The Explorers' Graveyard

Author: Joan Gillis - Fifth Grade teacher, PA

The Explorers' Graveyard - a Halloween 'N History Hallway Display

Here's a way to create a classroom review project that the whole school will enjoy. Typically, classrooms learn about Explorers to America at the start of the school year. And then of course, Halloween is just around the corner. This assignment involves research, review, and creative writing.

Goal: To review lessons about the explorers, encourage collaboration and brainstorming, and develop creative writing skills.

Optional: To work with a partner to create your tombstone sharing ideas

Materials: Large white art paper, colored pencils, markers, scissors, encyclopedias, history books, and access to laptops or other computers (if possible).

You may also want to offer web resources about explorers, such as from this search of TeachersFirst.
Students can learn about their explorer through independent reading, using suggested books from the Explorers CurriConnect booklist TeachersFirst. Differentiate for varied reading levels easily from this list.


Directions to students:

1. Choose one of the explorers or one of the interesting people you met along the way that we have studied. Examples : Cortes, Pizzaro, Eric the Red, Lief Ericson, Ponce DeLeon, Montezuma, Athalupa, Columbus, Verrazano, DeSoto...

2. On your paper, write an epitaph for your explorer. (Explain that an epitaph is an inscription on a tombstone in memory of the person buried there.) Your epitaph must include:

  • Date of birth/death (some are tough; in that case we put a "?");
  • Three facts (accomplishments)
  • Rhyming verse
  • Creative design on the tombstone
  • Project must be completed on time
  • Neatness counts!

From these requirements it is easy to make a rubric for scoring their project. Just assign point values to the "Must Have" list.

The Graveyard:

  • Outside the classroom I create a rolling green cemetery. I decorate the countryside with bats, a full moon, black sky and stars. I bought the cotton cobwebs and stretched it from tombstone to tombstone. I also made a black fence in the front on the cemetery with a banner reading "Explorers Graveyard." Add decorations by the students too, or the students can help with construction.

Examples from Students:

Here lies Hernando Cortes.
There are many stories of him they says (sez').
But none could be truer then when the Aztecs were bluer.
Each and every day that Cortes was so much crueler

This student forgot the dates of Cortes birth/death so he would lose points.

Here's another:

1480 - 1621
Here lies Magellan.
His wife's name was Helen.
He sailed the West,
His crew was really a pest.
He found the Philippines.
What happened next might make you scream.
He caught an arrow in his back from an Indian attack.
In a box he now lies to protect him from the files.

This student scored very well. Creative, humorous, and facts too!

Options for using this idea:

  • Instead of explorers, have students use a favorite character from a story as a subject. This tombstone could include facts of the story or three characteristics of this person.
  • Take a picture of each explorers’ gravestone. Have students create Voicethreads reviewed here.. This site allows students to narrate a picture. Have students read their epitaphs on the Voicethreads. Share the Voicethreads on your class website for families to view.
  • Incorporate some geography into this lesson by having students use a site such as Animaps. This site allows students to add text and images AND choose a location (on a map) where the story takes place. What a fabulous way to "retell" history! Be sure to share these on your class website.
  • How about creating an online graveyard site (wiki) for students to share their epitaphs! Not familiar with wikis? Check out the Teacher’s First Wiki Walk-Through, reviewed here.
  • There are many take-off ideas here. The benefit is that it is a peek into your classroom that everyone at the school can enjoy. The timing for this activity also works well, since many back-to-school nights take place about this time.