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 teachers) visualize the day ahead, and their part in it. We also have a moment of silence when we return to the classroom from recess, and before lunch. Both of these are aimed at giving the children a chance to center themselves and regroup. Every week we have a ‘questions’ session, in which the children can ask about, and discuss, any topic that interests them. We will also continue 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.
This year’s theme is Ancient Greece. We are beginning by reviewing the Greek deities, and some of the related myths, and by learning about the Greek alphabet. A recurring strand of the theme will be to make links between Ancient Greece and our own society, which will include taking note of the many words we use that have their origins in Ancient Greek. We will also read the story of Troy and look at the archeological evidence behind the legend. Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the Odyssey will be a class reading project. We also hope to visit the Greek exhibit at the MFA in Boston, where a wide variety of myths is illustrated on Greek pottery.
We will study the social and political heritage of Greece – democracy, juries, theater, etc – and will learn about – and contrast – the cities of Athens and Sparta. We will sketch in some political history and the relationship between the Greeks and Persia. We will learn about Alexander the Great and use a middle-school biography of Alexander as another whole-class reading project. Later, the class will work in groups to study a particular Greek scientist or philosopher, and write a report covering their biography and ideas. The reports will be shared with the rest of the class, so that everyone benefits from each other’s research.
Finally, our annual play is a key part of our theme study. The Ancient Greece theme usually provides a rich source of material for our play scripts, which draw together various aspects of the children’s understanding of the year’s theme.
Various points in our theme study have parallels with U.S. history, and we will take some time to look at these when they arise. Topics will include the idea of democracy, and we will see how women, for example, were excluded from Athenian political life, and ignored in the U.S. Constitution. We will look at how enslavement figured in Greece, and how it shaped – and continues to shape – the history of the United States. We will also look at immigration; how it has underpinned the growth of America, and how attitudes to immigrants have recurred throughout this country’s history.
Reading: Our reading program has two main strands: individual books, and whole-class books. Individual books are chosen to be just right for each child’s reading level, to develop fluency. Comprehension is developed by discussion of the individual book with the class teachers and through group and whole-class conversations. Our main whole-class reader this year will be The Benefits of Being an Octopus, which is an eye-opening story, set in Vermont, and centered on the struggles of people living on the margins of American society.
Children have book-bags as a link between reading at home and reading in class. Students should bring their individual and group reading books to and from home every day, and spend at least twenty minutes reading every evening. Our class meetings will include book reports in which children describe and recommend books to each other. Read-aloud books are a regular feature of the day, in which the children hear a variety of exciting and challenging books, and (we hope!) share in the teacher’s own enthusiasm.
Writing: This year one focus of our writing is to produce written responses to reading (one of the Common Core State Standards) and we are using journals mainly as readers’ notebooks. The children will write responses to the whole-class reading books we study, and will write about the poems they choose for themselves. This will form the foundation for the children’s own poetry writing. Other writing projects will include memoir and a non-fiction report on one or another Greek philosopher. The play is a major writing project in which all students write their individual scripts, based on agreed scenes and plot, and work together to produce a single combined play script which they then perform.
We will also study aspects of grammar, beginning with basic parts of speech and conventions of syntax and punctuation. Grammar lessons will feature as part of a year-long series of mini-lessons covering many aspects of writing. There will also be regular exercises to reinforce the children’s learning. Children learn various general spelling rules in class and will be taking home a weekly list of ten words to learn. These will sometimes be related to a child’s individual needs, based on class-wide spelling assessments, and at other times the words will be taken from the list of words each grade should be able to spell. Later in the year we will work with words that have classical roots, grouped together by their Greek or Latin origins. Weekly assessments cover the week’s listed words, plus four more from previous lists. Handwriting: The expectation is that all 5th and 6th-graders will be using cursive script as a matter of course for all their written work, from note-taking to final drafts.
In the 5th grade we continue to follow the Investigations curriculum, which enables children to build on their own understanding, and develop confidence in their own mathematical and investigative abilities. The curriculum offers students opportunities to have varied experiences with mathematical concepts, through games and other hands-on activities. Children are encouraged to use multiple strategies to solve problems and engage with peers to stretch their thinking. The Investigations curriculum fosters an intuitive and collaborative approach to math, in which children often arrive at solutions because they recognize mathematical patterns, while at the same time learning a range of math skills. In 6th grade we work with the Connected Math curriculum, which is based on the same principles as Investigations. Our latest versions of both these curricula incorporate the Common Core Standards.
Our focus is to connect children with the natural world and explore major scientific concepts with hands-on activities. We explore the scientific method through independent science projects. The science curriculum is planned throughout 1st-6th grade so that topics can be introduced at a time appropriate to the theme and to children’s development. When a topic does not fit well into any theme, it’s sandwiched into the curriculum.
This fall, we’ll start out with studying the Archimedes Principle, and then jump into understanding human anatomy, as well as the Ancient Greek understanding of human anatomy. Late in the fall, we will cover simple machines, and then move on to circuits and batteries. This will help us prepare for science projects this winter, which are independent projects completed at school and are presented to students and families. In spring, we’ll study space, and make a model of the solar system. At the end of the year, we’ll take part in the Biodiversity Day field study.
The core of our art program is practical art, in which the children learn, and develop confidence in, various drawing and painting techniques. A key aspect of our art lessons is that children should gain in confidence, and learn to value their work. We will examine what is a ‘good’ painting in our weekly ‘Painting of the Week’ by look at contrasting examples from painters such as Picasso and Kandinsky, and works from classical artists, or society portrait paintings by John Singer Sargent.
The class will sing a mix of songs and tunes with harmony parts and room for improvisation. The class listens to live and recorded music, and will learn basic music theory. When students are learning recorder we will arrange practice sessions in class during those weeks – we’ve found this more productive than asking children to practice at home!
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 speaking part. The children rehearse in the classroom and on stage in the Auditorium before performing the play in public. The 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. Given the size of this year’s class, we will almost certainly write a play for half the class’s number, and perform it with two different casts. The play is scheduled to be performed on May 23rd and 24th.
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 occasional 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, which are given on Monday and assessed on Thursday. 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.