People, Prairies, and Plains

Marcia Allen
Manhattan Catholic Schools
306 S. Juliette
Manhattan, Kansas 66502

Our most recent use of institute-based materials has been while my sixth graders were working on their Kansas research projects. While some students wanted to research outlaws and famous Kansas leaders, others wanted to do projects that dealt specifically with the environment, especially the human adaptation to the environment. One student explored the Santa Fe Trail, charting its course and purpose, and made a highly detailed map. Another student investigated the Oregon Trail and even built a replica of a covered wagon.

One of my favorite projects was one done by a student who wanted to learn more about sod houses. For his project, we heavily plundered bibliographies (supplied by you generous folks!). He particularly enjoyed reading through Pioneer Homesteaders (courtesy of Frances, Nancy, and Mary Jo). This student is a very talented artist, so designing his own soddie (in miniature) was no problem.

One of the most rewarding projects was done by a student who has a great deal of difficulty getting organized and producing finished papers. It was a real pleasure watching him getting excited about his report. He found he wanted to research buffalo, and research he did! He not only produced a beautiful report about the habitat, the life cycle, and the behavior of the buffalo, he also brought a skull to class and taught us about buffalo anatomy. He is now our resident bison expert.

Another highlight to last summer’s work: as many of you probably know, the theme for this year’s National Wildlife Week (April 21-27, 1996) was “Wading into Wetlands.” Cricket’s lesson plans, many taken from Ranger Rick and Educational Oasis, were excellent. My students really enjoyed the trivia questions and “The Great Swamp Debate.” In fact, they liked those and other activities supplied by Cricket more than those which were included with the National Wildlife Week packet.

Throughout the year, my students have written poetry about a sense of place. Some of these poems were entered in various contests; others were written to accompany reading assignments. We often used models to create our own pictures of nature. We found, of course, that some poems were standouts for us. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” Robert Frost’s “A Hillside Thaw,” and James Wright’s “A Blessing” were among the easiest of poems for students to use. Two of those poems (and possibly two more if space allows) will be published in Young Kansas Writers, a publication of The Kansas Association of Teachers of English, due out some time in June. Those students who are published will receive copies of the booklet and the pleasure of their first published work.

The outcome of activities like those mentioned above is the reward of new knowledge. My students have learned to look at things a little differently from how they did before. This is obvious in their responses in class. Once, they could read an example of social commentary, such as Mowat’s “Whales for Killing” and simply feel disgusted about it. Oh, let’s be honest: some students enjoy the violence of the story. This year, however, I discovered a different reaction, at least partly due to our preparation before reading. We’ve become more conscious of conservation. Students were outraged by the human disregard for nature, and they were vehement about the waste of endangered species. I would say that the intensity of their responses is a measure of success.

My own accomplishments have mirrored those of my students. I have learned that the wealth of materials supplied by friends at the institute has saved me hours of research I never could have accomplished. I also appreciate the chance to try activities which are different from any that I might have created. While I didn’t attempt most of the lesson plans, many of them were exactly what I needed to enhance what we were studying. I’ve still much to learn, but I’ve begun a whole new way of viewing the environment.

A Writer’s Sense of Place

Marcia Allen

Overview: This is an activity I use after reading both biographical and selection sections of a particular author with my students. After the students become familiar with both life and works, I ask them to predict the home this writer might have. I list ideas on the board, and have them argue and discuss. After all options are exhausted, I would show them page selections from Writers in Residence. This is a beautiful book with detailed explanations and photographs of writer homes. We then discuss which predictions came the closest.

Connection: Any age group (say 5-12th grades)could use this activity. It’s nice because it gives literature study a more personal touch. It allows students to approach authors from a whole new angle.

Time Required: This could be accomplished in 1-2 class periods.

Materials: Writers in Residence by Glynne Robinson Betts (1981). My students especially love the Twain material because his wonderful home in Hartford, now a national landmark, has those terrific steamboat roof lines.

Objectives: The students will study background author information and read a specific selection before the residence survey. Hopefully, this will spark further research on their part. They may want to learn why the authors chose/built as they did, etc.


Body of Presentation: I mention this book, but there are many other wonderful books that are equally good sources.

Assessment: I would ask each student to write 1-2 paragraphs indicating what surprised them about the actual home. They could also tell what features were as they imagined them, if they chose to do so. Hopefully, this would get them thinking about how a home reflects the owner, or even what they might choose for their own homes some day to reflect their own personalities (a possible writing topic all its own).

Extending: An extension of this lesson could be exercises in description. After thinking about their own homes, students might practice writing vivid descriptions of future homes. They might even try poetry forms, consisting of imagery reflecting their likes.

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