Everyday Education - Can It Be Learning If It's Fun (And Delicious)?


January 9, 2017

Perhaps you were fortunate enough to see the various stories and photos, or even visit Pisgah Forest Elementary School before Christmas, during their gingerbread Community of Brevard STEAM project. All those happy children surrounded by the gingerbread replicas of Brevard, the Cradle of Forestry, the Allison Deaver House, and Pisgah Forest Elementary were certainly a joyous holiday story.

Sure, this was obviously a "fun" project, complete with sticky fingers and an occasional taste of a peppermint. It probably made that long stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas (for children!) go more quickly. But why would an entire school devote so much class time to building and decorating gingerbread houses? What were the children learning?

The short answer is that they were learning a lot! Overall, I counted a total of 41 standards that first through fourth graders addressed as they worked on this project. From the first grade's Community Helpers unit (they made replicas of the fire station and the police station) to the second graders focusing on Needs and Wants (as they mapped and measured the downtown stores like Harris Ace Hardware, Blue Ridge and Bracken Mountain bakeries, and O.P. Taylor's) to the third graders' unit on government (they built replicas of the public library, city hall, the courthouse, and the municipal building) to the fourth graders' study of Historical Places (one fourth grade class researched the Cradle of Forestry while the other targeted the Allison Deaver House), all met one or more social studies, math, English language arts, and/or technology standards as mandated by the North Carolina Standard Course of Study.

The entire project also highlighted a broader focus: STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). Students had to figure out how to draw the patterns accurately; actually construct the buildings; lay out the town; locate the stores in relationship to the streets, the town, and each other; and decide what edible materials could best represent the building facades. These tasks forced students to think like scientists, engineers, and mathematicians while employing their problem-solving, artistic and technological skills to actually construct and decorate their gingerbread houses.

For a closer look at how this project-based learning evolves in the classroom, let's examine the entire process that led to Sabrina Rhodes' class' construction of the Cradle of Forestry.

It started with each child learning about the history of the Cradle by reading about it in the Cradle of Forestry Field Guide. Rhodes prepared close reading questions to ensure that each student understood the Cradle's history. (Close reading is just that: a careful reading of the text to develop a deep understanding of the information and how it's written.)

She then divided the students into six groups. Each group was assigned a building to research and report. This reporting included learning new computer skills like changing color and font and uploading pictures as they created a slide that would be included in the class presentation about the history of the Cradle and its buildings.

When it came time to transfer their knowledge into gingerbread houses, each group was asked to carefully analyze their structures. How many windows and doors did it have? Where were they placed? How large were they in relationship to the rest of the building? What kind of roof did it have? Where were the paths and water sources? How long or wide were they?

Then they happily tapped into their creativity. What materials could they use to imitate the original construction? Pretzels for logs? (How many would they need?) What kind? (Sticks? Rods? Squares for the roof?) What about shredded wheat for a thatched roof or twizzlers for a tin roof? What if they melted Jolly Ranchers to make the pond and did the same with peppermint candies to make the snowy paths? Their assignment was to create a planning list and submit it to Mrs. Rhodes so she could make sure all the materials were available.

As you can imagine, this took a great deal of collaboration among teachers, the school's media specialist, the instructional technology facilitator and parents. Just gathering the supplies invol-ved parent contributions, with teachers filling in the gaps. Students used 800 ice cream cones to make trees that landscaped the town, the school, the Cradle and the Allison Deaver House! When a teacher needed more candy or cereal or crackers, someone else - either a fellow teacher or a parent - provided. It was a loaves and fishes experience for the entire school!

And the entire school it was. Media Specialist Tammy Ducker made sure each child understood the process of building and decorating the elementary school gingerbread replica, and did it. During library time, they walked the halls together to begin to understand the building layout. They walked outside to see how the school was sited on the land-driveways, walkways, the playgrounds. Then they examined aerial views of the school, talking about what they were seeing differently from above than from the ground. They measured and drew, brainstormed construction materials, spread icing, and carefully added gumdrops, candy canes, lifesavers, and cereal squares to create their gingerbread school. Yes, the adults cut out the cardboard, but the children provided measurements, drawings and decorations.

Lots of work, hours of planning both on the teachers' and students' parts, and (quite frankly) messes big and little. Was it worth it? Did they learn? You bet!

Academically, teachers addressed at least 41 standards and every STEM area; they targeted the soft (if essential) skills of decision making, self-motivation, teamwork, creativity, problem-solving and time management. Students practiced a variety of communication skills, from explaining ideas to each other and listening to others' ideas to explaining to visitors the processes they were using, why they chose the materials, and what they were learning. Teachers could talk about the difficulty of some of the assignments and how their students had "pushed through" because they were interested and excited to create the town and its surroundings. Students were able to tackle challenges because they had a realistic goal-a beautiful product to share with the community that showed off what they had learned. The gingerbread Community of Brevard STEAM project was an academic and holiday event to remember!

(Frances Bryant Bradburn is the 1:1 Teaching and Learning Consultant as part of a Golden LEAF Found-ation grant to the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Caro-lina State University.)


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