By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — The last couple of days before holiday vacation are difficult ones for instruction, as any teacher will attest. Especially for young students, thoughts of cookies, gifts, and often travel make focusing on math, social studies and reading a difficult task.
But the second-grade teachers at Rosendale Elementary in Niskayuna aren’t eager to waste learning time, so they’ve created a tradition that combines holiday excitement with critical skills. The unlikely focal point of these lessons is a colorful village of miniature “gingerbread houses” built from cardboard and paint, so they last longer than their edible counterparts.
On the Monday before break, Dec. 22, family members were invited to the auditorium to see the final project and enjoy some holiday songs, too. Even siblings from other classrooms at Rosendale were invited to the performance.
Standing alongside his mother, Amanda Romero, and his grandmother Betsy Nejman, Matthew Romero, a second-grader at Rosendale, shyly pointed out his contribution: a construction-orange two-family home.
“We built our houses, then we built the businesses, then we made the land,” he said, describing a creative process that took place over a number of weeks in the school’s second-grade classrooms.
Parents were involved in the miniature village’s construction, too. Matthew’s mom visited weekly to help out on during her days off from work on Fridays.
She usually helped with the math part of the learning process, though kids might not have thought of it that way: Each group had a set amount of play money to spend on supplies and furnishings for the gingerbread houses, like tiny couches and rugs. They had to make budgets, tracking their funds as they went along.
Second grader Grace McKee said she liked the planning part, despite the fact that it was a math lesson in disguise.
“If we needed yarn, we would have to write down how many pieces of yarn, and we would have to add them up,” she said, explaining how she helped her group made a budget.
Grace said she also especially enjoyed the final touches, like a hot-pink coat of paint on the house she helped to build.
Jean Winkler, Rosendale’s principal, said there were social studies and writing lessons tucked into the project, too.
The children both read and wrote stories and poetry about gingerbread. They also discussed the many different parts of a community as they built, a lesson in social studies.
Winkler said she wasn’t sure exactly how long the tradition had been going on, but she knew it has grown over the years.
“Back in the day they set this up in the classrooms,” she said, gesturing to the sprawling gingerbread town.
Eventually, the creation moved to the auditorium because so many family members wanted to come and see the final product.
Participating in the gingerbread village is something of a rite of passage for students at Rosendale. Matthew Romero’s older sister, Paige, who’s now in fourth grade, had her turn a couple of years ago. Nejman, their grandmother, considered the event a landmark.
“I have been able to watch them progress,” she said.
Winkler agreed. She sometimes has lunch with the fifth-grade students so she can learn more about them, and she said they often talk about how much fun they had with the gingerbread project.
“It’s one of those things kids remember,” she said.