Educator Spotlight: Introducing students to their own backyards

This post was written by Kailyn Bettle, daughter of Kiersten Bettle and a teacher education student at the University of Northern Iowa. 

Kiersten Bettle, this week’s Educator of the Week, challenges her students to explore the world around them and make connections in science, social studies, and language arts. Kiersten Bettle teaches fourth grade at Roosevelt Elementary School in Mason City, Iowa.

Photo courtesy Kiersten Bettle

Activity: My Backyard: The Prairies of the Midwest

Grade Level: 4

Time Commitment: Three weeks

Studying Regions Across Borders
In 4th grade, American students learn about the regions of the United States through their social studies curriculum. In Mrs. Bettle’s classroom, she saves “the best” (the Midwest, in her opinion) for last.

Kiersten likes to spend a little extra time on the Midwest because it is so relatable for her students. She connects science, social studies, language arts, and outdoor adventure in the process.

Step 1: Introducing Regional Study with Science
To begin a unit on prairies, Mrs. Bettle challenges her students to consider what their local area looked like millions of years ago. Before the prairies of the Midwest were covered in tall grasses and being grazed by buffalo, ocean covered the area.

In Iowa, many remnants from the sea of the Devonian Period have been unearthed. Students learn about the former ocean wildlife by studying the fossils left behind.

Step 2: Integrating Social Studies
Mrs. Bettle then fast-forwards about 400 million years to teach students about modern-day prairies and the states that sustain them. Students learn how the prairies play a key role in the economy and the everyday lives of Midwestern people.

Kiersten says it’s rewarding when students make the connection that the soil—and nearly all of the products the Midwest is known for—relate back to the prairies.

Step 3: Reading Historical Fiction About Home
Kiersten’s students read various historical fiction books such as The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. As they read, students focus on the setting, characters, and plot to draw connections between the story and the information they’ve already learned.

Kiersten has found that adding literature to this unit helps the knowledge stick in students’ minds. The novels make the learning feel relatable.


Step 4: Get Outside!
At the end of the unit, students have the opportunity to explore a prairie in their area, bringing the learning to life. At the Floyd County Fossil and Prairie Park, students see prairie land that has gone untouched for more than 1,000 years, dig for fossils from the Devonian Period, and explore a museum that shows what the prairies looked like millions of years ago.

This year, students also completed a BioBlitz, identifying some of the wildlife living in ponds on prairies with the help of myself (Kailyn Bettle) and Alex Oberle from the Geographic Alliance of Iowa.

The overall goal of a bioblitz is to simply get students outside and exploring. What better way to do that than by exploring an area that hits so close to home? Learn how you can start your own!

Adapting this Lesson for Your Region
Some of the elements in this unit are location specific, but the idea behind them is far from it. Kiersten wanted to build upon a subject the students were familiar with: the world around them.

While it’s important to learn about all regions of the United States and the world, Kiersten has found that when students study their own backyard, they make the deepest connections.



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