Holday tradition turns into way to make every minute count for elementary teachers

Hands-on learning is always fun, especially when it involves instruments like candy buttons, gumdrops, Red Hots and creamy white frosting.

With walls of graham crackers and chimneys of candy canes and red licorice, Mid Valley Elementary School fifth-graders were hard at work this week constructing a Willy Wonka suburb of cookie-cutter gingerbread houses. The annual finger-licking holiday tradition took a twist for the class this year, however, as students were no longer cut loose with building materials and a one-time "get out of jail free card" for eating candy in class.

First, Geometry.

"It's a tradition we wanted to keep," said teacher Judith Holt-Mohar. "But with higher math standards and tests, we have to find ways to turn something like this into more than just a fun holiday activity. So we're using it to introduce students to geometry and simple formulas."

While studying formulas for surface area and volume of three-dimensional objects, students first constructed houses out of paper and learned how to determine the number of small cubes that would fit on and inside of them. Only then could they move on to graham cracker walls and Skittles ceilings.

"We have to make every minute count," Holt-Mohar said. "What we're learning in this lesson is just an introduction. By the end of the school year they will face more difficult questions in geometry and math."

In a move to prepare students for the increased challenges of the new Common Core State Standards and the Oregon Diploma, the Oregon State Board of Education voted in 2010 to increase math achievement standards grades 3-8. The change went into effect in the 2010-11 school year.

Recommendations by a panel of experts were to increase the level of math students are expected to know in elementary and middle school to create better alignment between the lower grades and the new high school graduation requirements for math.

The Oregon Department of Education noted that although the raised bar will initially result in fewer students meeting the achievement standards, it is necessary in order to ready students for the state's new graduation requirements. The department explained that, "fewer students meeting the achievement standard will not mean students know less than they did the year before or that they are doing worse in school. The new achievement standards simply require a higher level of mastery of mathematics information and concepts."

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