NEH Institute: People, Prairies and Plains

Kay Johnson
Monett R-I
400 Linden
Monett, Missouri 65708

Environmental history has become a part of many activities and discussions among the academically gifted elementary students, grades one through six, whom I teach. Students in second and third grade have tracked migrating species (bald eagles, monarch butterflies, bats, and robins) with the help of the Internet and eagerly awaited the leafing out of the oak trees during the Journey North curriculum, a distance-based learning adventure. We read of the varied backgrounds of scientists and read the questions asked of them by other students. We explored the effect of weather systems on migration patterns. Prior to the Institute I would not have utilized a curriculum such as this due to a lack of awareness of the importance of the interaction of weather, various species, food availability, etc.

Fourth graders designed, wrote and illustrated a book about Missouri which they are in the process of copyrighting and publishing. Through this activity, which they worked on for most of the year, I was able to share a part of Susan Flader's thoughts about looking at the places people choose to protect to find what they value. We looked for what was valued in our state parks and historical sites.

As the third graders studied "people who have made a difference" we included Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold along with Einstein, Helen Keller, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Thanks to my notes and the texts from the Institute I had resources to be used in the classroom.

A sixth-grade student completed a research-based, individual project for National History in which she investigated the stand taken by Dian Fossey to protect the mountain gorillas in the Rwandan mountains. As she discussed her topic and displayed it in several places for several groups prior to History Day competition, she often heard students ask, "Didn't the Rwandans know they were killing off the gorillas and there would soon be none left?" This led to a discussion with the sixth-grade group about the actions of people throughout history which demonstrated there was not a knowledge of or ethic of looking beyond the present to consider the interactions among systems, people, needs and the environment. From John Opie's lecture, I used the symbol of the explosion to illustrate the chain of events which occurs.

I used Marty Melosi's comments about the "city" not being a modern influence as fifth graders studied the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome. The ancient accommodations for garbage were "gross," according to the students; but they were extremely interested in the availability of water for the citizens of the Roman Empire. I used Opie's "explosion" symbol for the charting of students' research about the outward growth of cities and the spread of systems needed.

As the sixth-grade state History Day qualifiers and I were visiting a state park on our way to state competition, we sat quietly and thought of the Osage Indians who first used the area we were in and how it had changed.

I have presented programs to educators and requested additional money through a grant program to enhance the study of Missouri history which will involve six teachers and myself. We will include the study of the value of a sense of place, the interaction among systems, and Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and John Muir. Yes, the Institute has changed the way I teach and think. I have knowledge and resources to bring a new dimension to anything students want to learn.


Brief Overview: Martin Melosi, Samuel Hays, and others write of the existence of boundaries within the urban environment. What are the boundaries which exist between urban and rural, between wildness and country and among rural areas, country, town, and city? Exploration of boundaries will include not only historical and environmental boundaries, but also boundaries that are visual, auditory, political, geo-political, self- imposed, economic and psychological. Various disciplines, ability levels, and skills will be addressed in this study. This plan involves students actively participating in planning, obtaining materials, setting goals and objectives, whether individually, in small groups, or whole-class; it could also be teacher-driven. By studying the changing environment through boundaries, students will be involved in studying change over time, the effects of changes and changes occurring at the present which will influence our future.

Goals and Objectives: Students will learn:

1. To appropriately define a focus of the topic.
2. To use appropriate sources.
3. To collect data and document sources.
4. To synthesize data collected for presentation as a meaningful whole.
5. To formulate meaningful conclusions.
6. To adhere to a time-line of work, using time-management skills.
7. To make decisions.
8. To effectively present information to an appropriate audience.
9. To become aware of the changes due to boundaries.

Materials, Resources, Equipment: Post-it notes, large wall chart, handouts, place for pupils' materials, project materials (poster board, markers, scissors, foam core board, card stock, or any other items for products).

Balsam, Katy. Thematic Units for Student Portfolios. Beavercreek, OH: Pieces of Learning, 1994.

Winebrenner, Susan. Teaching Gifted Kids in the Classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit, 1992.

Time Required: The time required depends upon the depth of study intended by the teacher. Academically gifted students in grades two through four will typically spend 36- 40 hours while students in grades five to six will spend more. Teachers may use the topic of "boundaries" as an independent study for students in the regular classroom or as a two to three week unit


1. Brainstorm topics and questions for investigation. Form a web of these ideas on a large wall chart with ideas written on Post-it notes.
Brainstorming Questions About Boundaries?

2. Take the Post-it notes off and transfer ideas to webs as students categorize types of boundaries.

3. Students chart what they know, think they know and what they need to learn. Primary grades might investigate fences as a form of boundaries. They could compare photographs of fences in their neighborhoods. Interviews could be conducted to find why fences were used, why the fence was constructed of certain materials, etc. Intermediate students might investigate boundaries of different historical periods: walled cities, moats, barbed wire, topological (mountains, water), outer space, etc.

Students may be interested in the boundaries of laws, thoughts, beliefs, economics, areas, etc. Are there people who see beyond boundaries? (inventors? artists? leaders?)

4. A list of activities categorized by thinking skills (Bloom's Taxonomy) is utilized to write learning activities. At least two activities are written for each of the six categories. (See the Balsamo reference for activities categorized by verbal, visual, written and kinesthetic learning styles.)

5. A project which would demonstrate accomplishment of each activity is generated and added to the web.

6. A time line for research, study and completion of work is designed.

7. The "Topic Browsing Planner" (See Winebrenner reference.) is distributed for students to locate information for their activities. If enough material is not available students should use their second topic.

8. Decide on the method of assessment and criteria for each activity so students will know assessment criteria prior to beginning the study.

9. Students will research to confirm what they thought they knew and to find what they need to learn.

10. A project is begun by each student or group of students which will demonstrate their findings about boundaries.

11. Timeline checks are assessed to assist students with completion of projects.

12. Upon completion of projects, students will share them with an appropriate audience.

13. Teacher and students will assess research, learning, work, timeline adherence and end-product.

Assessment: Any could be used which is suitable to evaluate learning, work and the end-products. I utilize a rubric which is developed prior to student work. Assessment criteria should be definite, available to the student prior to their work, and if appropriate should utilize student input. It is important to evaluate the work-process and the end-product. (See the Balsamo reference for numerous appropriate evaluation forms for projects from several learning styles.)

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