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The Washington Post Magazine Online

Today's Topic: Third Grade: The Edge of Innocence
with Bob Thompson

Monday, March 20, 2000
1 p.m. EST

Many developmental experts say third grade is a crucial time in the life of a child. You begin to see why if you spend some time in Room 320 at John Eaton Elementary School in the District. Bob Thompson, who did just that while writing "Third Grade: Dispatches From Childhood's Last Frontier" for yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, is online to field questions and comments about the article and to talk about what he learned in third grade at Eaton.

Bob Thompson is a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine and has daughters in the third and fourth grades.

Thompson says "Third grade is on the borderline between childhood and preadolescence. The good news is, the kids in Room 320 haven't crossed it yet."

Please read Bob Thompson's article, Third Grade: Dispatches From Childhood's Last Frontier and then submit your questions and comments in advance and during the Live Online hour.

Here is a copy of today's transcript.


Bob Thompson: Hi, and welcome to third grade. I wanted to start by saying that I had a great time doing this story. I've got a third grader and a fourth grader of my own, but while I know and like their teachers and pay a good deal of attention to what goes on in their classrooms, I've never had the opportunity to just sit in one for a month and observe what goes on. Every classroom is different, of course, but I'll be happy to answer questions about what I found in this one, and I look forward to hearing from people who've had different kinds of third grade experiences as well.

Washington, DC: Thanks for a great article, Bob! -Of course, I may be biased; I'm the father of "Nicola".-

I was wondering if you could comment on how 3rd graders may be affected -positively or negatively- by the growing list of extracurricular activities that kids this age have available. Did you address this with any of the experts? It seems that there are so many opportunities for music, soccer, riding, drama, etc., and many children have a voracious appetite for it all. What are the risks -and warning signs- of burnout? What lessons do they learn if they are allowed to drop out of some activities mid-way?


Bob Thompson: Hello, father of Nicola -- glad to have you with us, and I'm sorry I never got to talk to you while I was doing the story (she's a great kid).

I heard a lot about overscheduling from the teachers and other experts I talked to, most of whom are concerned about it. I didn't emphasize it in the story because it was my impression that it wasn't as much of a problem with the kids in Mrs. Freda's class -- as a whole -- as it is in some other classes and situations. A number of parents said they are conscious of it and actively try not to fall into the overscheduling trap, though I did hear of one or two children who seem booked up all the time.

It's not an easy balance to maintain, because the activities ARE attractive, and also because, in many cases, kids today need to be scheduled because both parents work and there's less regular hanging-around time. But parents and children do have to make choices. When kids come to school saying they didn't have time for homework, for instance (which happens) that's an overscheduling problem; or if they consistently stay up too late and get tired, which is something teachers talked about quite a bit. As for dropping out of some midway: I think they need to learn how to do that.

Rockville, Maryland: I am confused about the monsters and worried about the need to "stomp you and your mother".What is the significance of this part of the article and how does it fit into the students' day? Thank you.

Bob Thompson: Rockville, I'm sorry about the monster confusion. Mrs. Freda is reading them from a book about some kids who travel back in time and end up in an adventure with various monsters from Greek mythology, and they're repeating some lines she reads in unison. The scene where they stomp along to me had a lot of energy to it, and I hoped it would help convey that energy -- which is a big part of being a third grader.

Montgomery County, Maryland: I read the article with great interest having an 8-year son in 3rd grade. What I was interested in discussing was your observations about 3rd grade being the cut-off for children being tolerant of others disabilities-limitations. Since my son does have learning-emotional disabilities, I have observed that the children in his mainstream class have been very thoughtful of his needs, not so much sheltering him, but rather considerate and treating him as much as the group as someone that does not have any problems. I find it hard to believe that next year, or sometime during this year they'll suddenly switch to singling him out and ostracizing him, as you mentioned within your article. Any comments? Thanks.

Bob Thompson: Good question, Montgomery County, and I hope I can reassure you a little. The children in Mrs. Freda's class have been, for the most part, very thoughtful as well when it comes to dealing with children who have disabilities of one kind or another -- in part because they are very nice kids, and in part because Mrs. Freda sets a tone in the classroom that encourages this. What I was trying to say, which a number of people pointed out to me, is that it's an age where kids who are struggling in one way or another CAN get into some trouble in their social lives if teachers and parents aren't aware of the possibility.

Bethesda, MD: Did you see any evidence of gender inequity in the third grade classroom at Eaton? Isn't this the year when the boys begin to command all the attention and the girls start to fade, especially when it comes to math, science and computers? Did you see that happening, and, if so, what do the teachers do to combat it?

