It can be difficult getting elementary students interested in learning about ancient Egypt, so Jean McIntyre took an unusual approach.
At the beginning of this school year, McIntyre's sixth-grade students at St. Stephen School in Niles learned about ancient Egypt and mummies. Then, they actually mummified a roasting chicken.
"I said, 'what?'" principal Paula Ekis said. "I was scared to death. I wanted to know where they were going to store it. That first weekend it was placed in a conference room, not their classroom, as I thought if the chicken did start to smell, it was easier to air out a conference room than a classroom."
Daren Colon cleans salt out of the chicken while it is held by Bella Caicco and Cade McCreanor. Every week or so, the students repeated the process of cleaning the salt out of the chicken and then replacing it.
Photos special to the Tribune Chronicle
The sixth-graders were broken down into various teams to handle each process to mummify the chicken. "Crew 1 washed the roasting chicken to remove any bacteria and then dried it thoroughly inside and out to start the mummification process," said McIntyre. She explained that this project was not only about learning history, but applied to math skills, language arts, science, social studies, art and religion.
"After we cleaned the chicken, we put salt and baking powder in the chicken, and we then placed it in two plastic bags," said student Ashley Wiery.
"We then waited about two weeks and then cleaned the chicken to get the salt out and weighed it," Daren Colon chimed in. "It got lighter!"
During the mummification, the process of cleaning out the salt and then repacking the chicken was done three or four times
The mummification process was working as the chicken was dehydrating, as witnessed by its appearance and it weighing less. This process of cleaning the salt off the chicken and then repacking it with new salt, baking powder and some cinnamon took place every week or so.
In the meantime, the students studied the religious beliefs of the Egyptians and their reasons for mummifying a body. They learned how to convert pounds to milligrams and created a life story about the chicken, now dubbed as "Shenequa Welsh." The students drew pictures of a funerary mask for the chicken, drew maps of Egypt and then submitted a report on a topic they had researched about Egypt, which had to include a bibliography.
On the last day, the students unwrapped the chicken and found all the salt was hardened.
"There was no muscle left and it was black," said Anthony Marzullo, referring to the now mummified chicken. "It wasn't wet and we had a bad time getting the salt off."
"We then got a table cloth and made strips. We wrapped the legs and the wings first," Bella Caicco said.
"The bones were deteriorating!" Shannon Noark discovered.
Next, the students obtained a large cooking pot, which they had decided to use as the burial vessel. And, according to lessons learned in history, they placed items inside to be buried with the chicken. Egyptians of that period believed that by placing various items with the deceased, the items would be used in afterlife.
A bracelet, plastic ring and chattering teeth were among the things chosen to place with the mummified chicken. It couldn't be anything that would rust. The sixth graders then dug a large hole for burial adjacent to the school, in the backyard of the church rectory. Everyone dug - the children, Ekis, McIntyre and Pastor Tom Kraszewski. The bird had to be buried deeper than the frost line.
"This was not the best place to preserve a mummy," said McIntyre. "This isn't the desert; the ground is wet, and they had to bury it on a downhill slope."
But the lesson is not over. Next September, these same students will unearth their project and see how the chicken fared.
"I think it is going to smell," said Brandon Kennedy.
"I think all there will be left will be bones," said Chrissy Sylvester.