Education column: Students grow through town-building project

Walking down the hall at Cameo Elementary last week, I noticed the most amazing miniature towns displayed on long tables. Intrigued, I paused to take a closer look, along with some students who had paused as well. The students didn’t notice me, so I sidled closer to blatantly eavesdrop.

“Look what they used for the wind turbines. Wow! Great idea!”

“See those solar panels? I would have added some right here.”

These were a few of the observations made by the students, who were respectfully examining the projects without touching anything. I was impressed because I found it difficult to resist touching some of the features of the tiny communities. When I began asking questions, the students explained the various aspects of these small towns, pointing out various elements as they talked. “We’ll get to do this next year,” confided these fourth-graders.

These remarkable projects, I later learned, were an extension of an “Imagine It” lesson. “Imagine It” is the inquiry-based, cross-curricular reading program used by Clovis Municipal Schools’ kindergarten through sixth grade classes that addresses the five key areas of reading instruction: Phonemic awareness; systematic, explicit phonics; fluency; vocabulary and comprehension.

Cheryl Cunningham, fifth-grade teacher, spearheaded this project and described how it all unfolded. “The unit on the importance of being resourceful and environmentally friendly began with researching the field, and each student creating their poster project, complete with writing, illustrations, photographs and so forth.”

Beginning last year, however, Cunningham began stretching and thinking outside the box. Initially serving as a tool for differentiating instruction, she conceived this building project where students planned, designed and created towns made of recyclable materials and resources ordinarily found in or around the house. This project has become popular with the students, who eagerly anticipate the project, even the formal presentation to their whole class when they initially bring their projects to school. Cunningham continued, “It’s amazing how this reaches every student.”

This year fellow fifth-grade teacher, Junea Hickman, jumped on board, and all Cameo fifth-graders became involved in the project. The creative quality and attention to detail of the energy communities the students have created are amazing, and although there is parent involvement, the students do the work. Two young men came out into the hall and did impromptu presentations for me, after I poked my head into Cunningham’s classroom to ask about the projects. One of the communities, “Baynes Town,” was truly remarkable, and the explanation of how everything worked from the wind turbines, made of straws and thumb tacks, to the organic garden and solar-paneled buildings suggested an articulate future engineer.

Materials used by students included styrofoam cups and cafeteria milk cartons for buildings; sticks and string for power lines; 35mm camera film for solar panels; toothpicks glued to cardboard and spray-painted silver to represent metal roofing; popsicle sticks, rocks, plastic water bottles, pine cones and much, much more.

I suspect they’re building more than miniature towns at Cameo Elementary.

Cindy Kleyn-Kennedy is the instructional technology coordinator for the Clovis Municipal Schools. She can be reached at cindy.kleyn-kennedy@clovis-schools.org