Alice K. Mikovch and Eula Ewing Monroe
For the last three weeks of each school year, third graders at South Elementary School study the history and current layout of their hometown, Lewiston, New York, and then plan and construct a model community in the classroom.1 The teachers began planning by reviewing resources on the historical development of Lewiston and generating a web of concepts to guide their selection of activities. They looked into options for field trips and guest speakers and established a time line for the unit of study. They adapted and extended ideas from ėThe Gingerbread Village,î tailoring the activities to the needs and interests of their third graders.2 They invited parents to assist in the activities: Parents collected milk cartons, colorful scraps of fabric, and other materials; served as guest speakers; and volunteered to help students construct a ėmodel communityî during the school day.
To begin, the students learned about the history of their hometown, Lewiston, near Niagara Falls, in western New York. Indians and fur trappers traveling down the Niagara River had to portage around the falls before continuing downstream. Lewiston, an early settlement in the area, was established at one of these portage points. The town developed in response to the needs of the Indians, trappers, and early settlers. Businesses such as trading posts, livery stations, and wagon suppliers were established.
The teachers took their students on a tour of historic Lewiston and the surrounding area. A favorite part of the tour was a hike along one of the trails used by early inhabitants. Then the classes visited downtown Lewiston, where officials at city hall talked about city governance. Because they were planning to construct a hometown, students were particularly interested in building codes, permits, and inspection procedures.
At the chamber of commerce, students received packets of information about local businesses, resources, and major attractions.
As a result of this study of both early and modern Lewiston, the teachers were able to help their students understand that successful communities provide needed businesses and services, plan for their governance, and foster a sense of interdependence and participation among inhabitants. At this point the students understood enough about communities to think about establishing their own model of one. It took social studies and math knowledge to plan and then build a ėrealisticî scale model of a modern-day town based on their knowledge of the history and culture of Lewiston.
The second week of this unit of study was devoted to planning structures and the layout of a model town. What businesses and public services should be represented in the town? Should there be a hospital? A school? Was there need for an airport, or just a shuttle service to the nearest airport in a large city? How should structures (homes, businesses, schools, factories, and roads), be arranged in the town? Where should families live? How should different places be connected to each other?
Each ėbuildingî had to be built from cardboard boxes, tubes, and cartons. As students began gathering materials for and constructing buildings, specific math applications arose. A half-gallon milk carton (representing one typical house) served as the unit for determining scale. Businesses could be as large as four milk cartons. As students began constructing roofs, they began to learn about angles. For example, while most commercial buildings had flat roofs, most houses had roofs that peaked at an obtuse or acute angle. Students discovered that peaked roofs required more material that did flat roofs.
During the third week, excitement rose as students constructed the town itself. They examined town ordinances and other documents related to the local governance of Lewiston. They discussed the need for city planners to think about people operating businesses, providing services, raising families, and moving about. They named streets and added the fire department, local school, town hall, library, barbershop (complete with barber pole), and ice cream parlor. They also incorporated models of two features that are characteristic of Lewiston: an art park featuring sites for artists, actors, musicians, and craftsmen, and a tall, nineteenth-century brick building situated on a cliff overlooking the Niagara River. This old building reminded students that Lewiston was a stop on the underground railroad, providing shelter to slaves making their way to freedom.
Teachers served as city inspectors for the town, checking for compliance with ėbuilding and zoning codes.î From the beginning of this project, parents were interested and involved. They brought in building supplies: contact paper, bottle caps, thread and needles, milk cartons, paint, felt, tongue depressors, gift wrap, empty spools, fabric, and jar lids (to mention just a few items). They displayed these materials and priced them (from 1 to 5 cents in play money) for students to purchase. Students were given 35 cents in play money to purchase their materials, and they could also barter with each other. Toward the end of the week of construction, parents held a garage sale to distribute remaining materials, which encouraged students to sell excess materials or use up what they had. Finally, parents came to visit the town as tourists.
The students named their town ėGingervilleî by popular vote (after the ėGingerbread Villageî that had motivated their project). It was a combination of both the old and the new, and somewhat roughly fashioned after their hometown of Lewiston. It was appropriately labeled with a freestanding sign. Alongside was a tripod holding a chart that explained the purpose of the project and described how ėcommunity membersî had worked together to accomplish the goal of building the town.
Students were assessed by a writing task in which they were asked to compare and contrast Gingerville with Lewiston. Speaking was also important and provided an additional means of assessment. Students provided guided tours for parents and others who came to see the display. The students described not just what could be seen with the eye, but how it came to be.
1. We thank Lois Strong and Jean Henesey, third grade teachers at South Elementary School in the Lewiston-Porter School District, Lewiston, New York, for allowing us to share in preparing this unit of study.
2. ėThe Gingerbread Village,î in Donna Burk, Allyn Snider, and Paula Symonds, Math Excursions 2: Project-based Mathematics for Second Graders (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1991).
Alice K. Mikovch is an associate professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Eula Ewing Monroe is a professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.