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  • Writer's pictureMonica Clarke and Valerie Hart

5 Ways to Make a 5th Grader Hate Learning

Updated: May 2, 2023

What do 10-year olds need to thrive in school? To begin with, they need the adults in their lives to recognize that they're not little kids (anymore) or big kids (yet); they're somewhere in between, and that's okay.

Fifth grade is an odd year, let’s face it. The students are too old to be considered “elementary“ and too young to be in “middle school.” Fourth- and fifth-grade teachers seem to be the hardest to retain because it is so difficult to bridge this gap from elementary to middle. But, when you get a good fifth-grade teacher at your school, things are very good. So how do these teachers do it? What mistakes do they avoid? At Regina Coeli Academy, which is part of the Regina Academies network in the Philadelphia suburbs, we’ve been fortunate to have some fantastic fifth-grade teachers. The following list, compiled by faculty who thrive in fifth-grade, includes five surefire ways to make a fifth-grader hate learning, along with five things fabulous fifth-grade teachers do instead.

1. Treat Them Like Overgrown Elementary Students

10-year-olds are too old for cute elementary crafts and doing everything in tandem. They crave independence and space for creativity but aren’t necessarily ready to regulate it themselves. Conformity may stifle them, but giving them complete independence is more than they can handle, and may result in a chaotic classroom.

Instead: Create structures within which they can become independent. Let students keep track of their assignments on their own, but dedicate a place in your classroom for the list of assignments to be displayed and a time in each class for it to be recorded properly. This provides a safety net for them to fall back on (being able to refer to the display as needed), but keeps the responsibility of suffering the consequences if they don’t utilize the system. Teach them how to take notes, first by spoon-feeding them (writing everything on the board for them to copy or start with fill-in-the-blank notes), and then gradually wean them off.

At Regina Coeli Academy, entering fifth grade comes with a new sense of independence and responsibility. Fifth grade is when our students begin switching classrooms and teachers for different subjects. While this may be younger than most schools, we’ve found that this allows them to develop and practice important lifelong skills. Not to mention, the students are excited by the variety and responsibility that this change adds to their days. We also hold fifth-grade students responsible for finding out what lessons or assignments they missed while absent, and for making up their work. In the seventh and eighth grades, this tends to unfold with students copying notes and homework from a classmate, but in fifth grade, we still give them support systems. Most teachers have all the homework for the week listed on the chalkboards for students to refer to as needed. Similarly, when it comes to preparing for larger-scale projects or assignments, some faculty keep examples of well-done assignments from the past in a binder, for students to access at their convenience. These tools allow fifth-graders to practice a reasonable, age-appropriate amount of independence and self-regulation.

2. Treat Them Like Undergrown High Schoolers

What makes a fifth-grader different from a high schooler? “They actually want to ask and answer questions,” says Mr. Ryan Crawford, who taught high school previously until coming to Regina Coeli as the new fifth-grade homeroom teacher. This curiosity is both a wonderful quality and a rare opportunity. Fifth graders are just as inquisitive as elementary students. Lecturing them like high school or college students is one of the quickest ways to lose their interest. However, because fifth graders are more independent than elementary students, there is a temptation for teachers (especially those coming from a high school teaching experience) to treat them as if they are older than they are.

Instead: Teach in a way that engages them and requires participation constantly. If giving notes, stop and ask questions frequently or allow them the opportunity to ask their own questions. Make lessons fun by drawing pictures, singing songs, dramatizing, or using manipulatives.

One way that Regina Coeli allows fifth graders to still be children is by pairing them with students from the younger classes frequently. Whether it’s pairing up for Mass, during a special reading time, or even just at recess, Regina Coeli encourages the upperclassmen to take the younger grades under their wings. It’s not uncommon for upperclassmen at Regina Coeli to play with the youngest children on the recess yard (of their own volition). Similarly, when a fifth-grade student is given the responsibility of a first-grade buddy, they are reminded of how much they’ve grown and how much they’ve learned. They feel older (because they are) but they are given the opportunity, in an appropriate setting, to act a bit younger, too. They can make silly noises when reading a book because they are doing it for a younger student. No need for embarrassment or shyness here - as far as first grade is concerned, fifth graders are cool!

3. Expect Them to Sit Still All Day

This is true of all students, but fifth graders especially can only sit still for so long. As they grow physically, the classroom will start to feel smaller to them. And it’s not just their bodies getting bigger; their books are getting larger, which means their backpacks are getting bigger, and as they start engaging in more complex work they often use more supplies. All this may serve to create a cramped effect in a fifth-grade classroom.

Instead: Consider letting them change more classes in addition to merely “Specials.” This provides both movement as well as a variety of teachers. Make sure they have enough recess time - outside as much as possible - to be active. Build time into your class to allow for freedom of movement – maybe they can sit somewhere that is not their desk during quiet reading time or a test. As one Regina Coeli fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Valerie Hart, put it, “I don’t sit all day; I’m allowed to walk around, so how can I expect a group of eleven-year-olds to sit still?” So she doesn’t! When working on memorizing times tables or reciting declamation pieces, her students are allowed freedom of movement. Ms. Hart went on to share, “Fifth graders are… weird and need space to be weird. We skip for the 3 times tables, hop for the 4, and so on. It helps them remember.” On a practical level, it also helps burn some energy, so that when they do need to sit still, they can. These habits or routines also help the students to know that they won’t be sitting for long.