Bob Thompson: Re gender inequity, Bethesda: I was actively looking for this, because my own children are girls, but I didn't see much. There was a special "math facts" computer class that was voluntary, and more boys than girls had signed up for it, but I saw no evidence that they were treated any differently. I believe this is a real problem, and is something that teachers need to work to counter -- not just in third grade, but all the way up to the college level.

Washington, D.C.: I thought it was a great article. Do you think the group you wrote about was typical of children in the third grade?

Bob Thompson: Thank, D.C. -- as I said, it was really fun to write. Was this group typical? I wouldn't go that far. I chose them because they were in a good school, for instance (because I wanted to write about the age, not the school itself), so their experience wouldn't be typical of kids in a more troubled school -- or in a private school, for that matter. It also appeared to me that this was a bright class, maybe a little moreso than would be typical. But I do think it was representative, and that the children's lives within it are much like children's lives in many third grade classes.

Detroit,Michigan: How much time did you spend in the room?

Bob Thompson: Hello, Detroit -- nice to have you with us. I spent maybe 20 school days in the room, over a period of a couple of months. I also spent a couple of days in Eaton's other third grade classroom.

Virginia: I have heard that third grade is a forcaster for the rest of a child's academic life. I have heard that if they do not get the basics down now trouble is in the future in terms of grasping new concepts. Do you agree?

Bob Thompson: Virginia, I'd say yes and no to that. If you don't have the basics down by the end of third grade, you may struggle because expectations are higher in fourth, and you need those skills to succeed. But I wouldn't agree at all that kids can't catch up, or should be labeled failures if they fall behind in third -- they just need some help doing so. There are children in the Eaton third grade, for instance, who have repeated a year along the way because they needed more time, and they are thriving.

Rockville, MD: More a comment than a question: It was reassuring to read that the class becomes a study in brownian motion when the teacher steps out of the room -- even for a few moments. As a volunteer who reads to several classes in various elementary grades and has experienced the brownian motion frequently, it's nice to know that I'm not alone!

Bob Thompson: Re the Browninan motion, Rockville: I think it's true everywhere. The motion, the talking -- it's just who they are at that age. Different teachers handle it differently -- Mrs. Freda is pretty relaxed about it -- but it's certainly not unique to this class

Washington dc: We are sitting here in John Eaton and want you to know that the school has already had some calls asking for out of bounds info
Thanks for such a nice job about a very wonderful school
I've already had friends comment that I am so lucky and Carolyn Cobden learned a new word- pluperfect

Bob Thompson: Is that you Mrs. Freda? If so, I'd just like to say thanks again for letting me sit in -- not every school or teacher would have been so welcoming. And tell Carolyn you're never too old to learn new things (which is what my job is all about, actually)

washington dc: Why not mention that the source for the conversations of the children dealing with rather violent terms used on the playground is from our culture rather than the culture of John Eaton?

Bob Thompson: D.C., that's a good point -- it's definitely from the broader culture, and Eaton does a very good job of minimizing it, though it's obviously impossible to counteract every outside influence. You can see the influence of that outside culture in the story when someone shares the R-rated movie Candyman

Alexandria, VA: Hello,

I was somewhat concerned -but not surprised- by the implication that there is a consensus that third grade is some sort of "make or break" year academically, i.e. if kids don't have all their basic skills mastered by this age, they will tend to "fall through the cracks", and be at great risk of academic failure in the future. I question the wisdom of this because I know that in Finland, for example, specific instruction in reading and literacy skills does not begin until age 7, yet this country scores among the highest countries in international comparisons -which are admittedly not precise for complex reasons-. Is this "consensus" about the importance of this age or grade level as a crucial year really just an arbitrary thing? Of course, educators will offer anecdotal evidence that they know the students in their school who don't "get it" -the basics- by grade 3 are likely to fail in subsequent years, but is this just a self-fulfilling prophesy, due to adult expectations which are conveyed to the kids? If there is some objective, scientific basis for picking 3rd grade as the "watermark" year, why do the children of Finland seem to defy this "common wisdom"?

Bob Thompson: Hello Alexandria -- you raise a very good point, and I may have overstated the case a little bit. As I just said in a reply to someone else, it is certainly the case that children who don't have certain skills by third grade can catch up -- it's just a little harder. And it is also the case that different schools with different educational philosophies emphasize different things at different times. (Waldorf schools, for instance, believe that most kids aren't really ready for reading until somewhat later than most public schools do. The self-fulfilling prophecy point is a good one: it is very important that fourth grade teachers still be aware of individual differences in basic skills, and work with the children who need extra helpl.

