Lower School (Grades 1–8)
Targeted Curriculum, Profound Understanding
Main Lesson and the Class Teacher
In the Lower School each class has one primary teacher, the class teacher, who continues with the children, usually through the 8th grade. The class teacher creates with the students a warm, healthy class community. The children’s imaginative life is allowed to continue to develop particularly in the lower grades through a curriculum rich in pictures, movement, and story. The students approach subjects with all their heart and energy because their feelings are involved in the work and they are called upon to do a lot in the process of learning. Intellectual insight awakens through active engagement and artistic involvement in subjects, giving a deep sense of connectedness to ideas and to the world.
The morning begins with recitation and song. In the younger grades movement is woven into the opening portion of the lesson. These enlivening activities help ready the students for the central part of the main lesson. Subjects are introduced and deepened over several weeks in what are called blocks. Every subject from arithmetic to history, writing to grammar, botany to physics is taught in blocks. This intensive, concentrated focus on a subject over several weeks builds a strong connection to the subject. Because the main lesson is a longer period, approximately two hours in the morning, there is time to explore subjects through a variety of activities such as drama, arts, movement, and writing. From much of the main lesson work, the children create their own books which are their record of learning. A rhythm is established whereby what the students are presented in class is recalled the following day and worked with so that the feeling life is enriched through the rhythms of the lessons. The main lesson period often closes with a quiet gathering together, and, particularly in the younger grades, the teacher tells a story from the curriculum. The breathing of activity and quiet work carries the students in a healthy way.
The main lesson subjects and the way they are taught reflect psychological issues of development. There are myriad examples of congruence between subjects and the students’ developmental stage. For example, around the age of nine, many children become sensitive to their own separateness from their family and to their individual vulnerability within a larger world. Particularly at this age, children love to figure out how they would build a structure in the woods to keep themselves protected from the weather, and the 3rd grade curriculum includes very practical experiences that give a child confidence in farming and house building, on how to survive on their own. In 6th grade when the stirrings of puberty can be felt with its emotional turmoil, students study the strict laws of the Romans and the discipline of the emotional life revered in the Middle Ages. When students begin to shoot up in height and their limbs can become gangly and clumsy in the 7th grade, they experiment with and learn about mechanics, a study that demands working with movement and weights. The inner connections that the students make to the curriculum give a sense of assurance and affirmation.
Academic are introduced in the main lessons, practiced in the opening exercises and during main lesson and in additional periods throughout the day.
All teachers of the Lower School are mindful of cultivating habits in their students that will support them throughout life. In the Middle School, one example is the habit of careful observation. As the children grow up through the grades, increasingly memory for facts, living forms, melody, etc. is developed. Care and completion of work, habits of courtesy, and habits of cleaning the room at the end of an activity or of the day all are developed through deliberate repetition.
Aside from the rich experiences of the main lessons, the students have subjects often taught to them by teachers other than their class teacher. These curricula also develop in harmony with the development of the children: Spanish, handwork, woodwork, games and outdoor education, form drawing, and art.
Seventh and Eighth Grades
Starting in the 6th grade, the students also are taught mathematics and English by specialists other than the class teacher. In the 7th and 8th grades other teachers besides the class teacher teach some of the main lessons. Electives are also offered in the 7th and 8th grades. These electives vary from year to year but include such classes as gardening, pottery, felting, keyboarding and archery. An outdoor education program that combines the 7th and 8th grades is offered first in these years.
Our local area offers many possibilities for field trips. Washington, DC offers a generous array of possibilities: Renaissance painting at the National Gallery for 7th grade students in the history block, the Natural History museum for the 7th grade in their geology block; and any number of places during the 4th grade local history and geography block. Outside of the city, opportunities for curriculum related trips also abound: Chesapeake Bay during the zoology block in 4th grade, Mount Vernon during the American History block in grade 8, the Luray Canyons for the geology block in grade 6. Classes take a wide variety of camping trips including to Chincoteague and Assateague, National Parks and bicycle trips along the canal. Major trips include a five-day visit to a working farm in New York State, the Hawthorne Valley Farm, where students participate in the farm activities, often witnessing the birth of a new calf. In the 7th grade, the students also take a more extensive camping trip that includes nature experience often combined with ropes course and team building exercises. The 8th grade traditionally takes a week-long trip that includes a wilderness experience and a cultural component.