Third in an occasional series about the grades that provide the building blocks of a child's education.
On the chalkboard in Isabelle Berges' classroom is the day's schedule, filled with activities for every hour. On the walls are posters with need-to-know subject matter, including a list of math vocabulary -- vertices, faces and lines of symmetry -- how to write for information or persuasion, and the proper use of metaphors and similes, antonyms and synonyms.
Diego Anadon, 7, works intently in his second-grade class at Murch in Northwest Washington.
(Photos Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
This is second grade.
Once it was a time for youngsters to master reading and math skills learned in first grade and prepare for the independent learning traditionally demanded in third grade. But in many public schools across the country, second grade has moved on.
"It used to be seen as a consolidation year, but it doesn't have the luxury of consolidation anymore," said Elizabeth Neale, principal of Silvio O. Conte Community School in Pittsfield, Mass. "The heat is on in second grade in a way that it hasn't been before."
New skills and concepts are being taught, sometimes at near-breakneck speed: Children are asked to write in paragraphs instead of sentences, and teachers lead activities intended as warm-ups for the onslaught of standardized tests that have become the driving force in American public education under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Some educators welcome the changes, saying second-graders had been babied and are capable of doing far more sophisticated work. Today's high expectations are vital for academic progress, they say. Other educators applaud high expectations but question how many second-graders -- most of whom are 7 years old when they start the school year -- are developmentally ready for the new tasks.
"We're asking a lot of our kids in second grade today," said Philip Catania, principal of Mount Rainier Elementary School in Prince George's County, where Berges teaches. "Having high expectations is good. But without question, sometimes we are asking them to do more" than they might be ready to do.
As required by the federal law, which took effect in 2002, all children in public schools take their first standardized test in third grade. Schools risk sanctions if there is no academic improvement among enough children.
"What school district or individual school likes to have their names in the headlines saying they are failing?" said John O'Connor, superintendent of the Dover School District in New Hampshire. "We take steps [in second grade] to avoid that. We teach test-taking skills, and we refine curriculum to mirror more of what is being tested."
As a result, said S. David Brazer, assistant professor in the Education Leadership Program at George Mason University, most kindergarteners now are taught what used to be a first-grade curriculum, and many children are expected to enter primary school knowing how to read. Second-graders are learning lessons that used to be saved for later years, such as multiplication.
Berges, 26, said she must teach math concepts that she didn't learn until fourth and fifth grades. And because there is so much material to cover, she said, she spends warm-up time in the morning going over -- and over -- basic addition and subtraction and other skills, fearing that they are being lost in the rush.
"I think a lot of teachers are forgetting, or don't have time, to do the basics," she said.
On a recent afternoon, Berges moved quickly during math hour, starting with manipulating numbers using a calendar: "This is the 82nd day of [school this year], and what would happen if we took away 26?"
A few minutes later, it was time for a bit of exercise. The students had no period for physical education, so Berges turned on some music to lead the children, at their desks, in arm and neck exercises -- all the while reviewing their lessons: "Today we learned about persuasive writing, to convince someone to buy something. . . . Yesterday, we talked about fractions, and we are doing more today."
No sooner had the children stopped pretending to be elephants than she asked them to work in groups of four to solve fractions problems, which she drew on an overhead projector. Minutes later, it was time for a game called "Showdown," in which, again working together, they used boards and were asked to solve math questions. The pace was decidedly brisk.
Despite the new curriculum, some parents complain that second grade feels anticlimactic after first grade. Teachers said they might feel that way because nothing is quite like passing the milestone of learning to read. Expanding vocabulary and improving fluency and comprehension, they said, don't seem to pack the same emotional punch for parents seeking markers of progress.
The year starts with review -- though that ends quickly -- helping explain why kids make an easier transition from first to second grade than they did from kindergarten to first.
"You don't know what to expect when you go into first grade, but going from first to second grade is easier because you already know about school," said Alexander Thomas, 8, who identifies himself as "the oldest kid in the second grade" at Murch Elementary School in Northwest Washington.
His schoolmate, Collin Hamilton, 7, thinks second grade is a breeze so far.
"I learned to read for kindergarten, got better in first grade, and now I'm an expert," he said.
But teachers say things get tougher as the year continues.
In math, second-graders learn how to regroup numbers while doing addition and subtraction. Many second-graders also are introduced to multiplication and even basic geometric terms. Writing is more important -- and complex -- than ever in second grade, with children asked to write not just sentences, as they did in the past, but paragraphs and sometimes reports. Social development long has been a key goal in second grade, and children work on improving communication skills with their peers and their teacher.
Homework, which in 1981 was nonexistent for two-thirds of second-graders, now is given to more than half of the students, according to a 2003 study on homework by the nonprofit Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy -- and many say it takes more than a token few minutes. Mateo Bryant, 7, said he does 45 minutes of homework a day, given to him by longtime Mount Rainier second-grade teacher Marty Humphrey.
Elizabeth Schafer, a second-grade teacher at Murch, said that everything her students are learning is new material -- and that they work "pretty independently" -- something that used to be reserved for third grade.
One day recently, her students sat on the floor, books in hand as they read a story together about a fire station from their Houghton Mifflin reading series -- the same one used in Berges' class. Her students were learning about main ideas, details and inference, and she peppered them with questions. She related one scene in the book to a fatal helicopter crash in the Potomac River that had occurred the night before. One child had heard about it; no coddling in this group.
Back in Humphrey's class, next door to Berges' room, Evangela Vance, 8, was using a work sheet to help her practice telling time. She said second-grade math has been easy so far -- but isn't holding her breath for things to stay that way.
"We'll get harder subtracting and multiplication," she said. "It will all get harder. I know."