National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix
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Wheat: Ancient and Ageless
6 - 8
1 - 2 hours
Students will explore the importance of wheat in the development of culture by learning about the advent of agriculture, discussing wheat cultivation in ancient Egypt, threshing a head of wheat with their hands, and making a corn dolly out of wheat stems.
- How Farming Planted Seeds for the Internet video by Patricia Russac
- Wheat Mummy activity sheet
- Wheat stems with heads, 1 per student*
- Machine Power handout
- Measuring cup
- Container and water for soaking wheat stems
- Example Corn Dollies handout
- Wheat stems with heads, 3 or 6 per student*
- Gold ribbon or natural colored raffia, 2 pieces per student
- Optional: Red ribbon, 1 piece per student
*Wheat bundles are available for purchase.
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
combine: a machine that harvests crops (such as corn or wheat) and separates the seeds of the plant from the rest of the plant
corn dolly: a traditional figure made from straw, associated with pre-industrial harvest customs of Europe
sickle: a tool with a curved metal blade attached to a short handle that is used for cutting grass, grain, etc.
thresh: to separate the seeds of crops like wheat, corn, or dry beans from the plant
wheat mummy: wheat found in an Egyptian mummy case
winnow: to remove unwanted seed coats and other plant parts from grain by blowing the unwanted parts away
Did you know? (Ag Facts)
- Wheat grain has been used for thousands of years to provide food for humans.1
- Only wheat contains enough gluten to make raised or leavened bread.1
- The Egyptians were the first to produce risen loaves using yeast and the first to use bread ovens.1
Background Agricultural Connections
Interest Approach – Engagement
- Show students the video How Farming Planted Seeds for the Internet by Patricia Russac.
- Discuss the video using the following questions:
- Why would some argue that farming is the most important technology?
- What changed when people began to get their food from farming rather than hunting and gathering?
- Explain to students that agriculture was the foundation upon which ancient civilizations were built, and it is still the foundation of modern civilization, providing us with food, fiber, fuel, and raw materials to make the things that we use every day. The practice of agriculture has changed dramatically over the years with the development of new technologies. The following lesson explores the history, cultivation, and uses of wheat, an important crop around the world.
Activity 1: Wheat and Ancient Egypt
- Using the Background section of this lesson as a reference, discuss with students the importance of wheat and bread in ancient Egypt and the myth of mummy wheat.
- Working as a class, label the wheat plant parts using the Wheat Mummy activity sheet.
- Divide students into groups of four, and provide each student with one wheat stem and seed head.
- Ask students to estimate how many kernels (seeds) are on their head of wheat. Then ask the group to total up all members’ estimates to determine a group estimate.
- Share the image of a combine on the Machine Power handout with students. Explain that modern farmers use this machine to harvest and thresh wheat. Threshing is the process of separating the seeds from the rest of the plant. The ancient Egyptians harvested wheat with a handheld tool called a sickle. They then stacked the wheat and threshed it using oxen to tread on the wheat.
- Instruct students to separate the wheat head from the stem, and set the stem aside.
- Next, show students how to thresh their wheat head by rolling it back and forth between their hands. There are rollers in the combine that perform a similar action to separate the kernels from their hulls.
- After students have threshed the grain out of the head, instruct them to shake the parts in their palms, letting the bigger and lighter parts of the head float to the top and the heavier grain kernels settle to the bottom. Now skim the largest pieces of chaff (hulls and other non-kernel plant pieces) off the top and discard. This is similar to the separating action in a combine.
- The students can now finish cleaning the chaff from the grain that remains in their hands. A combine completes the job by blowing air through the grain and chaff. The ancient Egyptians threw the grain into the air and then caught it in their baskets. They relied on the wind to blow away the chaff, leaving clean seed.
- Ask the students to count their seeds and determine how accurate their estimations were. Go around the room comparing each group’s estimations and their actual counts.
