Third graders start young, but surge through yearKNAPPA - The chocolate covered cherry plops into the wooden web as it rolls to salivating students.

Alyssa Van Gundy beams as the simple machines in "Chocolate Factory" create the most complex chocolate delivery system Hilda Lahti's third graders have ever seen.

"I went to bed at, like, nine and my dad stayed up until two," Alyssa says.

Helene Fremstad's third graders built complex machines by combining two or more simple machines - inclined planes, wedges, screws, wheels and axles, pullies or levers.

Third graders in Oregon today are likewise transported through a complex machine of cursive letters, benchmark tests, square roots, geography quizzes. Students also go through mental and physical changes as well.

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Rabecca Whitted and Lacee Sollars cling to each other during a spirited game of dodgeball."They come in sort of babyish and the second half of the year ... they are more mature," says Fremstad, who teaches one of two third-grade classes at Hilda Lahti Elementary, a Kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.

She's been teaching for 24 years, many of those as a sixth-grade teacher. This is her first year teaching third-grade.

Maturing minds

For Fremstad, teaching her 24 students involves combining different disciplines into a holistic curriculum. A story in the students' reading book involved machines earlier in the year. Reading involves scientific principles, while math requires writing.

"All the textbook companies started to make sure their text books aligned with the benchmarks," she says.

Fremstad asks about the cause of problems in the story. Often, students struggle when the answers to test questions are not obvious in the reading selection, Fremstad says.

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Rabecca Whitted and Lacee Sollars cling to each other during a spirited game of dodgeball."They're so used to giving recall, kind of rote, answers," she says.

Young children can only explain basic cause-and-effect relationships, says Sara McCormick Davis, who specializes in early childhood education at Portland State University.

"As children mature, they have the ability to go back and explain why they did something," Davis says.

Young children also cannot see problems in their own logic. While teaching elementary students, Davis tested understanding of place value in double-digit numbers such as 14. Students would count 14 objects. When Davis pointed to the four, the students would count out four objects. But when she pointed to the one, they would count only one object. She would then ask them about the remaining nine tiles.

"They would say, 'Oh that doesn't matter,'" Davis says. "What I was looking for was their ability to see a problem with that."

Testing minds

When Davis taught third-grade, she would also ask her students to keep samples of their own work and compare it with other projects a few months later.

"They would say, 'Oh, I was just a baby back then,' - three months later," Davis says.

Davis says she believes one-on-one and self assessments are more effective than standardized tests.

"We force children into those standardized forms," she says. "We ruin school for a lot of those kids."

Oregon Department of Education employees balance state and federal pressure to conform to benchmark tests. Under President George Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program, all students will have to take some sort of benchmark test, says Cathy Brown, who heads ODE's math benchmarks.

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Hilda Lahti third-grader Luke Van Gundy asks for a volunteer to help with his complex machine, a Dinosaur Trapper 2000.Before, non-English speakers and those who suffer severe learning disabilities were exempt from the tests. Now the state will develop tests for all students, whether they read or not.

Fremstad's students can all read English on some level, but several are pulled out each day for special instruction. Fremstad has also split her class into two reading groups to help students at different levels. In April, they will all take the same test.

Each summer, teachers meet in Salem to refine test questions and benchmark requirements, says Bill Auty, ODE's associate superintendent for the office of assessment and evaluation. Each year, teachers try to make questions and requirements as specific as possible, he says.

Waring minds

Amid the benchmark battle are hundreds of classrooms like Fremstad's throughout the state where students struggle with other worries. During show and tell, a succession of students present their new dresses, jewelry, or dolls.

Then Katherine Leuk comes before the class. She does not have anything to show, but she has something to tell.

"I might have a new brother because my aunt and uncle, they're going to war and their son might come and live with us for about a year," Katherine says.

Students ask questions and discover the boy is 5 years old.

"They might drop poisons, so I don't know what's going to happen," says the little blonde girl.

Even third-graders know how to make a room uncomfortably silent.

Fremstad attempts to calm the students' fears.

"That's not going to happen," she says. "We're gonna hope that's not going to happen."

Expanding minds

Fremstad tries to give students the knowledge to understand word issues. This year, she has focused on improving the students' geographical sense.

"There is so little understanding of geography," she says. "'Astoria's a state' - that's where we started from."

Each day she quizzes students with a Daily Geography. The students did not study geography daily in second-grade, so she started them on a second-grade book. Students are often confused and call Japan a state and Oregon a country.

"It's just not something families talk about," Fremstad says. "I think it's a uniform issue with kids."

Many of Fremstad's classes are taught through question-and-answer sessions. Once a week, she gives students a spelling test.

"Remember we are writing in cursive," Fremstad directs the class as they number their papers one to 15.

Fremstad begins to list the words, repeating them twice: "Make, biting, making, scatter, they'll, he'll ..." During the test, some of the students listen and await Fremstad's next word. For others, listening is more difficult. One boy loses interest after only a few words, but, at least those few are in cursive handwriting.

"They've only been writing in cursive for about a week," Fremstad says. "They've been practicing letters all fall and at semester was the big jump into cursive."

Fremstad acknowledges cursive instruction may have more to do with tradition than future requirements. However, she said her students thrilled at the idea of learning the loopy letters.

"It makes them feel more like adults," she says. "Since they started doing cursive, their coloring's better. It develops their fine motor skills."

Muscles and minds

Students stretch their less fine motor skills in physical education. Under the direction of P.E. instructor Kathi Jackson, the two third-grade classes meet each day to play a new game. Regardless of the rule, the games are serious - especially for the boys defending their third-grade honor.

"Get Hayden!" David Harvey yells from "jail" - AKA the gym bleachers.

If someone tags Hayden, who is in teacher Colleen Wright's class, David can escape from jail. Before Hayden relinquishes his court time, Jackson releases the bleacher-logged students.

"Jail break!" Jackson shouts.

A dozen kids stream onto the court and the game surges again until they line up to return to their classes. As they file information, Jackson, who never says anything in a whisper, prompts: "Attitude check?"

"We feel so good all of the time," the children shout back. "We feel so fine all of the time. A-chugga, chugga, chugga!"

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