Dear 2019–20 Fourth Grader

Apr 14, 2020 by

Bob Sornson –

Happy morning to you. You are eight or nine years old and in one of the most important years of learning in your entire life. By fourth grade those kids who love to read choose to keep on reading, and those kids who enjoy thinking mathematically have a world of opportunity ahead. This a time of life in which learning really matters, and your patterns of successful learning will affect your whole life.

And then in early March we sent you home from school. Since then you have had some online lessons from your teacher, and your school has shared some websites that allow you to practice lessons or play learning games. But they are not the fun games you prefer.

At home, some kids have lots of books and learning materials available. Their parents have set up a daily routine for learning, and usually they can get a whole day of learning activities done in a couple of good hours. They also are given lots of time to learn something of their own choosing.

Other kids have far fewer materials at home for learning. They may also have fewer routines like breakfast with the family, or regular study time, or even a bedtime routine.

By the end of this fourth grade year, among the kids in your class with normal intelligence, some will have seventh grade learning skills while others will be reading and understanding math at a second grade level. And here is the amazing thing: YOU ARE ALL GOING ON TO FIFTH GRADE!

When you get there, the curriculum will be based on the Common Core State Standards, a list of strongly recommended standards for what should be “covered” in the fifth grade year, and includes everything that might possibly be included on your state’s annual assessment. For some of your classmates the work in fifth grade will be manageable or easy. They already have the skills needed to understand fifth grade material and have also been exposed to much of the content in areas like science and social studies.

For other classmates, the ones with second/third/fourth grade learning skills, the fifth grade curriculum will be extremely frustrating. These kids do not yet have many of the foundation reading or math skills needed to understand the fifth grade lessons that will be delivered. But the teacher has been given a pacing guide, which prods her to keep moving through the expected course material at the same rate for all kids. It is not the teacher who makes this decision to keep pushing through material that many kids do not yet understand.

This pattern occurs every year, but this year is special. This year we gave you three or more extra months without school. We didn’t have enough time to “cover” lots of the fourth grade course material, although we did make some of it available online between March and June. While at home, some kids really spent high-quality time learning each day, but many others did not. Next fall, in all likelihood, more kids will be poorly prepared for fifth grade than usual.

No matter, you are all going to fifth grade. Congratulations. You have graduated from fourth grade.

In fifth grade, many of the lessons will assume that you and all the other students have already fully learned knowledge and skills from the previous grades. When you encounter a lesson like that, what will you do? Even if the fifth grade instruction is easy for you, you will notice that some other kids are completely unprepared for the lessons. Are they bad kids? Lazy kids? Or just kids with different learning experiences? Again, what will you do?

What will you do? It is an unfair question, because you are just a kid. And my perspective on “what to do” is based on fifty years of working with schools that you do not have. Nonetheless, many kids will find themselves in situations where they have not yet learned the skills that would allow them to be successful in a fifth grade learning task. No matter how hard they try, they cannot understand the lesson. Perhaps you are one of those kids for whom learning comes easily, and without much effort you can get your assignments done. Look around and you will notice the kids who cannot.

Here are some ideas to consider if a fifth grade lesson makes no sense to you or perhaps to a bunch of your classmates:

  • Bury your head on the desk, either pretending that you understand the work or just escaping and thinking about being somewhere else. Avoid dealing with the unfair circumstances of being asked to do a lesson that makes no sense to you or many of your classmates.
  • Ask questions. Ask a lot of questions for yourself or for your classmates. If you are extraordinary self-assured, persist in questioning until you and your friends fully understand what is going on. If the teacher protests that she is required to move forward with the lesson, be more persistent than her and keep asking questions. If she threatens punishment, ask her to put it writing that you will be punished for asking questions about stuff you do not yet understand.
  • Every time the class is doing an activity that most kids do not understand, stand up. See if the other kids will join you. Create a habit of standing up whenever it seems like the class is doing something many students cannot understand.
  • Every time the class is doing an activity that is ridiculously easy, and obviously designed to fill time, stand up. Don’t be rude, just stand whenever the instruction is meaningless time-filling nonsense.
  • Keep track of every lesson during every day. For any lesson that is not well suited to 80% of the class, give the teacher an F for that period. In one day, there might be five or six instructional periods. Give a grade to the teacher for each lesson that day. Each lesson gets a grade: A/Great, B/Good, C/Frustrating, D/Impossible, F/Meaningless Nonsense. Really, give her a page with grades on it at the end of every day, and keep a copy for your own records.
  • Tell your parents if the lessons at school are often frustrating or meaningless. It is their job to stand up for you, especially when you are not yet fully ready to stand up for yourself. Consistently pushing children into a frustration zone when learning is a form of abuse, and parents are your advocates and protectors.

Someday the whole idea of teaching all fifth graders the same material at the same rate will be considered abusive and archaic. Even with all the examples of self-paced digital learning materials that are available today, most schools continue to feel that they must “cover” the standardized content that is expected by each state, and tell the teachers to race through instruction and get it all “covered” for all students. The unique learning needs and interests of each student are not the focus of instruction; covering content standards is the focus for most schools.

The system we use in schools will change eventually, and maybe you will be part of that change. Someday we will identify the learning sequence of skills and knowledge that lead to important outcomes, and then monitor each kid’s progress along the way. We will give each child instruction at her/his level, for as much time as needed to learn it deeply, in a safe supportive environment, with teachers who build relationships and really get to know their students. Someday that will be the norm.

But it won’t yet be the norm when you go back to school next fall. So it falls on you to decide how to respond. You know where I stand. And I hope you will stand up for yourself and for others.

Bob Sornson is an author and consultant, and the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. He can be contacted at

Source: Dear 2019–20 Fourth Grader, – Bob Sornson – Medium

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