Education advocates rally around early childhood and middle school grades, but they haven't focused nearly as much attention on the kids wedged in between those groups.
Unlike their younger and older peers, 8- to 12-year-old children in third through sixth grades don't have a professional teaching organization, journal or Web site dedicated to them. This age group doesn't even have a definitive identifying name.
"There really isn't a group that's pushing for kids that age," said Christine Finnan, an associate professor at the College of Charleston. "But these are grades that are really important."
Finnan recognized the dearth of resources and support for these students and wanted to raise awareness around this age group. She wrote a book for teachers, "The Upper Elementary Years," that was published in November, and she served as editor for a special section on this issue in the February edition of the nation's largest teacher journal, Phi Delta Kappan.
Her book explores the development of 8- to 12-year-old children and ways to ensure classrooms enable students to experience a sense of accomplishment, belonging and engagement.
Finnan said the disengagement that often happens in middle school can be tied to the neglect of these upper elementary grades, and she said research shows that students' decision to drop out of school begins to form then, too.
Lorin Anderson, a retired University of South Carolina professor who gave advice to Finnan as she wrote the book, agreed that these upper elementary grades long have been neglected.
Many seem to think that these students magically transition from early childhood to adolescence, that they are the easiest to teach and that they've reached a plateau and aren't developing, he said. That's not true.
Third grade is a turning point for students, and their curriculum shifts dramatically, Anderson said. Learning changes from memorization to meaningful, but many teachers don't make that instructional transition, he said.
Finnan's work on this issue helped create awareness at the College of Charleston around its lack of classes dedicated to helping future upper elementary school teachers understand their students and the best ways to teach them. The college last semester began offering a class focused on these issues that incorporated Finnan's book.
Finnan's book includes classroom observations and interviews with teachers and students from across the country, but she also relied on Charleston-area educators and students for information.
Renee Jannuzzi, a National Board Certified fifth-grade teacher at Lambs Elementary, was one of those to whom Finnan turned for help. She said she often ends up using ideas geared toward middle and high school students and adapting them for her students because of a lack of material for the group she teaches.
But students need to have a strong foundation by the time they leave fifth grade because if they don't, "they're going to struggle until they get out of high school," she said.
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