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CAPE ELIZABETH — When considering how to teach a unit on ancient civilization, sixth-grade social studies teacher Morgan Kerr said he looked for a link to help students feel more “connected” to a time so many centuries ago.
That link was an oven.
A traditional cob oven, to be exact. Cob is an earthen concoction of clay, sand, straw and water, that dates back thousands of years, when it was used to build homes and other structures.
Kerr has built two such ovens before, one on his own and one several years ago at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport, where he was a farm educator.
“It’s a very traditional clay oven, which has been used for thousands of years for bread baking,” he said.
Kerr partnered with Allison Caruso, who teaches science and math, to lead the unit, and within just three days their 45 students constructed a life-size oven.
On Oct. 5, the students fired up the oven to cook their own single-serving pizzas, which incorporated math, physics and chemistry lessons.
“My big thing with this is that I know ancient history can be boring at times and disconnected, so being able to make some kind of connection, whether it be through baking or building, is really important,” Kerr said.
But baking and building weren’t everything.
Kerr and Caruso took a holistic approach to planning by dividing their classes into different groups, each in charge of a different aspect of the project: building, baking, art, communications and media.
The art group decided to add some flair to the “traditional” cob oven and designed it to look like a dog, with the door of the oven its gaping mouth and extra clay used to fashion feet and ears.
The communications group was in charge of outreach and spreading the word about what they were working on, which included creating a pamphlet describing the project to send home to parents.
Boden Terry and Lucy Shaw were assigned to the communications group, but Terry said it was her second pick. She wanted to be on the building team, but every student eventually ended up trying their hand at construction anyway.
“I picked this for my second because I thought it’d be fun to collaborate with other people,” Terry said.
Her group also worked with the media group, which took photos and videos and conducted interviews with members of each group for updates on their work.
“I thought it’d be really fun to write about what people are doing and help the media group interview all of the other groups,” Shaw said.
Each group was given “hands-on learning experience,” whether it was shopping for supplies, measuring material, designing the final product or calling their local newspapers.
All this was made possible by about $1,000 in funding from the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation, which paid for all the materials and ingredients, including a trailer to transport the oven around campus.
“Our goal is to have every sixth-grade student bake in it this year,” Kerr said. “We’re starting with our two classes and then hopefully every sixth-grade student will have a chance to use it in connection with their social studies curriculum.”
Eventually, Kerr said he’d like the project to go even further and be shared with the greater community.
“There’s this huge resurgence of bread baking and a lot of farmers in Maine are growing grains, so we really want to connect this to what’s going on locally by partnering with some bakeries in the area or something,” he said.
As for their classes, Caruso said the real-world experiences have been “great for the kids.”
“For some kids, the building was what they really wanted to do, but for others, they want to work on different aspects of it and it takes all parts,” Kerr added.
Cape Elizabeth Middle School social studies teacher Morgan Kerr shows students how to cut the door out of a cob oven they made during a unit on ancient civilizations. Kerr said the project was meant to give students hands-on experience and a connection to the past.
Sixth-grade Cape Elizabeth student Boden Terry, right, tops her pizza after cooking the dough in the oven she and her classmates built.