Growing up, I was always the math and science girl of the family, while my sister was superior in language arts and social studies. So before I became a teacher, I pictured myself teaching math and science to elementary students. Little did I know, I would end up teaching all the subjects in a self-contained classroom. At first I panicked. I always liked reading books that interested me (NOT out of the reading book), and social studies was just more boring reading. How could I motivate my students if even I was bored? Going through the motions was never an option for me, so I had to find a way to make it interesting for myself (and ultimately, for my students).
Surprisingly, the social studies book was much more interesting than I remembered. It made so much sense, and after living life in the real world, I could see how all the chapters connected. Unfortunately, when I thought about it from a third grader’s point of view, it still looked very dry. It started with the study of the climate, land, and resources on the earth. Then it moved on to some history of how the United States grew over time, inventors and leaders of whom made the country better, and our government. Eventually there was the chapter about economics. That woke up the math part of my brain, and it was from that chapter where all inspirations of building a town grew.
An Idea Snowballs
Initially, I planned to have each student create an imaginary business and do a business report presentation that included important concepts and vocabulary from the chapter. That still seemed a little dull as we were about to move through testing season, so I decided to liven it up by having each student create a model of their business out of a cereal box. I knew this would be a great activity after a morning of state testing. Looking around my room, it became clear that we would need some kind of background structure for the businesses. I would want them to see each other’s businesses so they could discuss how they would affect each other economically. It suddenly became obvious to me that we needed an actual town. This town project could bring in the entire social studies book, and it would be important to the students. I could hardly contain my excitement!
Meeting to Order – Citizens Come Together to Settle the New Frontier
I could hardly wait to get math out of the way so I could move on to social studies (WHAT?!). When students transitioned into social studies, I called out, “Meeting to order!” First, I got suspicious looks, but I repeated, “Meeting to order!” in a deeper voice, and used my stapler as a makeshift gavel. Being third graders (always up for a great imaginary adventure), they gathered around and listened intently to their crazy teacher. I announced that our classroom was now the state of “Pencil-vania” where I was the governor, and we were in the country of the “United States of Mars-Area” where the principal was the president. I went on to explain that there was a new frontier at the edge of our state, and they were the citizens selected to settle it into a town. I was there as governor of the state until they could create their own government.
Imagining the Lay of the Land
We talked about what the frontier looked like for our town. Some students even got out their social studies books so they could have a list of possible landforms. They took turns choosing the climate, landforms, and natural resources until we knew enough about our town to begin planning and settling.
Arguments & Chaos = A Need for Government
As governor, it was not my job to micromanage the citizens of our new town, so I let THEM discuss the details of building the actual town… for a while. It was fun to watch excited citizens plan, but as one idea after another was tossed out in excitement, the dream town of one child was replaced by the new ideas of another. Eventually the excitement turned to some arguing, and before war broke out, the governor stepped in to help out. I asked the students about what was happening. In the heat of the moment, citizens started to tattle on one another. We stopped the meeting, and I had the them open to Chapter 4: Government. As they skimmed through, I heard a few students let out an “Oooooh!” This was a first-hand example of why towns need government. No decisions could be made without some leadership. I recommended having an election, and they agreed. The homework for the evening was for students to write a campaign speech (paragraph). If they were really interested in being mayor (with all of the responsibilities), they put a star on their paper. The next day, we had about eight students interested in being the mayor. I put all the paragraphs on the screen anonymously. Students voted on the one they felt supported the town’s needs the best. Before long we had a mayor. I made it so 2nd place became city council president, and the rest were members of city council. No one complained. It was awesome! They were ready to build. In random order, students chose businesses to create based on the land and resources. For example, because the town was near a lake, there was a fishing and boating store. The next day we would have our first official town meeting led by the mayor.
All Those in Favor
The new mayor’s mother had the great idea to have her say, “All those in favor…” That is exactly how she ran the meeting. I could hardly believe how well the mini citizens did. They discussed important issues, and thoughtful decisions were made. They decided to put the homes on the hillside (like Pittsburgh), and put the businesses down in the valley. City council made committees for roads/signs, parks, culture, police, fire, sanitation, and schools (just like in the social studies book). I made sure everyone had something to do, and then they went to work. As students finished their businesses, they were allowed to work on joint businesses with someone or work on committee work. By the end of testing week, we had all of our roads, homes, businesses, and parks. Before the weekend, the students did an analysis of the town and realized we needed: parking lots, a hospital, a library, garbage cans on the streets, trees, shrubs, flowers, more stop signs, and crosswalks. One student argued that if we didn’t have cars, we didn’t need stop signs and crosswalks, SO I allowed them to bring their toy cars in. The students left the room on Friday with lists of items to bring. It may have gotten a little out of control at this point, but they were loving it.
