The Uncle Reuben Project - Year 1


  This spring I was looking for something to give my students and myself a boost at the end of the year with high engagement for everyone. This was my first year back in the classroom after 11 years as an Instructional Coach. I wanted to end this great school year in an exciting way. Because of my love for genealogy and my desire to bring history and geography to life for my students, I decided to unite the two into an integrated unit that would provide opportunities to apply all of their freshly acquired skills. 

     Reuben Sigfred Johnson was my grandpa’s youngest brother. He had a very interesting story of travel and adventure in the 1920’s and 30’s and I have always wanted to write about it or display it in some way but could never find the right medium.  A lesson plan for 22 second graders was the last thing I thought I would decide on but it has really been the best way I’ve found to work within Reuben’s life story.

     I introduced Uncle Reuben to my second graders by telling them some stories about him and showing them some pictures from my genealogy files. The fact that he lived to be 100 and I knew him personally intrigued them and by the time I started telling about the different modes of transportation he used, I had them hooked. The next question for me was how to use the power behind this story to create excitement that would last until the last day of school.



Reuben with his sisters
     Uncle Reuben was born near McPherson, Kansas in 1903. He loved to read and must have had an adventurous spirit because at 20 years old he began 10 years of traveling the country.  He started his journeys in 1924 when he went to Chicago to attend flight school. A year and a half (and one plane crash) later he returned to Kansas to help his brothers with the farm. Before too long, he borrowed his brother’s Indian motorcycle and took off on a thousand mile trip south to help his parents with their new farm in Alamo, Texas. His continued to travel this way, crossing the United States in all directions until 1934, when he finally settled back in Chicago for awhile.

Here is the data we had to work with for the map.
Uncle Reuben's Journeys:
McPherson, Kansas
Chicago, Illinois
Train
Chicago, Illinois
McPherson, Kansas
Train
McPherson, Kansas
Alamo, Texas
Indian Motorcycle
Alamo, Texas
McPherson, Kansas
Indian Motorcycle
McPherson, Kansas
Canada
Model T Ford Coupe
Canada
Yellowstone National Park
Train
Yellowstone National Park
Salt Lake City, Utah
Train
Salt Lake City, Utah
Phoenix, Arizona
Train
Phoenix, Arizona
San Diego, California
Train
San Diego, California
Los Angeles, California
Train
Los Angeles, California
Chicago, Illinois
Car
Chicago, Illinois
Detroit, Michigan
Bus
Detroit, Michigan
Buffalo, New York
Steamer across Lake Erie
Buffalo, New York
Portland, Maine
Train
Portland, Maine
New York City, New York
Train
New York City, New York
Chicago, Illinois
Train
Chicago, Illinois
Illinois River
Car
Illinois River
Mississippi River
Canoe
Mississippi River
New Orleans, Louisiana
Canoe
New Orleans, Louisiana

bicycle shop
New Orleans, Louisiana
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Canoe
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana
Canoe
New Orleans, Louisiana
Chicago, Illinois
Harley Motorcycle
Chicago, Illinois
Minnesota
Harley Motorcycle
Minnesota
North Dakota
Harley Motorcycle
North Dakota
Tucson, Arizona
Harley Motorcycle
Los Angeles, California
San Francisco, California
Harley Motorcycle
San Francisco, California
New Orleans, Louisiana
Cars and Boxcars
New Orleans, Louisiana
Chicago, Illinois
motorcycle

This is what our map looked like when we were finished mapping it out.
Uncle Reuben's Journeys all mapped out! The colors of yarn stand for the mode of transportation.
So many questions and deep thinking came out of this task. Is Texas bigger or smaller than California? Why did he decide to go to flight school? How many states did he go through? How many miles did he travel by motorcycle? Why did he sell his motorcycle in California? How many countries did he visit? Do you think he ever went to Mexico? How long did it take him to get from Chicago to New Orleans by river?
Some questions could be answered and others not, but all of it was interesting!



Lucky for us, Uncle Reuben kept a journal during his traveling years. We divided his journeys into 30 parts and started mapping them out with colored yarn. We used brown for train travel, red for motorcycle, green for car and blue yarn for steamship and canoe. The questions kept coming! 

Teamwork!
Lots of discussion!
The next step was to figure out how many miles he traveled. That was a big job but my students dug in and, enthusiastically, got to work! They each made a “map measurer” using a gift ribbon and a marker. They marked 100 miles 10 times according to the legend on the map giving them 1000 mile measuring ribbons.The first group began measuring using their estimating skills. One person stood at the board and wrote the miles for each leg of the journey. Another group measured the next day and either agreed with the measurements or wrote their miles next to the first miles. A third group settled 2 measurements by measuring again. The discussion I heard as I passed these groups was wonderful! I was so happy to see evidence of their growth as learners and inquirers!
Measuring and Recording Data

Another group determined the type of transportation for each trip and coded it with a letter; c for car, ca for canoe, m for motorcycle, etc., on the board.
Transportation Team

By this time I was ready to have my board back so I decided to set up three laptops facing the board and assigned students to type the information we had compiled into Excel. Each typist had a partner to check, point and help make sure they weren't skipping data. Some traded places after awhile.

Working in Excel and adding up the miles.
When they were finished, I combined the three files into one. The class was excited when we put the data up on our Smartboard and I showed them how Excel lets us sort and filter. They used their calculators to add the miles of each mode of transportation. When we were finished, they had figured Uncle Reuben traveled about 19,200 miles between 1924 and 1934. Now they could display the miles according to transportation!

