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What I learned in fifth grade, the second time around

June 09, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

By now, we've all seen the book or the posters proclaiming "All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten." The list includes thoughts on sharing, washing hands and apologizing to those you've hurt.

But I'd argue that fifth grade is where the real lessons begin.

I spent the 2007-08 school year with almost three dozen children enrolled in Bobbi Blubaugh's class at Fairview Elementary School in Waynesboro, Pa. I visited the classroom at least once a month and am shocked by how quickly time has passed.

A lot has changed since I was 10 years old. A lot hasn't.

A recent conversation with my own fifth-grade teacher, Joan Ritzman, reminded me of my eagerness to learn at that age. We played trivia games like "Around the World," although Ritzman and I agreed that today's fifth-graders don't seem to have time for that.

These children are overtested. They believe the tests -- especially the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSAs) -- are important, but they don't understand why. Frankly, seven years into No Child Left Behind, I, too, largely fail to understand why the tests are so important.

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Students take tests to prepare for the PSSAs, tests to predict how they'll do on the PSSAs and tests in software programs that are designed to improve PSSA performance. They score at grade level, celebrate with medals and a special assembly, and educators sigh with relief while simultaneously interpreting data to prepare for next year.

The good news: Children seem no worse for the wear.

Students are still creative and curious. They question "why" and mull over new information in their minds, trying to connect classroom lessons to their own life experiences. For instance, last month's science lesson about pH balance prompted one girl to question how certain materials would affect her mother's acid reflux disease.

I've discovered that life experiences for these children are often astounding, yet the youngsters don't seem to place any more importance on the bad things than the everyday, routine happenings.

I've tried not to appear shocked or outraged when listening to students nonchalantly talking about neighbors being arrested or teenage siblings coming home drunk the previous night. The children show far more interest in the same things I enjoyed in childhood -- games of make-believe, the class pets, drawing with neon-colored markers and going to a friend's birthday sleepover.

My trip to Camp Eder with the Fairview fifth-graders reminded me so much of my own excursion to Camp Swatara in 1994. Both had a grueling nature hike, meals in the mess hall and bunk beds in the cabins. These kids had air conditioning, though, for the record!

Like my own camp trip, the one to Camp Eder not only provided the obligatory sessions about environmental conservation but chances for the children to get out of the classroom and form bonds that transcend cliques. However, even though the students in Blubaugh's class clearly had set groups of friends, I'd hardly say cliques were a problem. The children were overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging of all students, working extra hard on many occasions to include their classmates with special needs.

I'm sure the students' patience and understanding will especially benefit them in middle school, where they'll be meeting hundreds more students from their grade level.

But I refuse to think about these children growing up even more and going to a secondary school.

"Do you write about sixth grade?" one boy asked me.

I wish.

Jennifer Fitch is the Waynesboro, Pa.-area bureau reporter for The Herald-Mail.

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