Fourth and fifth graders are becoming so capable and they are so excited about the thinking and learning they can do. Developmentally, students this age begin to make the leap into abstract thinking. They question the world around them and have a hunger to make it better. Our job as their teachers is to provide the environment and support they need to make real things happen. The sheer joy they feel as they exercise their new leadership and thinking skills is contagious. It is a privilege to be a part of that as educators.
A walk through the day
The school’s three 4-5 classrooms—the Herons, the Kestrels, and the Robins—work closely together throughout the day. Typically, all 60 students begin the day with a literacy block, during which the children work independently and in small groups on reading, research, word study, and handwriting. Writers’ Workshop follows, as a block of time devoted exclusively to written communication. Each classroom then has a Morning Meeting to develop community and set the agenda for the day. Our math work follows this, and includes Foundation Math, which focuses on computation, arithmetic, and number sense. We continue the math workshop with Exploration Math, which strives to broaden students’ experience with mathematical strands, give them real-world application for math and, as often as possible, help them experience the beauty and wonder of mathematics. All math work focuses on conceptual understanding, application, and communication of mathematical thinking and ideas.
For both literacy and mathematics, we group children in a number of ways throughout the day and year. Some groups support learners with similar needs, but these groups are flexible, rarely lasting more than a month. Children often are a part of the process of grouping, assessing their own understanding (with guidance), and choosing the instruction most appropriate for their individual growth.
Themes, Traditions + Trips
Students work on a variety of themes throughout the year. These may have a social studies or science focus but always integrate literacy and numeracy. Some themes are developed in response to students’ interests and others are designed to expose students to whole new areas of learning. In recent years, students have studied the Voyageurs and Ojibwe, dendrochronology, Ancient Greece, space, plants, Shakespeare, maps and map making, human rights, water, and Minnesota History, among many other subjects. This simple list may not seem different from what a child might study at a traditional school, but the experience of learning differs significantly. Children feel as though they are discovering a topic when they learn progressively. They uncover new information that leads to new questions. They are on a journey without a preconceived destination; the learning feels exciting and real.
For example, a recent study of electricity began with some simple work with circuits, part of the Minnesota state standards. But students became fascinated by the fizzing they saw when they tested the conductivity of salt water. A professor from a nearby college came in to re-create the experiment and explain on a molecular level what was going on. This, in turn, inspired the students to learn more about atoms and what was happening atom by atom in our solar panel.
Students share their learning in a variety of ways—writing books, creating performances, teaching peers and parents, and involving younger students in interactive experiences. The students who studied electricity chose to design a science museum for the school, complete with interactive exhibits, historical timelines, and a gift store.
The fourth and fifth grades have a number of traditions, chief among them the annual fifth-grade trip to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center on Minnesota’s North Shore. This sleep-away experience, in the dead of winter, solidifies fifth graders’ confidence that they are ready to take on the wider world.
The Honors Project further cements this self-assurance. Fifth-grade students work with a mentor in a months-long spring research project. Many alumni have returned to tell us that the Honors Project was the most rigorous intellectual work they did until they were well into high school.
These are the last two years a child spends at Prairie Creek, and students deeply feel their responsibility to be stewards of the school and the "Prairie Creek Way.” They often work with younger students, and act as leaders of recess activities such as kickball. They help younger students resolve conflicts, and it is a common sight to see an older child with a friendly arm around the shoulders of a little one. By the time our fifth graders graduate they feel ready and excited to carry out Prairie Creek’s stated mission to “make the world a better place.”