Learning about American Indians from a history textbook can be incomprehensible for a child who cannot read or speak English. But going on an Eskimo dog-sled ride or making Navajo jewelry brings history to life for students born outside the United States.

Last week, 82 fifth-grade students at Barcroft Elementary in Arlington staged an Indian powwow. The three-year-old hands-on learning program was designed by their teachers to make history more accessible and a lot more fun.

"These kids come to us not knowing what a corn husk is," said fifth-grade teacher Lucye Caplan. "But when they can feel it and see it, it becomes real to them."

The challenge for the teachers was to find a way to reach all the fifth-graders in an ethnically diverse student population.

"When you're just doing textbooks, {foreign students} can become bored and frustrated," Caplan said. "That's why I think we lost so many of these kids in the past."

For the powwow, each child was assigned to a Navajo, Eskimo, Sioux, Iroquois, Cherokee or Shoshone Indian tribe made up of 12 to 14 students. The students were given research projects to find out about a specific facet of Indian life, such as what food or housing their tribe used.

Last week, the tribes demonstrated what they had learned to the other members of the class. Their presentations included a dramatic performance of "Turtle's War Party," an Iroquois legend.

Afterward, outside on the school grounds, the children had the opportunity to experience firsthand how the Indians lived. There was Eskimo dog-sled racing, Cherokee lacrosse and a Shoshone scavenging game. The learning centers were added to the program this year.

At the Navajo center, the fifth-graders used tinfoil and blue painted rocks to make imitation silver and turquoise jewelry. Ceremonial masks, traditionally crafted from corn husks, were made out of yellow construction paper at the Iroquois center, and a "teepee" was put up at the Sioux center.

"Textbooks can be dry reading," said fifth-grade teacher Elizabeth Iacoponi. "If you add a little spice, it's definitely more fun, and when it's more fun, kids learn a lot more."

Fifth-grader Edgar Martinez came to this country from Guatemala. Through the hands-on program, Edgar had learned a lot about the American Indians, he said.

"They told me about wigwams made out of mud and hay. I thought they had apartments like us," said Edgar. "I thought they had markets, but they had to hunt their food."

Walta Gerezghier left her native Ethiopia nine years ago when she was just a baby. She said modern Americans can learn a lot from their Indian ancestors.

"We can learn to do things right from what they did," Walta said. "We can learn how to cooperate and work together, make our environment cleaner and show respect for one another."

Barcroft Elementary School has a total enrollment of 412 children. The school population is 31.1 percent white, 27.4 percent Hispanic, 26.2 percent black and 15.3 percent Asian.

This winter, the students will study the vertebrae in another hands-on learning program called the "Da Vinci Project." Beginning in January, the fifth grade will visit the zoo once a week for eight weeks to learn firsthand about vertebrae by observing animals.

The students will read and write about animals and create animal artwork. The teachers may even develop math problems using the vertebrae, Iacoponi said.

"Ideas are being reinforced in many different ways: in art, lectures and reading. If they're not getting it one way, they'll get it another," Caplan said. "It allows for a much more rounded experience."

Integrating the curriculum by combining skills learned in many classes enables the students to learn and retain more information, teachers said.

"You don't have to understand English to do an art project," Caplan said. "When you have a balance between a lot of different activities, then everyone can shine."

With hands-on learning projects, vocabulary words are reinforced for students learning to speak, read and write English. Seeing the animals at the zoo, for example, broadens a child's vocabulary, which promotes improved reading skills, Caplan said.

"If I could, I'd throw away the book and do it this way throughout the year," Iacoponi said. "The classes with hands-on learning learn the most."