Third-graders at Edwards Elementary School combined lessons in literacy and geometry to stage a theater using sets and scripts developed with the help of Iowa State University students. Photos by Ryan Riley.

Iowa State partners with third-graders to stage ‘maker theater’

Ames, Iowa — Third-graders at Edwards Elementary School on Friday combined lessons in literacy and geometry to stage a theater using sets and scripts developed with the help of Iowa State University students.

About 35 ISU School of Education students in Sara Nelson's literacy class and Christa Jackson's geometry class worked with about 75 third-graders in a project called “maker theater.”

“We’re showing how geometry, STEM, and literacy can be integrated with one another, and have it brought to life in a third-grade classroom,” said Jackson, an associate professor in the School of Education. “We don’t live in a siloed world. We’re learning these different subjects for a reason. They all work together to make a productive society.”

The Iowa State literacy students wrote the script in age-appropriate language for third-graders to read, while geometry students designed the set with plans and directions for the younger students to follow. The project gave the future teachers a chance to apply their learning in ways they can someday use in their own classrooms.

Applying literacy, geometry to everyday life

The plays came in the form of “reader’s theater” — a dramatic presentation of written work where reading parts are divided among readers. The presentations can be done easily in a K-3 classroom because they don’t involve any memorization, costumes, or special lighting.

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Each third-grader had a chance to read part of the script in Friday's maker theater.

“Reader’s theater helps with fluency,” said Nelson, a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Education. “Students learn how to be expressive while they read, but it also takes away the stress of having to memorize.”

The activity was called “maker theater” because students were encouraged to build the sets using what they had — similar to a “makerspace,” where students can gather to create, invent, tinker, explore, and discover with the maker mindset of creating something out of nothing.

“There was a high level of anticipation surrounding this project,” said Patti Allen, one of the third-grade teachers involved in the project. “The children could not wait to meet their buddies and get started. The engagement was immediate as the children were discussing, measuring, drawing, and duct-taping.”

Little did the younger students know that in the midst of their excitement, they were applying principles of geometry while building the sets.

“Geometry is really used in everyday life,” Jackson said. “We’re giving third-graders a fun and exciting way to use geometry. They may not even realize that they’re using geometry and geometric properties. They are using that knowledge to apply it to build their set. Math is truly applicable.”

Focus on seven children’s books

The third-graders divided into seven groups to put on the plays. Each group focused on a different picture book including "Ish" by Peter Reynolds, "Last Stop on Market Street" by Matt de la Peña, "Enemy Pie" by Derek Munson, and "The Boy Who Loved Math" by Deborah Heiligman.  

“We tried to select books that covered a range of important topics for third graders — friendship, empowerment, multiculturalism, humor,” Allen said.

Putting on the plays involved lessons in comprehension, vocabulary, speaking, presenting, geometry, and measurement. But it also gave students a chance to learn and practice the give-and-take of working together, sharing ideas, and compromising as they built their sets and practiced their presentations.

The project got the elementary school students excited about learning.

“I’ve told all of my students, you really need moments where children are almost running down the hall because they can’t wait to be at school,” Nelson said. “And I laughed so hard because we walked in and these kids said, ‘yay!’ This is really good. They are super excited.”

A decade-long collaboration

Friday’s theater is part of an ongoing collaboration between Nelson and Allen, and between Iowa State University and the Ames Community School District, that has spanned for about a decade. The projects have integrated art, science, literacy, and mathematics.

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Sara Nelson introduces the next play in the maker theater.

An article about infusing literacy practices into science written by Nelson and Allen is scheduled to be published in November by Science and Children, an award-winning peer-reviewed practitioners' journal for preK–5 science teachers.

“We love this partnership as the professors bring their creative ideas, expertise, and their students to build upon and enhance our curriculum and empower us to look at ways to incorporate this type of project/event in the future,” Allen said.

Nelson calls Friday’s maker theater a pilot project. She envisions the elementary school students taking an even larger role next time, with script writing and set design. She also hopes to broaden the project to involve the whole school, and students statewide.

“When we collaborate together, all of us learn something new and we can do so much more together,” Nelson said. “These projects pull from everyone’s strengths and really give people a chance for some of that joy of learning, some of those joyful moments. We know for these third-graders, they’re excited and it’s made a difference.”