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Building Blocks: The Foundation Years—kindergarten, 1st, 2nd Grade [Close-Up / City of Fairfax Schools]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story, November-December 2006

What students need to know by the end of kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade

FIRST in a four-part series

In the last issue of Close-Up we talked about the importance of Beginning at the End. For no matter what grade a child is in today, Superintendent George Stepp believes parents need to start thinking about the courses that child will be taking in 12th grade.

“Parents need to envision what their kids will be doing the September after their senior year of high school and start planning accordingly now,” Stepp explains.

To help families accomplish that goal, this article and following three cover stories of Close-Up will focus on Building Blocks: The milestones children need to hit by the end of each grade so they can successfully move to the next level — and eventually take the toughest courses they can handle in high school.

We begin with the first of four Building Blocks: Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade. On the following pages, you’ll meet terrific teachers from Daniels Run and Providence Elementary schools who offer insights into what children need to master.

Each one also suggests a practical tip that parents can try with their children at home to help keep them on target.

“Our hope is that if parents know more about what is happening at each grade level, they can better plan for the future,” Stepp says. “It’s all about teamwork.”

KINDERGARTEN: You can do it!

It’s Providence Elementary kindergarten teacher Leanne Strubhar’s favorite phrase: “You can do it.” In fact, she repeats it so often to the 5-year-old students in her class that they don’t seem to know otherwise. And the results are incredible.

In only the first two months of school, she has managed to teach every child in her class how to compose a single sentence story using a four-section grid.

“We begin our writing process by drawing a picture in the upper left hand corner of the page,” she explains. “In the upper right hand corner, the children write one to three sentences, doing their best to sound out the words. In the bottom left hand corner, we talk about their writing, pointing out things they did very well — such as putting spaces between words. Then I rewrite the sentence in ‘teacher writing’ and circle one sight word for them to practice. In the last box, they write their final draft.”

The approach is powerful, and Strubhar suggests parents try it at home with their kids. And here’s another idea: turn everything into a song. “It’s funny when people come into my room because the kids and I are always walking around singing.” T-H-E spells the or thee.’ The repetition makes information stick. We have songs for the days of the week, months of the year — anything the kids need to memorize.”

For Daniels Run kindergarten teacher Susan Lubic, another key to getting a child to learn is to dance, touch and manipulate materials. The goal, she says, is to do just about anything that gets a child’s brain and body involved in the learning process.

“Kindergartners are at the perfect age to soak up all the information you offer, so long as you make it fun,” Lubic explains. “I always encourage parents to play along, too.”

For instance, Lubic suggests that instead of drilling letters of the alphabet with children, parents should encourage kids to make letters out of play dough, write their names and simple words on the driveway with sidewalk chalk, and get down on the floor and shape their bodies into an L or M.

“Once you start doing that, worksheets and computer games pale in comparison,” she insists, and uses dozens of other hands-on strategies, as well. “The goal is simply to have them make connections to the everyday things they enjoy.”

Hands-on learning is also important in 1st grade, says Daniels Run team leader Denise Beckner. “Listening to poetry and songs helps students play with language and master sounds, rhyme, and rhythm. Students will use these important skills when they read and write. Parents can read poetry and play music at home to encourage their kids. It’s important because poetry and songs help kids get excited about reading and passionate about learning.”

Helping children develop that passion — and make real life connections early — is Beckner’s goal.

“There are opportunities for kids to learn everywhere they go. Have them count tomatoes at the store as they put them into a bag, which is math; and when they are helping rake the yard have them compare seasonal leaves, which is science.”

1st GRADE: Learning to love to learn

At Providence Elementary, 1st grade team leader Jamie Cayea believes the greatest gift a parent can give a child is love for the written word. “Once they can read, they can do anything, so it’s not an option in my class that the kids don’t have their noses in books every night,” she explains. Easy chapter books are ideal — the ones with four sentences on a page, and a picture, for this helps them “decode” the message. When the book is finished, have children retell the story.

“Don’t just put the book down after you read the last page,” she says. “Ask where the person is going, why they are going there and what the character might be feeling along the way. Kids are naturally intuitive and by talking with them about the plot, big themes and characters, children learn to get inside the book. Once they do, the rest falls into place.”

2nd GRADE: Lessons come to life

The leap to 2nd grade is a big one, explain Diana Schmiesing, Cindy Howe, Meredith Houff, Angela Pae and Karen Rabb — the team of Providence Elementary’s 2nd grade teachers who are responsible for creating dozens of hands-on activities to make that transition a little smoother.

Many of those projects have earned local media attention, such as a museum and real-size 3D bus they built to teach students about the life and accomplishments of Rosa Parks, a giant longhouse students and parents built as a tribute to the Iroquois, and a mini-city filled with businesses that students created to give them a deeper understanding of economics.

“We lay out a variety of strategies for kids, and work throughout the year to determine which one works best for each child,” Howe explains. “In math, for example, there is one answer but lots of ways to get to there. That’s what we work hard to teach them.”

The goal, she emphasizes, is to teach her 2nd graders to become good problem solvers.
“We want our students to know that everyone learns differently, and whatever your learning style — it’s a good one. If in addition to mastering the information we can get them to understand this big idea, then we believe we’ll have prepared them for the future.”

Another big goal the 2nd grade teachers have is to teach students to love to read.
“We want them to be able to make predictions, connections, and to have excellent reading comprehension by the year’s end,” Howe shares. “If they can combine that with a mastery of writing, they’ll be off and running in 3rd grade.”

For Daniels Run veteran teacher Mary Grayzel, 2nd grade is all about helping children find their independence.

“We work all year on decoding words and finding cues and clues in reading and in math, and to really interact with the information presented because when children can do that, they can work independently,” explains Grayzel, who has been a teacher for more than three decades, and principal of a school in Mauritania, West Africa.
“I believe my job as a teacher is to open up as many windows to them as possible and help students make connections between themselves and the real world. And parents can do this, too.

“Travel with your children, have interesting discussions, make connections to a major election or a lunar eclipse. If I could tell parents anything, it would be to just have fun teaching and learning with their children. It is really a wonderful ride.”

Information for the “Milestones” sidebar (right) is but a sampling of objectives compiled from two informative websites: www.fcps.edu/DIS/guide/es/index.htm; www.pen.k12.va.us/go/sols/home.shtm.


More Close-Up / Fairfax City Schools Articles

"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.