One in a series of occasional articles about the grades that provide the building blocks of a child's education.
One of the Campbell Elementary School first-graders in Room 154, a determined child named Austin, pulled a jumbled collection of small square cards from a pink plastic envelope and dumped them on a desk.
Pat Findikoglu helps one of her Campbell Elementary students, Erick Alvarado, with a math project.
Next to a card with a picture of a can he placed a card bearing the word "can." He did the same with several other words, then wrote them down on an orange sheet of paper. When one of his teachers at the Arlington County school, Kerry Gutierrez, approved the results, he went off to play Scrabble.
This is the way first grade, once a time for coloring and singing and games, is going these days. Elementary school educators across the country, not to mention members of Congress and the president of the United States, are trying to inject words into seemingly every moment of every 6-year-old's life.
The goal is to have all first-graders on the path to reading well by the time they are 9.
"First-grade teachers are responsible for the bulk of phoneme awareness [a sense of letter sounds], skills that children need to learn," said Patricia Zissios, an expert on reading instruction and the principal of Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, a public school in Alexandria. "With 85 percent of all words following some phoneme pattern, it's up to the first-grade teachers to get the majority of these patterns into kids."
At Campbell Elementary, a one-story brick building alongside busy South Carlin Springs Road, first-graders are being immersed in the English language, along with their lessons in arithmetic, science, social studies, music and health. They are learning from Gutierrez, 27, and her more experienced partner, Pat Findikoglu, 58, who team-teach 33 kindergartners and first-graders in a class that spreads itself over two connecting rooms.
One recent morning, Findikoglu dimmed the lights to provide a cozy feeling and gathered 15 students around her on the gray-green carpet for a lesson in storytelling. Like many first-grade teachers, Findikoglu believes that children that age learn best if encouraged to read and write about things that interest them personally.
Her topic was the sad death of a lizard who had been one of the classroom's pets.
"You have a little picture in your head, and you are writing about that," she said. She wrote on a large piece of paper with a colored marker to show how they might describe the funeral service that they had all witnessed. She asked for their ideas and turned those thoughts into a narrative before sending the children off to do their own stories.
"Memona carried the blue heart basket," the teacher wrote. "Inside was the lizard. He died. He looked so small and thin."
Out of the Rows
Findikoglu and Gutierrez are of different generations, but they both remember their first-grade classes -- Findikoglu's in 1950s Philadelphia and Gutierrez in 1980s Kansas City, Mo. Their memories are of sitting at desks lined up in neat rows. American first grades usually don't look like that anymore, although few have gone as far as Campbell's rooms 154 and 155, which look more like family recreation rooms than classrooms.
The pupils keep their personal equipment in large cubbyholes. No one has a designated desk. They move from large tables to small tables to couches to the floor, depending on the time of day and, sometimes, their choice of activity. "We try to respect the child's interests and let them be able to go off on tangents with what strikes their souls," Findikoglu said.
That gets more difficult each year, she said, as states and the federal government impose learning standards and test score targets that require teachers to stay close to the curriculum. Annual testing required for all public school children by the federal No Child Left Behind Act does not start until third grade, but elementary school educators realize how important first-grade learning is to third-grade scores.
A study at Park Elementary School in Cross Plains, Wis., for instance, found that those children who did best on a first-grade oral reading fluency test had the highest reading scores in fourth grade, and those who did poorly in the first-grade test had trouble with the fourth-grade test.
The District and many states, including Virginia and Maryland, have set standards for first-grade learning that are extensive and daunting. "What we expect teachers to teach and students to learn is more clearly defined than ever," said Teresa Tulipana, the principal of Hawthorn Elementary School in Kansas City, who recently won an award from the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Squeezing the School Day
The Virginia Standards of Learning are unusually detailed, even for first grade. Virginia's 6-year-olds have to know about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Carver, for instance, and also be able to "explain the difference between goods and services and . . . describe how people are both buyers and sellers of goods and services."
First-grade teachers such as Findikoglu and Gutierrez, therefore, must assess their students more often and have less time for free play. Each fall and spring, the first-graders at Campbell Elementary take the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS). After teachers give them the instructions, they circle pictures of objects that have rhyming names, identify lowercase letters, identify simple words and do other exercises to test what they have learned.
"It is not all bad," Findikoglu said. The results help her spot individual weaknesses and have "made us aware of where the curriculum needs to go next," she said.
Still, she worries that some children are being pushed to read before they are ready, a view that reflects an old and ongoing debate about first-grade instruction.
Diane Ravitch, an educational historian at New York University, said educational philosopher John Dewey and other influential thinkers of the early 20th century "said that children should not be pushed to read or write before the age of 8." Ravitch added, "People tend to line up on different sides of this divide -- either that children have a thirst to begin to learn the symbols of literate culture, or that children will be harmed and stressed by undue pressure to learn before it is time."
Some educators cite research indicating they can boost children's joy in learning and still teach important skills earlier than before. Mike Galluzzo, the award-winning principal of East Farms School in Farmington, Conn., said the old view was that "children should simply learn to love writing in the first grade" and "skill building would come later."
Now, he said, "our first-graders write for up to one hour per day, and the quality of their writing has improved in recent years."
Campbell Elementary also appears to be doing well, at least judging by the state test scores of its third-graders. More than 76 percent passed the third-grade English test this year, up from 58 percent in 2000. About three-quarters of Campbell students qualify for federally subsidized lunches, one of the highest poverty rates in Northern Virginia.
"It is hard sometimes because of the agenda that has been put on us from above," Findikoglu said of the pressures to prepare students for standardized tests. But she has preserved 45 minutes at the end of each day for her students to have a range of choices, both enjoyable and instructive, such as playing chess, writing letters or observing the class guinea pig.
"If there is choice," she said, "they are going to do much better work."