Teachers often say they learn as much from their students as the students learn from them.
Since 2004, Kathy Johnstone and her students have been learning together. The lesson: 1 million is a big number.
Johnstone, who teaches sixth grade at Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy in Ashford, thought collecting those colorful plastic tabs that come with bread bags would be a good way to teach students the meaning behind large numbers.
“I said I would get 1 million bread tabs before I retire,” Johnstone said.
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But now, with retirement only about two years away, the project appears to be coming up short, with only 559,000.
So she and her students are putting the word out: If you have a drawer full of these things at home (and who doesn’t?), don’t send them to the landfill. Send them to Columbia Crest and Johnstone’s sixth-graders instead.
The News Tribune first learned about the great bread tab quest last year, when we visited the school for a story on Columbia Crest’s focus on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. Since then, the Eatonville School District campus has added an arts focus as well, giving rise to the A-STEM part of its name.
Last week, one of Johnstone’s students, Kjellsen Nykreim, sent us an email to let us know about the project’s renewed sense of urgency and the website connected to it: milliontabs.com.
“I really think that the bread tab project is a fun, but still educational project,” Kjellsen said. “I will miss counting the bread tabs and having cool discussions about them when I leave sixth grade.”
Johnstone developed a system for keeping track of the growing collection that also serves as a math lesson. As tabs are collected, students put them in stacks of 10. When there are 10 stacks of 10, the 100 tabs are placed in a clear plastic cup. At the 10-cup level, the tabs move into a plastic tub. There are also larger designated containers for the 10,000 and 100,000 levels.
Johnstone used the cup and tub system to teach students about scientific notation in math class. She uses the tabs to illustrate large numbers in other subjects as well.
“It’s a graphic representation of the number, and it makes it more real,” she said.
Tab intake has fluctuated over the years, with most years averaging about 50,000.
“My record year was 130,000,” she said.
All Columbia Crest kids are invited to participate, as are others in the community. High season for tab collection is right after the winter holiday break because students receive tabs from visiting relatives.
Johnstone had one local couple who used to bring in 20,000 at a time. She has also sought tabs from a Costco deli.
She said she’s confident that students can reach the million mark. Columbia Crest won’t be the first school to do it; she knows of at least one other school in Canada that’s done it. Still, she plans to celebrate.
“When the time comes, we are going to have a party,” Johnstone said. The tabs will be used to make mosaics, create jewelry and play games.
But in the end, she hopes the tabs can all go back into their tubs for future students to use.
“I’d kind of like to keep the display together,” Johnstone said. “The impact of seeing all those bread tabs — it’s pretty great.”