[As a side note: I was curious to find out how close they got to the actual miles with their little ribbons. I took the data file and compared it to actual miles using http://www.freemaptools.com/how-far-is-it-between.htm . I just about fainted when I finished adding them up for myself. They had gotten within 200 miles of the actual mileage! I don't think the kids actually understood how cool that was but I'm sure they recognized the look of pride on their teacher's face!]



The pictures I’ve posted so far show about half of the class so some of you are probably asking, “What were the other students doing while this was going on?”  They were busy!  I had just shown the class how to make a video with pictures, text and music using PhotoStory3 but I hadn’t let them work with it on their own yet. 

Not long before, I had run across a Model T Coup like the one Uncle Reuben had ridden in, all the way up into Canada, following the harvest. It was sitting right next to me, in the showroom, while I was waiting on my car to be serviced one Saturday. Ignoring the looks I was most likely getting from other “waiters”, I pulled out my phone and started taking pictures of it from every angle. I wanted the kids to get an idea of how small it was; especially to hold three twenty-something young men for more than 1000 miles along bumpy, dirt roads. We had already watched some videos I had found online of a Model T going down the road so they were familiar with the car and the way it looked and sounded.

We loaded the Model T pictures onto a computer and I let some students work together to move the pictures around, edit them and add text and music while standing around the SmartBoard. It worked great and they got to practice their PhotoStory3 skills before they started on their individual video projects at the end of the year. They got skills and I got future trainers to help everyone else learn! What fast learners! We didn't get a finished product but they learned the basics.










Uncle Reuben lived to be 100 years old; “and 1 month,” a student would usually remind me. What a great number for 2nd graders! Time-lines were being introduced in the math chapter we were working on so we decided to make a timeline display of Reuben’s life. We would be able to develop skills for working with time-lines as well as number lines. I had a few pictures to contribute to the board and stapled a strip of white paper, marked off in 5 year segments, and the pictures to the board for them. A second strip was placed below to represent the 10 years of travel that he did starting in 1924. I then began handing the project over to a group of students.


Every child in the class illustrated some part of Uncle Reuben’s journeys. The group began organizing the pictures. I noticed some girls working with the illustration cards on the carpet one day. Our carpet has a large map of the United States on it. They were placing the illustrations on that giant map and telling the story of his journeys to each other. It was interesting to see what they remembered and whether or not they could find the places on a different type of map. (They could!)

Two students, and several helpers, typed captions for each picture and illustration and those were printed off, cut apart and taped in place. Here is a picture of the finished timeline.

The timeline became a very useful tool and was referred to often when a date would show up in something we were reading. 



The chain reached out into the hallway.Keeping the students busy wasn’t too difficult. A group of boys made a chain of colored links the length of the wingspan on the biplane Uncle Reuben learned to fly in 1924. I thought for sure our room would be big enough but once we looked up the size on the internet and the boys got out the measuring wheel, they (and their teacher) realized it wasn’t going to be that easy. Before long, the door was open and the chain was reaching diagonally across the room, out the door and halfway across the hall.

A student is working with the measuring wheel.

They measured, added or subtracted links, and measured again until they were certain the chain was exactly 43 feet and 7 inches.

One concept they learned by doing this is that the chain measured the same if it was straight or curled around the desks.

 A second chain was constructed and measured for the length of the plane (27 feet).


We weren't going to be able to experience the size of the plane in our room so we carried the chains to the courtyard and put them in place.
 The kids and one of their favorite co-op students took their places on the chains and posed for a picture.
Students forming shape of biplane in courtyard.

Note: If you try this yourself, remember that the chain tangles easily and needs to be carried stretched out instead of bunched up. We learned the hard way!


Once you've finished the hard work of an inquiry project, it’s fun to show someone what you’ve been learning.

We got the chance to do that in early May. The “invitation” group went to work writing notes and inviting other classes to visit us so we could show them what we learned. The afternoon was a success as evidenced by the discussions I could hear around the room as students shared their new learning with excitement.
Language arts activity

Reading with friends in the tent.


One of our favorite pictures of Uncle Reuben is him sitting by a campfire next to a small canvas tent.
Cooler serves as table for story problem work.
I had come across some camping themed math and language arts activities online that would be perfect for a courtyard camp out during the last week of school. We pitched our tent, grabbed something to sit on and headed for the school courtyard for the morning. There were 12 activities to keep the class busy and s’mores for a reward partway through the tasks. It was a nice way to end both our unit and a wonderful 2nd grade year!



Reflection

Studying the life and journeys of Uncle Reuben was such a deep and rich experience. The material gave my students opportunities to review, practice and apply multiple skills that they have learned over the year.

Skills they used and practiced:
  • Working in a group
  • Cooperating and taking turns
  • Measuring miles on a map
  • Map reading
  • Adding large numbers (over 1000)
  • Calculator use - adding lists of large numbers and checking their answer by comparing it to others
  • Measuring distance
  • Non-standard measurement


Learning:
  • Location of states in US
  • Transportation of the early 1900's
  • History of flight - Wright Brothers, World Flight - 1924
  • Concept of time past (100 years)
  • The computer as a tool
  • Some uses for Word and Excel
  • The size of the United States
  • Putting events in order according to time


Benefits:
  • Confidence
  • Knowledge of the United States
  • Confidence using technology
  • Motivation
  • Engagement
  • Ownership of learning






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