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Building Blocks: The Formative Years—3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th Grade [Close-Up / City of Fairfax Schools]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story, January-February 2007

INSIGHTS INTO EDUCATION: K-12—THE FORMATIVE YEARS What students need to know by the end of 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th Grade

SECOND in a four-part series

Superintendent George Stepp wants to help parents Begin at the End. So in the last issue of Close-Up we offered some guidelines by reviewing The Foundation Years: Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades. In this issue we’re tackling the Formative Years: 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grades.

“The ultimate goal is to keep every door open for students,” Stepp says, and suggests parents do this by envisioning what their kids will be doing the September after their senior year of high school — then start planning accordingly.

“The elementary school years set the stage for how well children will do in the critical middle and high school years,” he says. “They need to be able to read well and they need to have mastered the basics of math. With those skills under their belts, I am confident they’ll be able to take honors and Advanced Placement classes.”

On the following pages, you’ll meet teachers from Daniels Run and Providence elementary schools who offer insights into what children need to master by the time they finish elementary school.

3rd GRADE: Preparing for the first SOL

Jane Dull and Sara Diekemper know just how important 3rd grade is for students. After all, this is the first year they take the important Standards of Learning (SOL) exam and to prepare them, teachers have a lot to cover.

“This year we teach multiplication, division, cursive, five ancient cultures, eight strands of science — including new vocabulary words, plus economics and Latin,” says Dull, a veteran teacher, who admits that although 3rd grade is a challenge to teach, it is a joy, too.

“It’s a big step to go from 2nd to 3rd grade, but we watch these kids grow so much from September to June and it is just fantastic,” Dull shares. “They are only 8 and 9 years old and we expect a lot from them. But it’s amazing what they can do.”

Interactive notebooks are one of the tools teachers use to help 3rd graders master the curriculum. And although the concept sounds high-tech, it is really a hands-on activity that promotes creativity and organization.
“Interactive notebooks encourage students to process information, combine words and visuals, and demonstrate critical thinking,” explains Dull, noting all that is needed is a spiral notebook, pencil, scissors, glue — concentration and imagination.

Teachers provide the essential information during classroom time, including vocabulary and basic knowledge questions.

Students then define and illustrate terms, ask and answer questions, brainstorm, and when appropriate use concept maps, flow charts, Venn diagrams, graphs, charts — just about anything that will provide a visual reference to remember the information.

“It’s a powerful tool,” Diekemper insists. “Parents can be a great study partner when they encourage their child to ‘story tell’ based on the illustrations the child created in the classroom.”

She also believes parents play an essential role by making education a top priority — especially when they take they show a sincere interest in the curriculum. And, equally importantly, the teachers say, is for parents to encourage their kids throughout the year to do their personal best.

“Everything we teach has one goal and that is to prepare kids for life,” Dull concludes “They need to be able to think critically, be able to understand complex ideas, and take disappointment. It’s a big job, and a worthwhile ambition.”

4th GRADE: Mastering Independence

Elementary agrees that one of the most important goals of this year is to help students become independent learners.

“We want them to learn to read independently, be able to do their math work independently, and make connections between what they do in those two core subjects with the material we are teaching in social studies and science,” says Linda Grupenhagen, who works closely with the other 4th grade teachers that include Mary DeSantis, Jennifer Wills, Joanna Moore and Abbey Falkey.

They realize it’s a tall order to get all 4th graders to master the grown-up concept of independence, but it is an age appropriate skill — and a necessary milestone for 9 and 10 year olds, the teachers insist. And one of the best ways parents can help open up a child’s world and make them more independent is to take them on field trips.

“This entire year in social studies we focus on Virginia history, and it is the perfect time to pack a lunch on a weekend and head out to one of the many state battlefields, and to the historic spots in Alexandria and Fairfax and Manassas,” Joanna Moore suggests. Plus, because plants and planets are a big part of the 4th grade curriculum, family trips to the National Arboretum or any planetarium or observatory will help reinforce what children are learning at school.
“You’ll be amazed at how big an impact parents can have when they help students make real life and real world connections,” says Abbey Falkey.

