimes cedar planks were used to construct rectangular gabled homes. 

Most villages consisted of large rectangular houses constructed of planks splits from fallen redwoods.  These houses were built over pits dug beneath the building, with the space between the pit and the walls forming a natural bench.  The posts were often decorated with carved figures. The earth floors were divided by woven mats into family units. Several families lived in one of these large structures. Cook fires in the center of the building were shared and an opening in the roof allowed smoke to escape. 

As we explored Sumêg, the exhibits at the visitors center, and the Native American museum at the Trees of Mystery, the kids made many connections to our studies.  We saw artifacts representing many of the tribes from across North America, including the Hidatsa (we had recently studied the expedition of Lewis & Clark and the contributions of Sacagawea), Modoc, and Wintu.  We discussed the similarities and differences between the coastal tribes as those we were familiar with in Central and Southern Oregon and the Northern Sacramento Valley.  

Vast difference exist between the coastal peoples, nearby mountain range territories, and the vast central valleys.  Nevertheless, all of these tribes enjoyed an abundance of acorn and salmon that could be readily obtained.  We marveled at the variety of the regions basketry – both coiled and twine type baskets were produced throughout the area. 

 

Acorns From Harvest to Food

Sweetie and I took part in a wonderful outdoor seminar and nature walk earlier today.  Led by a local Wintu elder, we learned about the acorn from harvest to food source.  We were invited to take part in grinding the acorns on a stone with some of the same materials the natives would have used.
Once ground, the acorn meat was put into a jar with hot water to soak over night to help leach out the natural tannins.  The following day, the liquid would be drained out but reserved for use as a Poison Oak remedy.  The acorns after two consecutive days of soaking, would eventually be ground to a flour and then used in cooking.
The Wintu elder brought several dishes to share with us that he had prepared:  acorn candy (roughly ground acorns combined with honey and molasses), acorn muffins (acorn flour with Oak ashes substituted for baking soda), and an acorn bread.  To accompany the breads, he also had butter, local honey (which he preached of its natural healing abilities – in lieu of hydrogen peroxide), blackberry jelly, and manzanita syrup.  In addition, he had prepared a White Fir and Honey tea.
Everything was very tasty – though not as rich and smooth as what you would buy in a store.  After the talk, the elder led a short walk to point out to us some of the native plants and to share with us their uses for food and/or medicinal purposes.  I was proud that most of the plants and their uses we already knew.  I know I could certainly survive if circumstances forced me to live without the comforts we’ve come to rely upon.

Submitted to the Handbook of Nature Study Outdoor Hour Challenges November Carnival.