Saturday, February 5, 2011

Flying to Ancient Egypt with Year 7

A funny thing happened on the way to starting the new school year with my Year 7(*) students - we ended up on the plane to Egypt.

We had spent our first lessons getting to know each other, looking at what the student survey showed us (two students have the same birthday, we have lots of dogs and cats, 3 left handers and 24% of class doesn't like maths) and working out our class rules. Now we were ready to start the official maths syllabus - exploring number systems. I was looking for a way to start the maths, while reinforcing our class formation ideas, and also helping reduce the anxieties of the 24%. And then it hit me as I waved goodbye to the class the other day saying "tomorrow we're going to Egypt!".  Here's how it turned out....

I lined the students up outside, telling them we were about to board an airplane to go to Egypt. A few students looked at me like I was a suffering from the heat.  "Nice straight lines please! Boarding is about to commence. When you go inside, check the board at the front for your seat allocation". This was only the second day with a seating plan - so it was nice reminder.
What the students saw when they came in - a map showing where to sit
(student names obscured)
As one student came in, she remarked "I thought I was going to Room 213 - not an airplane!". That's when I realised we were actually Qantas flight 213.  Several seats were empty - it's their first week at the school, so some were wandering lost outside in the playground. On impulse I leaned out the window and yelled to them "Calling all passengers to QF213 to Egypt" (praying the principal wouldn't walk by). The class got into the hang of the game quickly.  "Is that where we are going?" they said - pointing at the background image of an Egyptian ruined temple on the screen.  I don't quite know what made me do it, but I grabbed the hand sanitiser bottle from my desk and walked down the aisles - dispensing to every student - I apologised there would be no in-flight meals. Silly - but got us in the mood! A few students even told me to close the classroom door - otherwise the plane would crash.

"OK - so what do we need to go to Egypt?". A few suggestions were offered - and I nudged us to something I had prepared earlier:

We need a PASSPORT.

And our passport is our class rules - at which point I brought back the brainstorm diagram we had done the previous lesson - then overlaid with my formalised summary.

We need a GUIDE BOOK.

And our guidebook is our maths textbook. We took a diversion to issue textbooks.

Hmm - could go a long way exploring this metaphor. Most importantly : the book is not the country!

And we need a TRAVEL DIARY to record our journey. Well - that's our exercise book.

I used this segment to show an exemplar of good book work (Thanks to Simon Job)

And while we were doing all those preparations - our plane landed in Egypt! 

Then all we had to do was roll back the clock ..... 

Illustration (right) via 
... and now we're ready to look at the wonderful world of hieroglyphs. We were making good progress, so we had time to look at the Rosetta Stone and how it was decoded (now that could be extended to a great discussion on mathematical problem solving!) - and then - just about the time one student cried out "But sir, this isn't maths!" - we discovered the novelty of the Egyptian numbering system.
The students spent the rest of the lesson working out Egyptian numbers - I encouraged them to copy out the number problems in hieroglyphs form for as long as they wanted.  Some got it faster than others - I asked students to help their neighbour work it out if they hadn't yet. Over the next ten minutes of working (mostly) quietly, several students remarked:
"Sir - this is very tiring writing out long long numbers like this" 
"This is silly - they don't care about the order of the numbers at all!" 
"This is like doing tally marks"

Which was exactly the point! Couldn't have said it better myself. We shared the findings with the whole class - and they will be the starting point for the next lesson - before we redirect flight QF213 to Ancient ROME!

I'm hoping the 24% in my class who don't like maths just maybe will give it another chance!

Mark Millmores Discovering Ancient Egypt website is a treasure trove of resources. Includes maths puzzles and free wallpapers. Reasonably priced applications to generate maths worksheets using Ancient Egyptian numbers.

The 1893 paper by E.A.W. Budge "The Rosetta Stone" is an excellent explanation of the techniques used to decode Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

(*) Year 7 students have just arrived from primary (elementary) school - it's their first week in the "big" school. Our Australian high school is like a combined middle and high school in the USA.


  1. Hi Mr Zuber
    I hope your Year 7 were flying First Class this week in the heat! Sounds like much fun and a lot of learning hidden in there too. The metaphor is really interesting for a classroom - boarding pass (school diary?), safely stowing hand luggage (OH&S in a classroom?)... just wondering about the bags for motion sickness!
    A great, fun start to the year - engagement guaranteed! Regards, Deb

  2. This is brilliant! I had a lot of fun with ancient Egypt with my 7s at the start of the year (post to come soon), but it was nowhere near as cool as this! Love the way you integrated class expectations, textbook and neat bookwork into the lesson theme. I wish I had read this before the start of this year!

    Although I went to Rome before Egypt, for various reasons, so maybe next year I will charter a first-class time-machine flight for my tour group.

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