“They can learn a lesson by making change at the supermarket, measuring all the ingredients to make a batch of cookies, and drawing comparisons to their own lives based on an experience that the main character had in the book that they have read aloud to Mom or Dad.”

The key, says Mary DeSantis, is to always look for those incredible teachable moments when a lesson isn’t just all talk but is really going to sink in.

“Parents should be on the lookout for those ah-ha moments, and it might mean taking kids to the National Archives after they have watched the movie National Treasure, or to the Air & Space Museum to visit the shuttle after they have seen a rocket launch. The key to learning is to connect children with what amazes them.”

5th GRADE: Owning the information

Trish Amos knows the importance of finding teachable moments. The Providence Elementary 5th grade teacher will do just about anything she can think of to get information to make connections — from getting assistance from the Marshmallow Fairy to singing and dancing to a little ditty she made up called the “Rounding Up Rap.”

“The goal for this year is for kids to take charge of their own education,” says Amos, who believes it is her job to give them every tool she can think of to accomplish that mission.
Getting them organized tops her priority list, and that includes their school desk, home desk and how they organize information in their minds.

“Once they have a place for every paper, test and school supply, they won’t have to spend tons of time looking for things,” Amos believes. “Instead, they get down to work.”

Amos’ favorite approach is to provide students with binders and dividers that mark each subject they are learning. Another essential tool is a giant calendar where they can mark down test dates, due dates for homework, and other important things they need to finish.
Reading aloud to Mom and Dad is always time well spent, Amos adds.

“When a parent is right there, it’s easier to ask, ‘what does that word mean?’”

How should students fit all their homework and activities into a busy day? “Develop a routine and stick with it,” the teacher insists. “Have a specific time every night to do homework, get papers signed and read. I know it isn’t easy with the busy lives everyone leads, but if kids can get into a groove it’ll be easier to get their work done — and it’ll be a lot less stressful.”

Amos’ cardinal rule is to make education fun, so she has a few other ideas how parents can make learning a pleasure. In her classroom, for instance, there are three boxes that students can drop a note into each day: concern, question, and compliment. Amos takes 20 minutes after lunch to open the notes and have a discussion with the class.

“It is their favorite time of the day and if I ever forget, they are quick to remind me,” she says. “They learn to be very good problem-solvers, and to me that is what makes a good student — and a successful person. Maybe families could set up their own three boxes at home and have similar problem-solving sessions.”

6th GRADE: Preparing for Middle School

This is the year every child waits FOR from the day they walk through the school door in kindergarten: 6th grade. It’s the year they rule the school — and the last one they’ll have to prepare for that all-important milestone, middle school.

Daniels Run 6th grade teachers Melissa Tobey and Christy Stephenson know the importance of sending kids out the door in June knowing how to take notes and learn from a textbook or lecture. They also want them to organize their thoughts and books — even when they have multiple teachers — and master how to learn best regardless if they click with a teacher’s personal style.

“The three things we expect students to be able to do is to be responsible, independent, and self-motivated,” Tobey explains. “It may seem like we’re being tough, but when students get to middle school no one is going to be chasing them around seeing that they get their work done or giving them a second chance.”

It is critical that students master these essential skills, explains Stephenson. And parents can help.

“We try to get the students to start thinking ahead in terms of materials, organization, and being prepared. Next year, they will be expected to come to class prepared, and it won’t be a matter of going right to their back pack to grab something,” she says.

That means parents should work closely with their kids to be sure they know what it means to study well and be organized. “Although it’s a skill that is taught at school, it needs to be reinforced at home,” Stephenson insists. The good news is that once students get a grip on how to work efficiently, their self-esteem goes through the roof.

“We want students to be proud of themselves and their accomplishments, and we want them to be their own best cheerleaders,” Tobey concludes. “Once they start to see the relationship between trying hard, studying, and accomplishing their goals — they’ll be ready for anything that lies ahead.”

To learn more about all the grade level objectives, download documents from the following informative websites: www.fcps.edu/DIS/guide/es/index.htm www.pen.k12.va.us/go/sols/home.shtm.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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