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Lighthouse project lights up learning

End-of-year project focuses on history, construction

Byron Center— Fourth-graders Gillian Groenleer, Ashelyn Inthammavong and Abagail Rose’s replica of Middle Island Lighthouse stood tall and bright – ready for finishing touches.

“We will add sand to the shoreline, rocks and dead weeds. It’s kind of like a desert landscape,” said Gillian, explaining that the more than 200-year-old structure is located in Alpena, between Thunder Bay Island and Presque Isle Harbor.

A lightbulb atop their house can flicker on and off – thanks to a paperclip activating a circuit when touched to a thumbtack on the cardboard house – to demonstrate how the tall, majestic observatory served as a beacon on the bay.

Fourth-grade teachers at Marshall Elementary have an annual year-end tradition – building and displaying Michigan lighthouses. The creative project combines reading, writing, social studies and science– not to mention hours of fun, messy art.

Students work in groups to research, design and construct their chosen lighthouse from among more than 100 that dot the Great Lakes’ shorelines, from the familiar Grand Haven South Pier and Lighthouse to remote lighthouses bordering the cold, wild waters of Lake Superior. To accompany their art, they create Google slideshows about their houses.

Teacher Mindy Chateau said students are in charge of their projects from beginning to end – starting with photos of their lighthouses and by learning facts about them. They learn about different kinds of lighthouses and purposes. An architect who has worked on restoration projects also visited.

It’s a great break from end-of-year testing, Chateau said

“This is a really good creative outlet…They experience making the circuits and the lighthouses to make the light work. They get to learn the history of the lighthouses, which is fun.” 

As they finished their projects recently, students chatted about the interesting maritime histories and legends of each landmark. Some come with ghost stories, others with tragic pasts and stories of survival.

Fourth-graders JJ Kuncaitis and Charles Poppema built the Poe Reef lighthouse in Cheboygan. 

“It is right in the middle of Lake Huron,” JJ said. “It’s remote, so less people can visit than lighthouses on land. What I found interesting about lighthouses is there are so many in Michigan. Most are on land, but only 15 are in lakes.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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