Fourth Grade

Learning Shifts From Basics to Analysis

Andrew McShea, right, works on a project with Valerio Zevallos at Evergreen Mill Elementary. Both 9-year-olds are in Bruce Blakeney's fourth-grade class.
Andrew McShea, right, works on a project with Valerio Zevallos at Evergreen Mill Elementary. Both 9-year-olds are in Bruce Blakeney's fourth-grade class. (Katherine Frey - Twp)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Fifth in an occasional series about the grades that provide the building blocks of a child's education.

Lia Carfagno thumbed through her history textbook seeking facts about Abraham Lincoln while telling her research partner about his assassination: "He was watching a movie."

"He was watching a play," Jessica Saleck countered as the 9-year-old girls labored over a "road map" they were creating -- with pictures and text -- to show the causes of the Civil War in Bruce Blakeney's fourth-grade class at Loudoun County's Evergreen Mill Elementary School.

Lia noted that when Lincoln was elected president, the South saw him as a threat to slavery. "No, not the South," Jessica said, prompting Lia to explain why it was, in fact, the South.

Finally, Jessica started writing: "Aberham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Lincoln was against the spread of slavery into the Western territories." She stopped and said, "We need to put it in our words. This is from the book. We have to think about this."

Think they did as they used the analytical and independent research skills demanded in fourth grade, when students are no longer learning basics but expected to apply them and think critically, said Blakeney and colleague Katie Wilson. Fourth-graders have left behind the primary years and entered an intermediate stage seen as a transition to middle school.

"It's the time when students start to read to learn rather than learn to read," said Nancy Moga, principal of Callaghan Elementary School in Covington, Va.

It is distinct from third grade, when "you get to have more fun," said Laura Collins, Evergreen Mill's lead fourth-grade teacher. And, she added, the year prepares students for the more structured fifth grade. Required reading is more complicated in fourth grade, with students encountering words not used in everyday conversation, and tests are harder, too.

A hallmark of the grade is that students are taught to start asking why things happen. Aberfare Abdirizak, 9, said that he had learned some facts about the Civil War before but that now his class was learning what caused it.

Fourth-graders often get letter grades for the first time, and they do more homework. At Evergreen Mill, students can get an hour's worth a night -- up from 30 minutes in third grade -- and, said 9-year-old Danielle Scoggin, "it's harder."

Teachers say their charges start to change socially and physically, as hormones begin to awaken, said Collins, who has also taught third and fifth grades.

"Yeah, I argue with my parents more," 10-year-old Carter Brown said.


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