‘If I Had a Hammer’ focuses on language of math, Lansdowne students focus on putting it to good use

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Under close supervision, students hoisted precut sheets of plywood, boards, windows, and the front door; they learned to handle cordless drills and hammers; and they practiced safety first with stepladders and goggles. (Photos by Tammy L. Lane)

Under close supervision, students hoisted precut sheets of plywood, boards, windows and the front door; they learned to handle cordless drills and hammers; and they practiced safety first with stepladders and goggles. (Photos by Tammy L. Lane)

By Tammy L. Lane
Special to KyForward

In the gym at Lansdowne Elementary, fifth-graders literally hammered out the details as they constructed an 8-foot-by-11-foot, one-room, wood-frame house in about two hours. The build, in which they tackled concepts such as area, perimeter and angles, showed the students how grownups use math in the real world.

They also recognized the importance of teamwork, communication and work ethic.

“In order to build a house, you need to have a plan. But you also need a plan for your life, and education is critical,” said Perry Wilson, founder of “If I Had a Hammer.”

Wilson, who is based near Nashville, shared how he struggled with mathematics as a child. When he became a carpenter, something clicked and for the first time, he got the math. Now he uses his trade to reach kids.

Focusing on the language of math, his system relies on students grasping the concepts before attempting to add, subtract, multiply or divide in a math problem.

The Big Inch features colored blocks that students can manipulate into various combinations corresponding with math equations.

The Big Inch features colored blocks that students can manipulate into various combinations corresponding with math equations.

“Once you understand what a hypotenuse is and how to find it, then you go and find the answer (on paper),” Wilson explained. “Children need to understand math physically and visually. I want them to understand why you need it, and then the answers make sense.”

Principal Jennifer Fish pursued this project-based learning program for grades three through five with help from the Lexington-based Kloiber Foundation, which provided about $5,000 for hands-on materials and nearly $3,000 for the first year’s technology subscription (teacher prep, vocabulary videos and student apps).

The key classroom tool, called “The Big Inch,” features colored blocks that slide in a ruler tray marked with fractions of halves, fourths, eighths and sixteenths. Students can manipulate the blocks into various combinations corresponding with math equations.

“It’s easier to see it because sometimes in your head, you can’t get the exact measurements,” said 11-year-old Lauren Thompson. “If you don’t have a strong and solid foundation with fractions, you can’t do algebra or geometry or anything.”

Lauren’s teacher, Kellie Derrickson, agreed The Big Inch is a valuable tool.

“If we start little and we’re really strong with the basic concrete stuff, then when we move on and the math becomes more challenging, they can always go back and rely on that foundation. That visual in their head will stick with them,” she said.

Lauren and her classmates divided into four groups for the build activity: the red, blue, yellow and green teams. Under Wilson’s direction, they hoisted precut sheets of plywood, boards, windows and the front door; they learned to handle cordless drills and hammers; and they practiced safety first with stepladders and goggles.

Wilson paused occasionally to emphasize related points such as character and dependability. For instance, he couldn’t see all four teams at the same time, so he trusted the groups on the far side of the structure to do their tasks appropriately.

The fifth-graders were able to complete the build in about two hours.

“It’s so much more than just the math,” Fish noted. “This is another way to emphasize college and career readiness.”

Bruce Maybriar, director of professional development with the Home Builders Association of Lexington, reminded the students why doing their best always matters.

“Math is so important. If you do it wrong, the house will fall down,” he said during a break. Maybriar also offered an example of a worker who consistently measured incorrectly and wasted boards, thus costing the builder money and costing him his job. “If you don’t know the math, you can’t do the job,” he said simply.

Wilson calls fractions, measurement and scale “the big three” of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). That’s why the Lansdowne teachers are excited about how students can apply their learning.

“As I think about teaching volume and measurements in the spring, we’ll go back to fractions,” Derrickson said.

The youngsters will also complete a floorplan architectural project in which they design their dream homes at ¼-inch scale and then build 3-D cardboard models.

“You have to use imagination and creativity, and you have to have a plan,” Wilson reiterated near the end of the build. He referred not only to a house under construction but also to the students’ futures.

“I want them to understand that mathematics and science and art are tools that we use. These are subjects they’ll use to build a better life for themselves and their community,” he said, adding, “You’ll have passionate students when they understand why they’re learning it.”

Tammy L. Lane is website editor for Fayette County Public Schools.

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