Silver Spring, Maryland: I went to John Eaton elementary school as did all my siblings and my mother and her siblings. Ironically, I now have a third grader in Montgomery County public schools.
I went to pre-school, Kingergarten and 1-6 at John Eaton -school song? "There is a school on the hill, on the hill, where we will learn to study and to play..."
My question is about discipline or lack there of. I don't remember my class size in 1963 but I do remember and orderly environment -and a happy healthy learning one at that-.
What can be done about regaining control in the class room? It's not just about class size!

Bob Thompson: Hello Silver Spring -- I hope the story didn't imply that the Eaton kids are out of control all the time, because they're not. Different teachers have different styles, but I would certainly describe Mrs. Freda's class as a happy and healthy learning environment, if not always totally orderly. As for class size, it's a huge issue; the difference between having, say, 18 kids per class (which is, roughly, what Eaton's principal told me would be ideal) and 26 may not seem like much until you've been put in charge of them.

Burke, Virginia: What a wonderful setting to have such a nice multi-cultural mix of children. Why woudld Dylan's family want to move him to a private school?

Bob Thompson: Hello Burke -- I agree about the wonderful, multicultural setting. I can't answer for Dylan's family, though I know them to be appreciative of the qualities of Eaton and very thoughtful about their choices. My own guess is that some parents see problems coming at the junior high level in D.C., and start thinking about private school even earlier than that because they're worried about getting in.

Wheaton: One thing I'm tired of hearing is that school has to be "fun" to learn. It seems that the more "fun" the teachers and administrators make school, the worse kids are doing in basic subjects. And don't even get me started on the self esteem movement. I think those kids who accused the teacher of abuse had way too much of both. When are the schools going to teach that schoolwork is challenging and interesting, not some game to play? How about respect for others instead of this narcissistic self esteem nonsense?

Bob Thompson: Wheaton, I'm going to disagree with some of what you said and agree with some of it. As for learning being fun: my experience, both with my own children and from my time at John Eaton, has been that while learning certainly doesn't have to -- and sometimes can't -- be fun, a teacher who can help the children see learning as something enjoyable is way ahead of the game. The kids I saw at Eaton are doing fine in basic subjects, and they're having a great time with some of them. Where I agree with you is on the question of respect for others. This is something Eaton takes very seriously. One thing I didn't get that much chance to write about was what's called "Morning Meeting," in which children greet each other and share experiences from their lives. An important goal of Morning Meeting is to teach respectful behavior to classmates and listening skills. I talked to one teacher who said that Morning Meeting and a number of related efforts to teach respect for others had turned the culture of the school around when they were instituted a decade or so ago.

Virginia: Thank you for a great story although it saddens me to think that third grade is the edge of innocence.

Bob Thompson: Thanks for your comment, Virginia. It saddens me too. But as my experience with my own delightful fourth grader shows, it doesn't all go away at once...

washington, dc: Why did you write about some students and not others... a student in Mrs. Freda's class

Bob Thompson: Hi there -- I expected some of you would have that question. There are a couple of reasons. First of all, when you're reading a story with lots and lots of names in it, you tend to get confused and frustrated because you can't remember who's who. So I knew going in that I would only be able to describe a few children in any detai, because otherwise my readers wouldn't be able to keep them straight. The other reason had to do with things that I saw happen in the classroom, or that people told me about. If I thought something was especially interesting, or if it made a point that people had told me was important about third grade, I made the decision to write about the person or people involved.
I believe I did at least mention everyone's name in the story, and I feel bad that I couldn't write more about all of you, because you're all great.

Washington, DC: Hello again, Bob. This is "father of Nicola." I need some clarification regarding your answer to my last question:
"As for dropping out of some -activities] midway: I think they need to learn how to do that."

Do you mean "learn how to do it gracefully?" Or, "learn how to do it without going back on your commitments to others -in a broup activity-?" Or, "learn when it's okay not to finish what you started, and what the consequences are?"

I may be in trouble with somebody else at home if you can't help me out here -wink].

Bob Thompson: Hello again father of Nicola: What I meant was, you (and she) need to learn to make whatever choices are necessary to avoid overscheduling. I may have been a little hasty in talking about dropping out of things midway -- I didn't mean, for example, bailing out on your soccer team halfway through the season. I'm thinking more like, when next season comes around, saying: well, you've got soccer and girl scouts and flute and more homework this year AND you like to have time hanging around playing with your sister (obviously I'm using one of my kids as an example here), let's talk about whether this is too much and what your choice would be if you had to drop something.
The truth is: I don't have this figured out myself. I gave up piano lessons around third grade, after taking them for 3 years or so, and sometimes I wish my parents had made me keep going...

Bob Thompson: Well, time to leave the third grade and get back to the real world, I guess. Thank you all so much for the thoughtful questions.

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