What Do You Think?
5th Grade is a Crucial Year For Young Minds
Young Minds a Frenzy of Contradictions
Students Devour Advanced Work but Maintain the Precocious Playfulness of Younger Grades
By Jay Mathews, Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005
One in an occasional series about the grades that provide the building blocks of a child's education
F ifth-grader Rick Glidden's science project sits on a back table in Room 4 at Bond Mill Elementary School in Laurel. It has carefully arranged photos of books stacked on balsa wood bridge models. Its colored bar graphs show that a bridge supported by trusses held 20 pounds before collapsing, while a bridge supported by posts bore 37 pounds of weight.
There is this sober conclusion by the young scientist: "My hypothesis was invalid. I thought that the Truss Bridge would hold the most weight."
But if visitors inspect the exhibit closely, they will notice that there is something else in each photo, right next to the model bridges and books. It is a toy, a green Incredible Hulk action figure, glowering at the experiment.
And that, to experts on fifth grade, is a good example of the delightful contradictions of this age group. Fifth-graders often learn rapidly and are capable of advanced academic work, and yet they are also as fun-loving and genuine as when school was new and they were just learning to read.
"The fifth-grader is a rare and wonderful creature, old enough to have mature conversations and get into sophisticated learning, but young enough to still cry and care when told someone is disappointed in their actions and choices," said Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of middle schools that began in Houston in 1994 with a program for fifth-graders.
Perhaps no one appreciates the advantages of the duality of 10-year-olds more than Kathleen Hass, 52, Kathleen Jacobs, 50, and Tracey Roussin-Lally, 37, the three fifth-grade teachers at Bond Mill. School administrators say they are among the best fifth-grade teams in the region, and their work indicates that imaginative teaching is possible even in a grade with much standardized testing.
On the 2004 Maryland School Assessment tests, 76.7 percent of the fifth-graders at Bond Mill were proficient or advanced in reading, and 81.7 percent were proficient or advanced in mathematics. The achievement rates were among the highest in Prince George's County and higher than most schools whose percentage of low-income students is similar to Bond Mill's, 16 percent.
"The fifth-graders are at a level where you can kid around with them, you can give and take with them, and they enjoy it," said Hass, who has been teaching for 10 years. "If they have fun, they want to be here, and if they want to be here, they are going to learn."
The three teachers have forged a partnership based on a mutual love of imagination and exploration, Principal Justin Fitzgerald said. On one recent morning, they stuffed all 89 of their students into a makeshift meeting room to discuss upcoming assignments and kept the group engaged -- without a single bit of mischief -- for an hour.
Roussin-Lally, taking a couple of steps forward and spreading her hands like a Broadway star, opened the discussion: "As promised, ta-da! We are here to start our research projects."
"This is going to be lots of fun, boys and girls, because you are going to get to pick out what you want to learn about," Hass said as each teacher set up an easel of large sheets of paper and began to write down research topics suggested by the students.
Such projects, experts say, are crucial in fifth grade because it provides one of the last opportunities for low-risk trial and error in developing skills that will be essential for survival in middle school and high school.
"Of great importance is learning to learn skills," said Robert Slavin, co-founder of the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation and co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins University. These include study and metacognitive skills, "making predictions, doing graphic organizers and writing summaries," Slavin said.
The Bond Mill teachers called on students who raised their hands and some who did not.
"The snow leopard."
This suggested exploration of the history of the school's name excited Hass. "Whoa, okay!" she said.
When the children's discussion of their ideas got too loud, one of the teachers would say, "Five, four, three, two, one," in a call for quiet. Usually the room was still before she got to three.
Hass, Roussin-Lally and Jacobs said typical teaching of fifth grade has changed greatly since they were their students' age. Hass attended fifth grade at St. Anthony's School in the District.
"You sat at your desk and you didn't move," she said. "I remember turning my head, and the nuns would grab my hair and say, 'Turn around, Kathleen, and put that head straight!' "
The other two teachers grew up in military families and attended fifth grade abroad -- Jacobs in Pakistan and Roussin-Lally in Germany. Those experiences have inspired the team to take every opportunity to get its students out of the classroom.
"We plan field trips once a month," Hass said. "We have been on more field trips than the entire school combined." The visits have included Luray Caverns and Williamsburg in Virginia and Hersheypark in Pennsylvania and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The fees were paid by Bond Mill parents.
The teachers had the students write to their senators and congressmen for passes to tour the White House, and that worked, too.
Rafe Esquith, a fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles who won a Disney Hand Teacher of the Year award, said a key objective for the grade is that "students will love to read, read well and read for pleasure constantly."
To achieve that, the Bond Mill teachers have adopted an increasingly popular technique they call "lit circles." Children select from a short list of books, then form groups with their book choices usually ensuring that they are with other students reading at about the same level.
After the meeting on research topics last week, the Bond Mill students returned to their classrooms, broke into groups of four to six students and began discussing what they had been reading.
Many of their books were thick with colored stick-on notes where they had written observations or questions such as "Why were they tired?" or "This is so confusing."
Each of the three classrooms buzzed with excited conversation. A visitor checking several groups found each discussing the book, rather than what members wanted to do after school.
One group discussed Scott O'Dell's novel of the revolutionary war, "Sarah Bishop." A girl asked, "Why do the guards wear powder on their wigs?"
A boy answered: "I don't know. It must have been part of the dress code."
At 11:45 a.m. Hass announced, "I hate to tell you this, but it's lunchtime."
Some students suggested continuing the lit circles in the afternoon, but there were other subjects to cover, Hass said. They would have to wait until the next day.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company
1. Teach study skills and encourage students to use them in every subject. Because middle schools are unlikely to do this, fifth grade may be the last chance to get essential study skills right.
2. Make sure students have strong reading skills, especially in reading for knowledge.
3. Emphasize writing. Because elementary school teachers have far fewer kids than middle school English teachers, they have a chance to give students lots of useful feedback on their writing.
4. Build up students' self-esteem by giving them opportunities to earn recognition and success. Middle school can be brutal -- kids should enter it with confidence, with accomplishments they are proud of. This means holding science fairs, math fairs, music and art events and poetry slams, and creating newspapers and literary magazines -- anything to let kids know they have skills and value that is special.
-- Robert Slavin , co-founder of the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation
Success For All Foundation