Hutchison’s Third Grade Goes Walking in Memphis

by Hutchison Third Grade Teacher Maggie Haire
This has been a big year for the city of Memphis. From remembering and celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination to appearing in the network TV show This Is Us, our city has so much to show and tell. As much as the third grade students and teachers loved our Colonial America unit, we realized there was another unit of study that deserved attention… our city.
Working with my colleagues Mrs. Glenn and Mrs. Robison, we planned, implemented, and assessed a cross-curricular unit that we referred to as The Memphis Project. Using project-based learning, which has students working over an extended period of time on a project that engages them in real-world problem solving, we learned everything we could about the city that we call home. In the end, our girls demonstrated their knowledge and skills by developing a presentation for a real audience. The result of this kind of learning is that students develop deep content knowledge as well as critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills in the context of doing an authentic, meaningful project. It’s a project they’ll likely remember forever.
We started by asking ourselves what we wanted our students to gain from this experience. We knew that it was important for our girls to understand and appreciate our city’s history. We wanted them to be knowledgeable of Memphis beyond their windows. We wanted the girls to learn research skills and empathize with others. We wanted to offer authentic opportunities to apply literacy, math, science, and engineering skills. Finally, we wanted the girls to leave this experience knowing how to successfully collaborate with peers. This can be really hard for a room of eight year olds who all think they have the best idea.

Learning About the Past

So…what would this look like? First, we learned a little bit about the city’s history. We felt it was important for them to appreciate how far Memphis has come and how much further we still need to go. Thanks to a grant from the Perre Magness Series, the girls stepped back in time with Backbeat Tours on a historic walking tour of downtown Memphis. In short, we started at Court Square and then headed towards the river. The girls marveled at the fact that the Mississippi was partly responsible for both the spread of yellow fever that nearly wiped out the city, as well as making Memphis a major player in the cotton trade. We crossed General Washburn’s Escape Alley (I bet you’ve crossed it making your way down Main and didn’t know it), and then a final left onto Union brought us to the Peabody Hotel. Afterwards, Aldo’s Pizza was brave enough to host the entire third grade for lunch on the patio. This was such an entertaining way for the girls to learn about the resiliency of Memphis and her people. I’ve decided I’ll go on a historical tour in every city I visit from now on.
Back in the classroom, it was time for a little reflection. We asked the girls to think about what they learned about Memphis, if knowing our city’s past was important, and if so, why? We were impressed by their responses:

“If we didn’t know anything about the past, we would have a hard time understanding why some things in Memphis are happening now.”

“I really liked learning about yellow fever. It was gross because it almost killed everyone in the city. They had to work hard and help each other so they could have a city again.”

“It’s important to know the past so you know where your city came from.”

“I think people need to know about our city’s past so we can learn what the city went through and not have the same mistakes happen.”

Valentina Cochran talks with Hutchison's 3rd graders

Studying What’s Happening Now in Memphis

Next, we invited Memphians who could add to our perspective and understanding of the city and learn about things that are happening right now. McLean Wilson, principal at Kemmons Wilson and co-leader of the re-development efforts of the Sears Crosstown Redevelopment Project, explained the project and walked us through the process. The girls loved seeing the before and after pictures and learning about the details of such a complicated, long-term project. They were fascinated by the amount of collaboration that this refurbish entailed. We also invited Beale Street developer John Elkington to chat with the girls about Memphis past and present. During this time, the girls were also investigating area and perimeter in math, so we asked Valentina Cochran, managing partner of Architecture, Inc., to come talk to us about what working with numbers looks life in real life, as well as her role in the city’s development.

Using What We Know to Ask Questions

We then asked the girls to consider everything they knew and had learned and brainstorm people, places, and buildings that are unique to Memphis. They were excited to see such an extensive list of what makes Memphis the diverse, entertaining, resilient city that it is today. We wanted the girls to have an authentic (and meaningful) reason to learn how to choose a topic, create driving questions that guide their project, research it, compile data, and share results, all while applying spelling, editing, and revising skills that they learned in English earlier in the year.

Student in living museum
The next step was for the girls to choose someone, something, or somewhere unique to Memphis on which to become an expert. After weeks of researching and organizing data that was guided by driving questions, third graders created the Living Memphis Museum! Girls invited Lower School peers and third grade parents to the living museum and shared their expertise of their chosen topic dressed as everyone from Elvis to Billy “Spook” Murphy to Mayor Strickland. Living buildings included The Civil Rights Museum, The Orpheum, Memphis bridges, the Pyramid, and FedEx Forum to name a few.

Allowing our third graders to go “walking in Memphis” enabled them to not only strengthen academic skills in an authentic manner, but to also develop research and collaboration skills. Most importantly though, seeing Memphis past and present and working closely with each other allowed the girls to genuinely develop empathy, both for their classmates, and the city’s ancestors. As the Hutchison mission states, in addition to academics, we are educating our girls for success and “for lives of integrity and responsible citizenship” that will guide them in their futures.


Maggie Haire has been a teacher at Hutchison for 10 years. She holds a Bachelor of Science in elementary education from Spring Hill College and a Master of Education from Harding University. Before teaching at Hutchison, she taught in Memphis City Schools and at Grace Episcopal School, an independent school in Alexandria, Virginia.

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