LESSON

'Mathematics for Our Past'

Our students come from upper-middle-class homes and live in a sheltered suburban community with little exposure to anyone significantly different than themselves. Teaching tolerance is difficult when they have few experiences with diversity. This project introduces students to a diverse group of people who experienced intolerance.
Grade Level

In the late 1800s, the cemetery started as a burial place for residents of the Ingham County Poor Farm. Upon hearing the name, many ask, "What is a Poor Farm?" In the 19th century, it was mandated that each county care for its poor. The Poor Farm was a home for those who had been cast out of society: people with physical or mental disabilities; the elderly; those with no family or estranged from their families; and unmarried, pregnant young women rejected by their families.

On our first visit to collect data and do rubbings, students had lots of questions. Why was the cemetery so run down? Why were babies buried there?

More questions came when we analyzed the data. Why was there so little information? A last name, maybe a first name. A death date, but no birth date. Sometimes a death age. A few small babies and a lot of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, but hardly anyone in between.

The death years ranged from 1890 to 1943 and there were no tombstones from the 1920s. Why? Students had many guesses. Was it something to do with World War I? Was the farm shut down during those years? Did no one die in that time period? A local historian showed us how to do historical research. From that we learned that during the 1920s the Poor Farm received payment from a university for bodies obtained for research.

Groups of students did presentations about the cemetery to anyone who would listen. We found out from the historical commission that we could apply for a historical marker for the cemetery. In the fall of the next school year our students were proud to have a historical marker dedicated at the cemetery.

This project has helped students become emotionally involved with real people who were very different than themselves. These lessons from the cemetery project enable students to better understand the meaning of tolerance, community building and justice in a very personal way.

Barbara Kissling
Kinawa Middle School
Okemos, Mich.

For an excellent and complete lesson plan on learning about geography and history from your local cemetery, visit http://alliance.la.asu.edu/internetclass/ExampleLesson1.html.