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PHOTO GALLERY: Learning History, One Layer of Dirt at a Time

Foundation for Belmont Education grant allows students to experience a "real" archaeology dig.

Kimberley Connors is sitting in a far corner of the playing field with a class of sixth graders preparing for a history lesson that involves gloves, digging and potentially getting dirty.

"Think of it as if it's a big three-layer cake," Connors told the students, preparing them for an hour of carefully removing soil.

Acton-resident Connors runs Archaeology Outreach, a six-year-old company that brings the classroom experience outdoors in an hands-on approach to learning about archaeology.

There will be diggers, screeners and scribes," said Connors, who with her assistant Jeanette Wilkerson, guide the students in discovering artifacts in a scientific manner, rather than the "Indiana Jones" approach to archeology.

"He's a fictional character," said Conners, a Harvard University-trained archaeologist and Mass Cultural Council Creative Teaching Partner.

"Real archeologists do three things at a dig: paperwork, paperwork and science and math," she said.

Last month, 360 sixth grade students dug and shifted at the small site for a week where they would discover the difference between rocks, fossils and artifacts through actual specimens and objects sprinkled throughout the dig. 

Students found CD's, bottles and native arrowheads, the older the material the further down they dug with trowels, hand sweepers and buckets while other students took detailed notes on when, where and how deep were they found.

Connors and her program came to the Chenery through a Learning Excellence Grant from the Foundation for Belmont Education, which since 1993 has provided nearly $2 million funding projects in all areas of the school district, said Karen Gray, the middle school liaison for the Foundation for Belmont Education grant committee. 

While known for its major investment of introducing smart boards to Belmont schools, many FBE learning grants are in fact small – $5,000 and less at the individual school level, such as bringing musical groups to school or have the Mass Audubon's Habitat come with turtles into a class. 

Since the program's inception, the Foundation has awarded 398 Learning Excellence Grants totaling nearly $536,000 for activities that could not be included in the regular school budget.

The Archaeology Outreach was just one of those typical small grants the Foundation provides. Sixth-grade teachers wrote the grant and submitted it for review.

While the grants are balanced so each of Belmont's six schools has the chance to bring an enrichment program into the classroom, "we also look for those that we can say, 'doesn't that sound like fun?'" said Gray.

"Schools are so strapped for money that we give teachers the opportunity to expand their teaching," said Ginny d'Arbeloff of the FBE. 

"It's critical to have these additional ways of learning because they add another element to view education from," said sixth grade social studies teacher Dana Feingold.

The dig incorporated skills such as measuring, the metric system and ancient history, demonstrating to students that interdependency of skills needed in most subjects, said Feingold.

As for the kids, it was a chance to make discoveries, work as a team and just get out of the classroom. 

"Let's get digging," said Connors after giving the class their orders. 

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