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Knowledge of Native American territories in 3D

Fifth-graders construct dioramas during social studies unit

A glimpse at the cacophony of Nikole Lewis’s fifth-graders, busy at work on their Native American dioramas

Northview — Just after lunch recently, Nikole Lewis’s fifth-graders filed into her classroom and quickly took their seats, eager to get to work creating Native American dioramas.

One student in each group of three or four retrieved and carried a shoebox of a scene-in-progress to awaiting classmates, who quickly arranged supplies such as clay, markers, rocks, leaves, grass and sticks for the hour’s work. 

Meanwhile, Lewis assembled an array of sculpting clay and tools in a corner of her classroom. Students who approached her to acquire the supplies knew the price: offer a fact about something they had learned so far. 

All four of Highlands Middle’s fifth-grade social studies teachers do the project with their classes. The Native American unit studies four territories: Pacific Northwest, Desert Southwest, Great Plains and Eastern Woodlands. Fifth-graders learn about the histories of each group and how they adapted to their location, including the animals they hunted, the tools they made and used and the foods they grew and ate.

In between clay store “sales,” Lewis loudly posed what she called “teacher challenge” questions over the enthusiastic cacophony of diorama-building.

“Which Native American territory used kiva pits?” she asked the class, eliciting a surplus of raised hands.

Vonteay Manning’s group assembled a diorama of the Pacific Northwest, which, as he explained, was “surrounded by a lot of lakes and oceans. They also hunted whales, and they also told stories with totem poles.”

Emily Doss’s group’s diorama focused on the Woodlands territory. 

“It’s not by the water, and we don’t have plank houses; we have long houses, which are touching the ground,” she explained. “Plank houses are on stilts. And they have a hole in the top for fires, because (Native Americans) made their food in there. And (fires) for families to sit at.”

It was Lewis’s third year leading the diorama project.

“I love that this gives the students a chance to show what they know, and (that) it isn’t in a typical ‘test’ format,” she said. “We have so many kids who don’t learn or can’t show their growth with just a paper and pencil, so they need other creative and engaging ways.”

Read more from Northview: 
Obstacles to more reading time mastered
Listening to stories: not just for elementary kids

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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