Starla Pointer / News-Register##Gracie Ettleman and Grace Volz put their heads together to come up with details for a writing project.
Starla Pointer / News-Register##Gracie Ettleman and Grace Volz put their heads together to come up with details for a writing project.
Starla Pointer / News-Register##Fifth-grade teacher Erik Svec, center, discusses a writing project with fifth-graders. Each member of this team is using one of the class Chromebooks.
Starla Pointer / News-Register##Fifth-grade teacher Erik Svec, center, discusses a writing project with fifth-graders. Each member of this team is using one of the class Chromebooks.
Starla Pointer / News-Register##Serious about their classroom studies, fifth-graders like Gracie Ettleman, Grace Volz and Ariana Elias enjoy themselves at recess by playing games, swinging, climbing or hanging out with friends.
Starla Pointer / News-Register##Serious about their classroom studies, fifth-graders like Gracie Ettleman, Grace Volz and Ariana Elias enjoy themselves at recess by playing games, swinging, climbing or hanging out with friends.
By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Fifth-grade laughter and learning

By fifth grade, students are serious about learning — they’re already thinking ahead to college and careers, as well as to middle school — but they still love joking and having fun.


“Through the year, fifth-graders really develop their sense of humor,” said teacher Erik Svec, who often shares laughter with his fifth-grade class at Columbus Elementary. “They understand higher forms of humor, like sarcasm and a sense of timing,” he said.


Case in point: On a recent Wednesday, Svec and his students were discussing a section of “Woodsong,” by Gary Paulsen, in which the author sees a bear dipping into his stash of supplies. He lobs a branch toward the animal, hoping to scare it away, but instead the bear lets him know who’s really in charge.


As the lesson concluded, the teacher asked fifth-graders what the bear encounter taught the author.
With perfect timing, Aiden Olsen quipped, “Don’t throw a stick at a bear.”


Everyone laughed, as they do many times a day. But they work diligently, as well, and make sure to follow the classroom rules Svec posted prominently on one wall:


“1. Follow directions quickly.


2. Raise your hand for permission to speak.


3. Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat.


4. Make smart choices.


5. Keep your dear teacher happy.”


The combination of laughter and learning leads many students to say fifth is their favorite grade. 


“We learn a lot more stuff,” Ariana Elias said. “But we have to work hard.”


Mia Peckron said she likes this year’s curriculum, which ranges from studying gravity and other forces in science to comparing and contrasting different types of literature. And her classmates agree — enthusiastic about their lessons, they groan when one ends, yet quickly become engaged in the next.


Grace Volz said she particularly enjoys working with decimals in fifth grade.


And, in fact, her class was practicing adding, subtracting and multiplying with decimals that very day. 


Not everyone realized it, though. Some thought they were just having fun.


Svec had announced that morning — to his students’ delight — that today was rental day. Each fifth-grader started with $58 in pretend money, and they had to rent anything they needed during the day, making sure not to exhaust their funds.


A desk rented for $25.76 and a chair cost another $14.32, so right away each student was down to $17.92. They had to think carefully about their spending the rest of the day.


If they had to rent a pencil, it would set them back $5.11; they would need to use it gently, because sharpening would cost another $1.35. Did they really want that drink of water for $3.61? And did they need to leave the room during class, at a cost of $6.24, or could they wait until recess when the charge was waived?


Asking a question cost .99 cents, but questions also could earn 99 cents, giving them more leeway in their budgets.


Fifth-graders loved it. They carefully recorded all their expenditures, subtracting from their starting amount. And they eagerly kept one another informed about their faux finances.


The decimal lesson also sparked thinking about how they could economize. 


During their writing lesson, for instance, they worked in teams of four or five. Ariana, Grace, Gracie Ettleman and Olivia Nordman decided to use Chromebooks so they could type, share their work and edit as they went. But renting four Chromebooks was exhorbitantly expensive — $2.47 each, or $9.88 in all.


They decided to share two between the four of them, splitting the $4.94 cost four ways, about $1.24 each. 


The writing assignment was an exercise in point of view, which they’d talked about earlier during their reading of “Woodsong.”


