Classroom Practice and Community Building
Our day starts at 8.20, with a class meeting, run by each of the children in turn. By taking responsibility for the meeting, the children learn both how to lead a meeting and how to listen to each other’s reports and opinions. The meeting begins with a minute or so of silence in which the children (and teacher) visualize the day ahead, and their part in it. Every week we have a ‘questions’ session, in which the children can ask about, and discuss, any topic that interests them. This year we are resuming our regular confidential whole-class discussions, using the ‘dialogue’ technique or a more formal council meeting, in which children can talk to each other about any problems that arise within the class, and other matters of interest.
This year’s theme is the Middle Ages. This is a complex theme, rich in social, cultural and political history. As a rough guide, we take the Middle Ages as running from 1000 to 1500 CE, and as the very phrase ‘Middle Ages’ refers to European history, our study will be based mostly in Europe. However, we will refer to other parts of the world and, in particular the Middle East, when we study the Crusades. We will look at the Crusades from European, Byzantine and Muslim perspectives. In general, historical events will be presented as examples of the way things were done in the Middle Ages, rather than as a straight narrative.
We began our theme study by reading and decoding the first lines of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English, which helped the children understand the complex roots of our own language. We then looked at social arrangements under the feudal system, and we will go on to study castles from a social and military point of view. We will study the art and symbolism of heraldry, and students will design their own coats of arms, and then transfer them to wooden shields. Other topics will include cathedrals, monasteries, the Black Death, and some of the European power struggles, such as the Norman conquest of England – which affected much of western Europe – and the Hundred Years War. We will also study Magna Carta, published in 1215, and celebrated – particularly in the USA – as a significant early step on the road to democracy.
This year we will once again be traveling to England and Wales in February, to visit castles, cathedrals and other medieval sites, including the ruins of the Cistercian Tintern Abbey. We will spend one and a half days in London, before traveling to the West Country and south Wales. This is a chance for students (and parents!) to experience castles at first hand, and to visit Stonehenge and some famous sites in London.
Reading: Our reading program includes individual books and whole-class and group reading books. Individual books are chosen to be just right for each child’s reading level, to develop fluency. Comprehension is developed by discussion of children’s individual books with the class teacher, and through group and whole-class conversations about the various whole-class readers. Our first whole-class book is Ghost Boys, which is an eye-opening novel based on the true-life story of Tamir Rice. Children have book-bags as a tangible contact between reading at home and reading in class. Students should bring their individual books to and from home every day, and each child should spend at least twenty minutes reading every evening. Every day we have a read-aloud session in which teachers read interesting and challenging books that they themselves enjoy.
Writing: We are beginning the year with a focus on journal writing, and writing responses to chapters of Ghost Boys. Our first full writing project will be an essay on the novel. This will be followed by a project in which the class will study various picture books for younger children, and examine the different ways in which they are put together. Students will then write and illustrate a book for their own reading buddies in the 1st-2nd grades. In January we will have a unit on poetry, which will begin with the children reading a wide variety of poems, as a whole class, in groups and as individuals. As we discuss them together, we will look at various technical elements of poetry, as well as the meaning of the poems themselves. Other writing projects will include a non-fiction report on some aspect of the Middle Ages.
We also study aspects of grammar – including basic parts of speech and conventions of syntax and punctuation – as part of the writing process, rather than as stand-alone subjects. There will also be regular exercises to reinforce the children’s learning. We are beginning the year with exercises to familiarize everyone with the use of a dictionary and thesaurus, and all the children have access to individual copies of both. We have begun working with spelling assignments for each grade, based on lists of words they are expected to be able to spell. The children will then work in groups based on their own particular spelling needs. The children will also have weekly spelling assignments for homework.
Handwriting: In general, the expectation is that all 5th– and 6th-graders will use cursive script as a matter of course for all their written work, from note-taking to final drafts. We have regular handwriting practices, which children continue until they have developed a neat, legible cursive and use it in their regular writing as their default writing style.
The 5th grade follows the Investigations curriculum, which covers the Common Core standards, and is familiar from the younger grades in the school. The 6th grade works with the Connected Math curriculum, which follows the same investigative philosophy of Investigations. The value of these curricula is that children build on their own understanding, and develop confidence in their own mathematical and investigative abilities. The curricula foster an intuitive and collaborative approach to math, in which children often arrive at solutions because they recognize mathematical patterns, rather than simply follow a rubric.
Our focus is to connect children with the natural world and explore major scientific concepts with hands on activities. We will develop theme connections whenever possible. We will develop familiarity with the scientific method through independent science projects. This year’s topics include the five Kingdoms of Life, plant and animal cells, DNA, genetics and evolution. We will also study the immune system, and the Black Death in the 14th century. We will study herbalism in the Middle Ages and compare European and Islamic medicine during the Middle Ages. We will introduce the ideas of alchemy and chemistry, including the periodic table, atoms and a basic chemistry experiment. We will also conduct our annual Biodiversity Day survey of local plant and animal species. From January to March, our science lessons will be devoted to the students’ Science Night projects. The students use the scientific method to do an independent experiment, write a report using lab report format, prepare a poster explaining the experiment’s findings and show their project at our non-competitive Science Night.
Creativity and the visual arts are an essential part of every day. The ‘painting of the week’ promotes lively discussions and inspiration within an historical context. Practical art classes are taught once a week, with a focus on process-based art. Experimenting with a wide variety of materials – paints, clay, sculpture, and the natural world – students are urged to explore, play and even be surprised; mistakes being seen as opportunities. Included are theme-based projects such as making clay castles and illuminated manuscripts, projects often inspired by famous artists, and collaborative projects that challenge students to work together to create a cohesive vision. The hope is that, by the end of the year, all the children will feel more confident in their unique expression and artistic vision.
The class will be singing a variety of songs, including English folk songs that may (or may not) have their roots in the Middle Ages. We will listen to a variety of recorded music, folk, rock and classical music, where possible watching performers on video. Seeing, as well as hearing, a performance is particularly useful with orchestral works. We hope to arrange recorder and fife lessons, backed up by in-school practice sessions.
A key feature of the year in the 5th-6th grade is our annual play. This is based on the theme, and the children develop their own plot and characters. Once each scene has been outlined in class, the children write their own versions at home. The class teacher then takes lines from the children’s individual scripts and develops a composite script, in which every child has a part. The children rehearse over a three-week period before performing the play in public. The whole process draws on the children’s understanding of the theme and provides a wonderful opportunity for the whole class to work as a community on a single project. The play is scheduled to be performed on Friday May 26th.
Like the rest of the school, the 5th-6th class has a weekly session of yoga, which helps the children to work with attention, and to develop awareness of their own bodies. It also helps them develop ways of coming to a state of quietness and wider awareness of themselves and their surroundings.
The core of our homework is a daily reading assignment, which the book-bag system is intended to support. We expect each child to read at home for at least twenty minutes a day. In addition there is math homework on Monday to Thursday, designed to support the class lessons that precede and follow it. There will also be some writing homework, generally to help a child to develop individual writing projects, but sometimes on specific writing topics. Homework assignments should generally be completed on the day they are given, with the exception of spelling assignments. The total time devoted to homework should be no longer than 45-60 minutes a day, because we believe children need time to follow other pursuits at home.