Monday morning was crazy. Arriving by the masses were cars, school buses, fire trucks, and even a blimp that I hung from the ceiling. I remember overhearing one student say, “I pulled all of these trees out of my old first grade dinosaur diorama!” Another girl had made a corn field for a farm, and she had a bag of some of her brother’s farm equipment for outside of town “in the rural area.” When I thought I had seen it all, a little guy came in with a few airplanes and a paper airport, complete with a landing strip. His mom drove him to school because he didn’t want it to get crushed on the bus. “We need an airport!” he said (as if he had saved the world). Between the farm and the airport, my room was overtaken with…town. [Note: This is why I no longer have students use cereal boxes for buildings. We use snack boxes, and maybe in the future, Band-Aid boxes. HAHA!]
With some help from the governor, the citizens made it all fit. We had the airport on top of the class mailboxes, and the farm was over on the bookshelf outside of town, but that was okay. No one cared. I thought. A day later, during indoor recess, they asked for yellow construction paper and yellow pipe cleaners. In a matter of minutes, there was a big, yellow, Pittsburgh-style bridge being built from the town to the bookshelf. It kept collapsing until someone realized they could tape it to the wall! That little town was a hot mess, but it was fantastic! I even had fun helping them arrange things to fit. In fact, I realized we were missing something… PEOPLE. I gave a few citizens “press passes” so they could take pictures of the founding citizens of the town, the governor, and even of the president!
That night I went to work printing all the little people, then figuring out how to make game-piece bases for them (in year 2, I made students do this). As students arrived the next day with more things for the town, they realized there were two tiny people in the town (the president and governor). Of course the governor was at the ice cream shop, and the president was at the coffee shop. They were tickled to see people in the town. They were even more thrilled to learn that they could put themselves in the town if they finished their morning work. By the end of the day, the population of the town had grown, and all founding citizens were present. That mayor’s mom had another great idea (I love parents). She sent in crepe paper for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The town was complete… or was it?
Always Changing, Always Improving
That town was only going to be up for a week or so, but it ended up taking up the real estate in the corner of the room until the last week of school. When students finished work, they would go to the town for a few minutes and check things out. Sometimes they would find something else to add or change (or they could move their little person to another business). One morning I received a note from a mom, “Dear Mrs. Hinrichsen, Michael would like to bring in his train for the town. Is this okay? I can drop him off tomorrow. He knows how to set it up!” Of course, we needed an operating train!
In addition, the committee in charge of cultural activities ended up working together to make a schedule of events. They had movies in the park, carnivals, and parades on different holidays. Sometimes at the end of the day, I would see all of the little people in the town gathered around a certain place, so I knew there had been some event that day. The students took this town so seriously. It was real to them. And they also took social studies much more seriously.
On the day of the business PowerPoint presentations, some students came dressed in character. I never told them to do that. After all, it was only a presentation for the students in our class, but it was important, I guess. A boy came in with a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase his dad had loaned him. The pizza shop owner was dressed in her old waitress Halloween costume, and a borrowed pizza pan from her kitchen. She “didn’t think” her mom would care. When the presentations began, I was impressed. They used social studies vocabulary like it was everyday language; they spoke like authentic entrepreneurs. It truly was a dream town.
It was sad when we had to tear it down, but someone had the great idea to evacuate and have a natural disaster. If my memory serves me correctly, the first year was an earthquake; other years it was tornados or a hurricane. This year, we had a volcano erupt. Each year, I always assured them that we would build it back the next year. I could not imagine a year without a town.
NO TIME FOR A TOWN – The Year the Social Studies Textbook Changed
I have done the town for six out of the seven years I have been in 3rd grade. Last year, we adopted a new textbook. I forgot to take into account the order of chapters and the timing in the year. Before I knew it, the end of the year was approaching, and we were out of time. The students were a little disappointed, but we did other things, and they understood. The alumni (siblings), however, were irate. On open house night, I heard, “Where’s the town?” in sad little voices over and over again. My heart broke. They let me know that the town was their favorite part of 3rd grade, and it helped them learn about business. Even some parents said, “No town this year?” I really missed it, too. Social studies just wasn’t the same. Students were not as engaged. It was content with no meaning. So, as long as it is applicable to my curriculum, I will never skip doing the town again. We built it back this year, and the future looks bright for that small piece of real estate in the corner of the room, even though natural disaster hits it every year.
There are many more cross-curricular extensions for the town project, and I’m working to create a global collaboration project with this concept.
Doesn’t it give you some comfort, knowing our future leaders will have had some experience running a town?