About Marjorie Cowley
Marjorie Cowley was trained by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. She taught prehistoric archaeology for twenty years to students from first grade through high school, and was designated a professional expert by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Ms. Cowley has traveled widely, pursuing her fascination with ancient art and architecture. She has been a graphic designer and calligrapher, but now devotes her time to writing books for young readers. She graduated from Stanford University and lives in Santa Monica, California.
“It had never crossed my mind to write for children until I put together a book for the birthday of my first grandchild. I loved the process of creating this gift, a marvelous mix of focus and freedom, and subsequently took a number of classes in writing for children to re-experience this spell. In this fusion of my interest in ancient history and writing children’s novels, I’ve found an activity that continues to delight me.”
The following article about Marjorie Cowley appeared in the July 1995 issue of The Mammoth Trumpet, published by the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Oregon State University. It was written by Jeanne Riha.
Back in the 1950s, during a honeymoon in Paris, Marjorie Cowley chanced upon a folder of prehistoric cave paintings. “I had never been introduced to this field,” the California teacher and author explained in a recent telephone interview, “and this fascination simmered in my mind for years.”
When she heard of a program at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History that trains and sends volunteer teachers into local public and private schools, Ms. Cowley eagerly joined. Through the program, students receive a rare opportunity to see and touch a representative selection of the Museum’s vast collection of ancient Old World tools and to hear a presentation on human prehistory.
Thus began a teaching career that has spanned 15 years and grew to include a year-long course, on a once-a-week basis, that begins with the African hominids and ends with the Cro-Magnons. She created and taught a 30-hour curriculum, “Prehistoric People and Their World,” to students from third to 12th grade; designed teaching charts for the Prehistoric Museum Project at the UCLA Museum; has been an instructor at the Los Angeles Children’s Museum; has designed and calligraphed charts for a Los Angeles school district prehistoric study unit; has been a guest lecturer in prehistory at Santa Monica College; and has been designated a Professional Expert by the Los Angeles school district. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and the Society of Calligraphy, Los Angeles.
A Cro-Magnon initiation ceremony Ms. Cowley devised is the culminating event in her year-long curriculum. “Through the years, the pageant gets deeper and stronger,” she says. “It also comes at the right time; a few weeks before sixth-grade graduation. The students are absorbed by this ceremony that focuses on the formal, witnessed change from child to adult within a community.”
The students write all parts for the pageant, including the shaman, the initiates, and the tribal leader. Ms. Cowley selects the best pieces for the performance, and the students easily project themselves into their roles. They come to appreciate the role of the shaman, who chants a unifying creation story, and they focus on the dividing line between the status of a child and that of a responsible adult with obligations to the whole community.
This initiation ceremony, which has no real counterpart in our own society, seems to matter greatly to her students. “Except for some religious rites, this is a forgotten idea today,” Ms. Cowley observed. “We’ve extended childhood so long that it presents us with a serious problem, it seems to me.”
The idea for her children’s novel, Dar and the Spear-Thrower, grew out of the excitement the initiation ceremony generates in her students. “My book centered on the theme of what it is that changes a boy into a man in his own eyes and in the eyes of his people.” The setting for the book is Western Europe of 15,000 years ago.
Dar, Ms. Cowley’s first published book, also reflects her interest and appreciation of ancient carving, cave paintings, the hunting-gathering life and the tools associated with it. Her research and writing work well together, she says. “They fuel each other. I’ll come upon something like the instinctive defense behavior of musk-oxen and think that this could make a great scene in the book. The spear-thrower was a brilliant invention. I thought I could have a boy, Dar, not invent it, but realize its value when he sees it demonstrated by a stranger. Dar’s quest for the spear-thrower gradually leads him to an appreciation of what it means to become an adult. His love of carving, in addition to his becoming a skilled hunter, will eventually make Dar a valued member of his group.”
California now requires the teaching of prehistory in the sixth grade. Dar has been approved for legal compliance and inclusion in the new listing of materials by the state’s Department of Education.
Now Ms. Cowley is working on a second book, Anooka’s Answer, also set in prehistoric Western Europe. The principal character is a girl who must make a difficult decision: whether to go with her mother, an itinerant healer, or create a life of her own.
Asked whether girls might feel left out of her first book with its central male character, she replies negatively. “I get wonderful letters from girls, who loved Dar. It made me realize that most females growing up in this culture spend a lot of time seeing movies and reading books with a male protagonist. We’re kind of used to it. The reverse is not true.”
Although she has taught the whole age spectrum of youth from kindergarten to college, Ms. Cowley has not detected much difference in general interest in the subject of prehistory. Within the UCLA program, she pioneered in the teaching of prehistory to very young children. Few teachers, she says, felt it was worth their time. The young children were a revelation to her, being excited by the tools and interested in the subject raised by an introduction to prehistory. “Some little kids’ questions are so dazzling that they take your breath away,” she said.
In students through the sixth grade, interest is high and overt. But it is different with the junior high and senior high school crowd. “It’s the rare student that will demonstrate open enthusiasm.” However, when she invites them to come up and inspect the tools, “they will privately speak of their fascination with the subject and often ask searching questions.”
Is it the exotic nature of ancient times that attracts students?
“Yes, that, but I think in all of us there is a natural curiosity about ourselves and our past.” The various creation myths all deal with the same basic questions. Scientists have their own way of dealing with these mysteries, but the quest is the same: Who are we? Where did we come from? What makes us human?”
Finding successful teaching techniques is a vital element in presenting the subject. Lectures do not work with students younger than college age. Asking leading questions is a good method of involvement For example, she might ask: “What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of upright walking?” or “What was the significance to human life when fire-starting was discovered?” Short dramas and participatory games are successful in making the remote past come alive, she found.
“I try to get students to think like archaeologists. Pointing out to students the assumptions about the past that are made without much thought or documentation is a good way to get them to understand the difference between hard evidence and intelligent guessing, or tentative conclusions based on some evidence.”
“In my classes,” says Ms. Cowley, “the full sweep of the history of living things is emphasized, with most of the class time spent on human evolution in the context of life on Earth. The first class project is always an accurate time-line mural. The class is divided into small groups, with each group presenting both information and drawings of their segment of the mural —one-cell organisms, fish, reptiles, birds, primates and so on.” To orient her students to geological time, the mural, which usually covers an entire wall of the classroom, is referred to frequently during the year.
Ms. Cowley points out to students that scientists in the field of prehistory are often in disagreement with each other, with theories colliding until there is some general agreement upon a way to view a problem or incorporate new discoveries. She recalls that in her own education, science was usually presented as a proven body of facts. Her realization that this is anything but the case was a revelation she wanted to pass on to her students.
In Dar and the Spear-Thrower, Ms. Cowley emphasizes the continuity of human nature, the anxieties, yearnings, fears, and joys that span the centuries. “I think that 15,000 years ago is not old in light of the four million years we’ve been on this planet. Cro-Magnon were us and we are them. Competitiveness and strife, inventiveness and creativity, are all very much with us today.”