Bob Boone


Ötzi, the Iceman: Incorporating Creative Writing into a Social Studies Lesson

The “Iceman” project is one that I’ve done a number of times with my Freshman Seminar class, a combined studies course that I team teach with a history teacher. We use this series of activities early in the course to show the kids how material can span the two academic disciplines.

The first activity exposes them to the concept of primary source material and the techniques that historians use to investigate a situation. It’s sort of a CSI—pre-historic Europe. (Social Studies Lesson). Sometimes my partners and I begin the project by bringing in some artifacts from our personal lives and placing them on a table. Students examine the artifacts and attempt to draw conclusions about what they are, why they might be valued, what that value tells them about the owner, etc. Some items are easy enough to figure out (say my high school letterman’s sweater) while others prompt more speculation (the tarnished serving spoon my grandmother used to make Czech baked goods). Since the teachers actually know the story behind these items, it provides an opportunity to show the difference between fact and speculation.

The second activity is to apply these investigative techniques to a particular case study-- in this case, “Ötzi, the Iceman,” a mummified prehistoric traveler discovered in an Alpine snowdrift some years ago. (Ötzi Primary Source Packet). They begin by getting into small groups and dealing with what little evidence is available on this fellow. Then they speculate, draw conclusions, etc. The class reconvenes as a large group and my partners conduct a discussion about what they know, don’t know, should know, etc.

Once that’s over I step in and talk about the concept of narrative. (Haiku) Based on the work they’ve already done, the students then make five haiku which recreate frozen (pardon the pun) moments in Ötsi’s final day. I particularly stress the pre-writing stage by making this a graded part of the assignment. This forces them to be more specific with their images, which in turn reinforces the concept of Showing vs. Telling:

Bad Haiku: Ötzi, the hunter,
Died while climbing a mountain
Though we don’t know why

Somewhat Better Haiku: Through frozen lashes
He views one final sunset
A blazing farewell

Ok, well maybe a haiku is still a haiku, but the kids get the idea. I don’t belabor the grading of the haiku (5 haiku from 80+ kids makes for 400+ haiku), but I do look at them. First, I scan them quickly to make sure they actually are haiku. Then I just circle the one I like the best. A quick way to do that is just to look at the final line first; more often than not that does the trick and buys you a little time to look at the narratives themselves.

Although I haven’t used the “Moe Approach” for this lesson before, I probably will add this step next year. You could either use this instead of the haiku stage, or you could use it a bridge from the haiku images to the narrative itself. (Iceman Moe).

If time permits, I have the students write just one of their haiku on the board. Otherwise, we go right to sharing the narratives aloud. Generally, I have them break into small groups and read them to each other. Then each group selects one to be shared with the class at large. Sometimes having a designated “reader” read the work of someone else in the group helps both to get more people involved and to overcome writer reticence.

There is a documentary on the Ötzi investigation that shows what the real historians figured out about him. My history partner occasionally shows some or all of it, but I prefer to use a clip from the movie Iceman , starring Timothy Hutton. The premise of the film is that an oil company drilling north of the Arctic Circle comes upon an Ötzi-like finding, but with a twist—this “Iceman” actually is in some state of suspended animation or something and some nearby scientists have been able to thaw him out. Hutton plays an anthropologist who has been summoned to study him in a sort of giant terrarium already conveniently set up for some other less outlandish science project.

Be that all as it may, the movie is really about the growing relationship between these two. The best scene in the film (and the one we show) is one in which the Iceman who has been crooning some Neolithic fireside chants suddenly urges Hutton to sing one of his songs. After much demurring, Hutton at first haltingly and then with increasing gusto labors his way through Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” as the Iceman attempts to accompany him on a couple of bones or rocks or skulls or something (I know this sounds pretty dumb, but it really is a good scene and is absolutely perfect for this project, especially after they’re all finished and you have about 15 minutes left on a Friday. It’s a fun way to wrap up a unit which has introduced the class to both the historian’s approach to research and the writer’s approach to narrative.

  • Monday
  • Introduce “Historical Approach”. Personal artifacts; Social Studies lesson.

  • Tuesday
  • Introduce Otzi/small group work. Ötzi Primary source packet.

  • Wednesday
  • Introduce Fictional Narrative. Haiku, and/or “Iceman Moe” handouts.

  • Thursday
  • Sharing Student Narratives, Students’ Ötzi stories

  • Friday
  • Wrap-up discussion/film viewing. Ötzi Documentary and/or Iceman Film Clip.

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