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Judy Spooner Viewpoint: In fifth grade, learning is fast-moving

When parents of today's fifth-graders were in elementary school, none of them had access to a home computer. As students for 50 years before them, except for overhead projectors, learning was pencil-paper-blackboard, not the computer SMART boards of today, but ones made of gray slate.

Did they learn as much as their sons and daughters are required to know now? The answer is "no." It's not because of their teachers, but because in the 21st century students have to know more, learn it faster and be adept with technology.

Grey Cloud Elementary School fifth-grade teachers gave me some examples of questions their students were confronted with on last year's Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests. If you can't answer the word quizzes on the back page of "Reader's Digest," you're not going to do well.

In a reading test, students are instructed to read stories and answer questions that include word definitions. Here are a few:

n The meaning of "vast" is A) cold B) large C) beautiful or D) watery. The answer is B.

n The word "wedge" means A) something that slips B) something that divides C) something that sinks or D) something that melts. The answer is B.

n The word "futile means A) useless B) exciting C) important D) cold. The answer is A.

n The word "terrain" means A) ground B) fear C) snowshoes or D) checkpoint. The answer is A.

n The word endurance means A) natural talent B) a difficult problem C) a long distance or D) strength to keep going. The answer is D.

If you did well on the vocabulary test, you are on par with this year's fifth-graders. You might also be able to keep up in Cindy Krueger's reading class.

I enjoy being read to, but when a teacher reads to students, there is what my mother used to call "a method in their madness."

Teachers stop and ask vocabulary questions. It creates habits in young readers not to skip over a word they don't understand and to question what a sentence means when they are reading alone.

"Thumbs up if you know what a spiral is," she said the day I was in her class.

Moving on to a workbook, students read an article about the White House. "Remember to read all the charts, graphs, lists and captions," she told them. "Five toe touches when you are done."

Exercise is linked to learning. Between lessons, teachers might ask students to do five jumping jacks, for example.

Kids don't have to raise their hands to talk if a teacher is having a conversation with students about a lesson. When students are engaged, they naturally take turns and listen to each other.

Krueger's class moved like an express train. Kids were either reading, thinking, listening or moving.

The point of today's lesson about fifth-graders is that learning is complicated now. Before they leave public school, they'll need to master how to find information and use it in college or technical school or they won't succeed.