This is also a privilege, which the students know can be taken away if they are too distracted. The same rule applies to other areas of self-expression, where we instill personal responsibility and structured creativity. For example, our students have assigned desks in their homerooms which they are required to keep clean and sanitary, both out of respect for those around them and to learn how to clean up after themselves. But, they can also personalize their desks, within reason. They are allowed to decorate their desks with stickers, nametags, legos, and more, as long as nothing damages the desk and it can all be removed at the end of the year. Ms. Hart recalls one student bringing in flowers from home, remembering to water and care for the plant. Throughout the day, when the grades switch classrooms for different subjects, the students know that an eighth grader may be sitting at “their” desks, and they might be sitting at an upperclassman’s as well. They know to respect the space they are borrowing, as they would desire for their own desks. Due to these changes at the fifth-grade level, they often feel that they have more freedom than the lower grades but also more fun than the older kids. In actuality, they are also simply learning how to be adults.

4. Teach as if They All Learn the Same Way

It is easy for a teacher to teach in accordance with the way he or she learns. Some individuals are visual learners, some are more auditory, and some are experiential and need to do things themselves. Teaching a student in a way that is not in accordance with their own learning styles can make them feel like they are incapable of learning when, in reality, they aren’t learning effectively. Each student is a unique and unrepeatable masterpiece of the Creator, forgetting this fact when we teach towards one particular learning style is a hindrance to both teacher and student.

Instead: Vary your lessons. Allow students time and space to talk through things. Use manipulatives and pictures. Let an auditory processor take a test in the hallway where they can talk to themselves. Reword a question or prompt a student who can’t answer correctly or completely at first. If needed, walk them through the process of answering the question you asked. Helping students in early middle school find the best way for them to learn will set them up for success in later years.

Using note-taking as an example, Ms. Hart explains how this flexibility can be achieved with both teacher input and student output. For her, the right side of each student’s notebook is teacher input: notes, in outline form, what is written on the board, and what she knows the students need. This stays the same among the students. The left side of the notebook is the student output. This is additional content that they choose to record depending on how they interact with the material. Some students re-write the notes in their own words, some list related vocabulary, and some make up their own practice questions. Ms. Hart admits, “Most draw… diagrams, pictures, comic book versions of the Bible stories.” It’s a way for the students to see for themselves what they know. If they don’t know the material, it's a way for them to figure out how to learn it. Perhaps their drawing of a historical event, and the details they remember to include, will continue to jog their memory for the long-term.

5. Make Everything Count for a Grade

It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything that is worth doing at school is worth grading, and that the best way to enhance a child’s engagement with an activity is to assign a grade to it. But to assume grades are the best or only motivation for learning is to grossly misunderstand a child’s nature. Children are not robots; they are human beings made in the image and likeness of their Creator. They have a natural sense of wonder about the world around them, which is why children in their natural state love to learn. Teachers can use grades responsibly to enrich a child’s learning experience, but they must be careful not to suppress a child’s wonder and love of learning by measuring and grading everything a child does at school.

Instead: Pursue some lessons or activities simply because they are good in and of themselves. If it starts snowing, stop class and take them outside. Talk about the wonder of God’s snow, or any weather element. Read a really good book, just because (Regina Coeli’s fifth grade class is currently reading The Hobbit and students love making up special voices for the characters they read). Take a class period to celebrate special feast days. Surprise them with pie on March 14.

Another option is grading some assignments for completion only. This is the approach in Regina Coeli’s once-a-week Classics class, where students are encouraged to engage with material in creative ways that underscore the goodness and joy of learning.

For assignments that are graded, Ms. Hart seeks opportunities to help her fifth graders

take risks and learn how to learn. She says students at this age need to fail occasionally so that they can learn from their mistakes and how to overcome them. At Regina Coeli, students know that their teachers are there to teach them, not just history, religion, or science, but also how to develop good habits and grow in virtue. That’s why they are encouraged to initiate conversations with teachers to ask for help, apologize for mistakes, advocate for themselves, and inquire about makeup work and extra credit.

A Transitional Year Needs a Thoughtful Teacher

The fifth grade is a unique and vital point on each learner’s path. It is during this year that children really settle into learning habits, attitudes, and work ethics. That is why it is so important for teachers to find a way to instill independence and consistency in students, while also recognizing that these children are merely ten or eleven years old. Fifth graders are still getting used to responsibility and autonomy, and that’s okay, but they need plenty of opportunities to practice (and even fail) at these new skills. It’s a tricky balance that requires a thoughtful teacher, but we hope that these five suggestions encourage you with this transitional year. May your fifth grade students find joy in their learning!

Monica Clarke grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and attended Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. She holds a Master of Arts in Theology from St. Charles Borromeo School of Theological Studies. Miss Clarke is a classically trained musician, with experience in keyboard, viola, and sacred choral music. She has been teaching a variety of math, religion, and Latin classes since 2010, and has been the Sixth Grade homeroom teacher at Regina Coeli Academy since 2014.

Miss Valerie Hart grew up in Glenside, PA where she attended St. Luke the Evangelist School, and St. Basil Academy. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She served as an Americorps member at Great Oaks Charter School while obtaining her Master of Arts in Teaching from New York University. She taught English, Literature, Religion, Robotics, Musical Theater, and 3D Printing for the past two years in Pensacola, Florida. She is excited to be a member of the RCA family.



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