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Draper Journal

Willow Springs third-graders connect reading with STEM

Nov 11, 2019 03:00PM ● By Julie Slama

Sitting in a Willow Springs third-grade classroom is a paper house neighborhood, illustrating the uniqueness of students after they constructed their houses. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Willow Springs third-grade teacher Demi Johnson wanted to find a STEM-related get-to-know-you activity for the beginning of the school year. She looked online when she saw a website that showed an engineering project that tied into a picture book.

“I looked into it and the book has a great message about being true to who you are,” she said. “With the book, there was a project for students to figure out that went along with it.”

She purchased the bundle of school lessons from, and has since been presenting to her class.

The first activity was reading “The Big Orange Splot” together. In the story, neighbors appreciated their street where all the houses looked the same — that is, until Mr. Plumbean had orange paint spilled on his house. When his neighbors suggested he paint the house, he agreed.

The next morning, it “was like a rainbow. It was like a jungle, it was like an explosion.”

One by one, the neighbors talked to Mr. Plumbean and came away painting their own house creatively as well until they all had unique designs and represented their unique selves and their dreams.

To tie into the reading, Johnson had each student create their own house following a template and then illustrate it with things they wanted to learn, their favorite animals, their self-portraits, their favorite places, their families and a summary of who they are.

Third-grader Thomas Pollock said he liked getting to know his classmates through their paper city.

“It’s really a cool idea,” he said. “I needed to put most of my concentration on folding the lines and gluing it together. It made more sense to put the fold inside. Then I included I’m 9, there are five people in my family, I like chicken pot pie and I’m a car enthusiast and want to be a rally car track driver. Some people said they liked fishing or wanted to go to Mars. Others like dogs and cats, but now we know something about everyone.”

In another STEM-literature project, Johnson read the kids’ version of “How Full is Your Bucket?”

In the story, Felix was building a tower of bricks when his little sister wanted to help. Instead of allowing her to, he said no, which angered her and she took her doll and knocked over the tower. His grandfather explained to him that everyone has an invisible bucket and when it’s empty, she feels bad; and when it is full, she was happier. 

The next day, Felix was aware of others’ buckets and even his own as negative comments made him feel small and his bucket emptied. However, when he shared a story he had written to his class, his teacher gave him positive feedback and he began to fill his bucket fill. Then, he began to help others and noticed it filled both his and their buckets. When he returned home and his sister began to cry, he allowed her to help build a tower with the blocks, filling both their buckets.

Johnson said that together, they created buckets designing them to hold as many marbles as they could.

“It represented how they could fill them as well as how to problem-solve and brainstorm a design that could hold them,” she said. 

Third-grader Karly Van Valkenburg said that with this project, they could “purchase” items such as paper, pipe cleaners and scissors to try to create the bucket.

“We learned to keep improving our design and we did it three or four times before we got it to hold 42 marbles,” she said. “It’s actually challenging to be able to use only certain materials and had to make a plan and as we learned what worked and didn’t, we could try again.”

Johnson said she appreciates the cross-curricular teaching that brings together reading, math and science.

“You just don’t have math in the world, but it’s combined with reading. This is representing the real world. I like that our district supports us trying to get more science in and that this gives them a chance to explore and to make those connections to reading,” she said. The 10-year teaching veteran has other STEM activities planned for the upcoming school year and hopes to expand to include multicultural activities as well.

Thomas liked the lesson tied into “My Mouth is like a Volcano.”

“It’s a book that basically tells us we need to be careful about what we say, because, we really can’t take anything back once it’s said,” he said. “So, we learned it’s like toothpaste. We could try to scoop it in, but it’s runny and sticky and it really doesn’t go back in. The runnier toothpaste worked better, but it just sticks to everything, and even when we did get some back in, there was still some everywhere.”

In that lesson, Johnson reminded students that, “You can say you’re sorry, but the words are still out there.”

Karly said another favorite STEM activity was when she, along with her team, made a boat out of foil to hold 80-plus marbles.

“We brainstormed how to make it wide enough and sturdy enough,” she said. “I like that we get to use our brains to think.”