- Next ask each group to place their seeds in a measuring cup. Do they have a cup of wheat? How many wheat heads does it take to make a cup of wheat? How many cups of wheat kernels does it take to make a loaf of bread? (4-6 cups) What has to be done to wheat kernels before they can be made into bread? (They must be ground into flour; the ancient Egyptians did this by hand using large stones. Threshing and grinding wheat by hand like the Egyptians was a time consuming job!)
Activity 2: Wheat Weaving
- Preparation: Soak the wheat stems in warm water for an hour before this activity. Alternatively, you can wrap the wheat stems in a wet towel and put them in a garbage bag overnight or for at least four hours. Test the wheat to see if it is softened enough to work with by pinching the bottom end of the stems. If the stems make a cracking sound when pinched, they are still too dry.
- Explain to students that the mature stems of wheat (and other grains) are called straw. Ask if they can think of some uses for straw (animal bedding, weaving straw hats and baskets). Using the Background as a reference, discuss the history of wheat weaving with students.
- Share the Example Corn Dollies handout with students. Describe and demonstrate the traditional braiding technique:
- Begin by bringing the right outside straw under the middle straw.
- Then, bring the outside left straw under the middle straw.
- Repeat until the straws are completely braided.
- Hand out three or six wheat stems and two pieces of gold ribbon (or raffia) to each student. Instruct them to create their corn dollies using the following instructions:
- Cut the stems just above the first node if they are long enough to still have one. The node is the bump where the leaves attach.
- Remove any leaves from the stems.
- Use the gold ribbon to tie the stems together just below the wheat heads, leaving the ends of the ribbon long.
- Braid your stems using the traditional braid. If you have six stems, group them first into pairs. Then, braid the three pairs using the traditional braid.
- When you have braided to the end, tie the end of the stems together and trim off any excess.
- Now, you can loop the long braided stems into a design and tie them in place using the long ribbon ends left below the wheat heads. This will make a love knot, an ornament traditionally given to women in courtship. Or, you can leave your stems flat and straight and tie a red ribbon between the heads and the stems. This design is similar to the “glory” or “hair” braid that was traditionally hung in homes to sweep away evil and bring in friends.
- Discuss the way in which corn dollies were traditionally used to ensure the fertility of the next year’s wheat crop. How do farmers ensure a fertile crop today? (test the soil for nutrients and apply the needed fertilizers)
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- The practice of agriculture, which developed around 10,000 years ago, allowed people to stay in one place and build civilizations.
- The earliest civilizations created food production systems to meet community and personal needs.
- Wheat was an important crop and staple food for ancient Egyptians, and today it is an important crop and staple food around the world.
- Agricultural technologies have changed dramatically over time, allowing farmers to work more efficiently and provide more food to more people.
Use the lesson plan Cowabunga! All About Dairy Breeds to further explore the concept of domestication and to teach students about the importance of cattle in both modern and ancient civilizations.
Suggested Companion Resources
- Ancient Agriculture (Book)
- Food: How We Hunt and Gather It... (Book)
- From Wheat to Bread (Book)
- Wheat Bundle (Kit)
- Wheat Grinder (Kit)
- America's Heartland: Wheat Harvest (Multimedia)
- The Food Timeline (Website)
Agricultural Literacy Outcomes
Science, Technology, Engineering & Math
- Compare and contrast historical and current food producing processing and systems (T4.6-8.a)
- Discuss how technology has changed over time to help farmers/ranchers provide more food to more people (T4.6-8.d)
Education Content Standards
World History Era 1 Standard 2A: How and why humans established communities and experimented with agriculture.
Objective 4Identify areas in Southwest Asia and the Nile valley where early farming communities probably appeared and analyze the environmental and technological factors that made possible experiments with farming in these regions.
World History Era 2 Standard 1A:Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus valley became the centers of dense population, urbanization, and cultural innovation.
Objective 1Analyze how the natural environments of the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, and Indus valleys shaped the early development of civilization.
Common Core Connections
Language: Anchor Standards
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.
National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix (2013) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.