The book is written from the author’s point of view, the teacher noted. What about writing from the point of view of the bear?


Students oooh’d with excitement -- they like writing, especially when they can put their personalities into their work.


“If the bear went home and told other bears about his day, what would the conversation be like?” Svec asked, encouraging his students to think creatively and come up with some interesting dialogue.


“Can we put silly stuff in the story?” Ryan McCome asked.


Sure, if it’s part of the character or narrative, Svec said. Maybe the bear acts like a human would, for instance. “What is it when we give an animal human characteristics?” the teacher asked.


Kolby Fleetwood raised his hand. “Personification,” he said. 


Students quickly got to work on their bear stories. 


Ariana, Grace, Olivia and Gracie, who call their team “The Smarties,” set up their two Chromebooks. They decided the first step would be to get to know their character.


They named him Gizmo and, after looking up the life expectancy of bears, decided he is 20 years old. He has a cub — no, two cubs, a boy named who’s 7 years old and a girl who’s 5 — and a wife, who’s also 20.


They discussed Gizmo in the third person — “He was taking a walk and he saw that guy with a beard,” they said, referring to Gary Paulson. “He called the bearded guy ‘Hairy.’”


But when they began typing, they used the first-person, as if Gizmo was speaking “I was taking a walk...” They kept the title in first-person as well, “My Journey Walk.”


As the story began, each girl brought up questions and suggested answers. Why was he taking a walk? What time of day was it? What did he smell? What did he think when he saw Hairy? What other animals did he see, and what did he think of them?


Svec stopped by as the girls were tossing around ideas. “I’m hearing a lot of discussion, a lot of understanding about what was happening in the story,” he said. “Remember, I’m looking for lots of details.”


Checking out the girls’ rough draft, he noticed a possible typing error. “The tree had a square that looked delicious,” he read aloud, exaggerating the mistake.


“A squirrel! A squirrel that looked delicious!” Grace said, and she and her friends collapsed in laughter. In fact, Grace laughed so hard, she slowly slipped off her chair.


Her teacher teased, “We’ll have to get you a seatbelt.”


As their laughter petered out, Ariana noticed another problem with their story. “That needs to be indented,” she said, pointing to the beginning of a sentence.


“Why?” Svec asked.


“It’s a new paragraph,” she said.


Not long after, Svec announced the end of writing time.


“Five more minutes?” a boy asked, words echoed by classmates. The teacher agreed.


This happens a lot, Ariana said — her class never wants writing time to end. “Writing is fun, especially just writing freely,” she said.


Although they didn’t want writing to end, the fifth-graders were eager to talk about science. They’ve been learning about gravity, mass, weight and air resistance and other aspects of physics.


They’ve tried dropping items of different weights to see which falls fastest. All things being equal, they said, objects fall at the same rate. But if other factors come into play, that can change — for instance, something with a large surface area will fall more slowly than something compact, because of the difference in air resistance.


Today’s science class included a physics video featuring a Disney imagineer, an engineer who designs rides at the famous theme park.
“This is a job!” Svec said, encouraging students to think about all the opportunities they’ll have if they concentrate on their studies.


Xander Hooper saw it from a different perspective. “And your life depends on it,” he joked, pointing out that the designer had better know what he’s doing.


Another student wondered what happens if the imagineers come up with a design that doesn’t work. “Oh, they don’t test things on people the first time,” Svec said breezily, teasing again. “The first time, they just test them on fifth-graders.”


His students laughed.


Seriously, Svec returned to the subject of science-related careers. When he asked fifth-graders if they’d enjoy a job like that, almost every hand went up.


“You’ll can sign up for STEM classes in middle school,” he told them. “And in high school, you could be in EASA,” the engineering and aerospace sciences academy.


“To be in EASA, you have to be good at writing, reading, math AND science,” he said, “and you get to do projects that are pretty amazing.”


He pushed “play” to resume the video. A few minutes later, when the clock showed it was time for lunch, he stopped it, although it wasn’t finished yet.


“Noooooo!” students cried, reluctant to pause in their learning.

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