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Common Questions about the Sixth Grade


Kids aren't the only ones wondering about the upcoming school year. Here are some questions that parents often ask.

What's the right size for my child's class?

How much homework should my child expect?

Should my child be using a computer?

When should my child begin studying a foreign language?

Are field trips a good use of class time?

What's the right size for my child's class?

Parents of children in the intermediate grades often ask how large or small the class should be. Parents have an intuitive sense that the class should be small during the earliest years of school, from kindergarten through third grade. But class size is also very important throughout the intermediate and middle school grades. Ideally, a sixth grade classroom should have fewer than 25 children. Class size should be designed to allow plenty of individual attention. The more attention the teacher can give to each child, and the more experiences the teacher can help each child have, the better. As class size goes beyond 25 students, the potential for individual interaction decreases considerably.

My experience is that as class size goes beyond 25 children -- which is too often the norm -- the classroom becomes a less rich environment for each child. Teachers and parents need to become more vocal about the importance of class size in these intermediate and middle school years.

How much homework should my child expect?

Another question that comes up often is, "How much homework is reasonable for sixth grade children?" Homework is commonly assigned by teachers in the intermediate grades. While some teachers believe that homework is unnecessary -- in other words, that the school day is long enough for a child to do everything that needs to be done -- I believe homework can be useful, especially if it is interesting, if it goes beyond the daily school activities, and if it is aimed at deepening the child's understanding of what is being studied. A good homework assignment, prompted by a powerful question, might ask the student to interpret, synthesize, or reconstruct an idea or problem.

Homework assignments in the sixth grade might include: Read the new story you wrote to your mother or father. Read for 40 minutes on your own. Think about words related to totalitarianism or social justice. Write an essay about the role of women in ancient Greece or Greek-style architecture in your community. Watch a particular documentary on television and be prepared to tell the other students what you found most interesting or convincing in the program. Scan the editorial page of your local newspaper and note the themes: economic issues, personalities, and world events. Or design and carry out an experiment using batteries and circuits.

A sixth-grader might also be expected to complete some mathematics problems or begin studying the moon. But sixth grade children should not have homework that regularly takes more than an hour and a half to complete. If their homework assignments regularly exceed this limit, parents should inquire about it. And if there is no homework, that too is worth an inquiry.

Should my child be using a computer?

I am often asked about the use of computers in the schools. Many children today use computers at home at age five or six, and a growing number of schools have installed computers in primary grade classrooms. Much can be done with computers, especially in word processing, mathematics, model building, and problem-solving exercises. And some of the programs now available give children access to large museums and artistic collections as well as to various archives of documents. In addition, some video games emphasize problem solving and could be used in the classroom. By sixth grade, children should be far along in their ability to use the computer for a variety of purposes. Parents should be attuned to their children's level of knowledge and skill regarding computers. If your sixth grade child is not a confident computer user, you should talk with his or her teacher.

When should my child begin studying a foreign language?

Parents of intermediate-age children often ask about foreign language study. Some schools -- and the numbers are still very small -- begin foreign languages in the early primary grades, often in two-way bilingual programs. In such programs, half the children might be Spanish speaking, for example, and the other half speak no Spanish. Each group learns the other's language.

In most schools that offer foreign language study for elementary students, however, such study usually begins in the intermediate grades. The United States is far behind most other industrialized countries in second-language programs. All schools should offer a second language at the intermediate level, if not before. Studying a second language not only provides valuable insights into another culture and enriches the child's world but also greatly strengthens the child's understanding of his or her native language. Parents can and should do more to make sure that their children's schools understand the importance of foreign language programs.

Are field trips a good use of class time?

Sixth grade children are typically engaged in activities outside of school, such as field trips to museums, nature preserves, planetariums, craft centers, businesses, and service organizations. Some parents question the purpose of such activities and wonder what their children are learning from them; in addition, parents may be concerned that the children are missing the "real" education that should be taking place in the classroom by visiting a museum when they should be having math class. It is clear, however, that field trips do enhance classroom learning. A field trip to a museum or factory can make real and concrete what is being studied in the classroom -- it is one thing to read about ancient Egyptian civilization, for example, and quite another to get a firsthand look at massive stone structures engraved with hieroglyphs, or to examine three-thousand-year-old mummies and burial masks. In fact, rather than worrying about too much out-of-classroom activity, parents should be concerned if their children seem to spend virtually all of every school day within the confines of the classroom.

Reprinted from 101 Educational Conversations with Your 6th Grader by Vito Perrone, published by Chelsea House Publishers.
Copyright 1994 by Chelsea House Publishers, a division of Main Line Book Co. All rights reserved.

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