Lower School Curriculum
The curriculum for each grade includes language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, art, library, music, physical education, and Spanish or Prima Lingua. The program for each grade is exciting, challenging, and developmentally appropriate. Instrumental music lessons, a Lower School string ensemble, after-school clubs with a wide range of offerings, and Saturday morning basketball and swimming complement the Lower School program.
Every fall, Lower School students make "stone soup." In the traditional fable of Stone Soup, a stranger comes to a stingy town and convinces the townspeople that he can make a soup using just a magic stone and some water. Bit by bit he persuades them to add ingredients until the soup becomes rich with meat and vegetables, and the town learns the power of cooperation.
- Language Arts
- Social Studies
- Physical Education
- The Arts
- Academic Evaluation
Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are the essential tools of language, both for communicating and for understanding. Our Lower School teaches, explores and practices these language arts skills every day, with children building increasingly strong foundations to support their work in every area of the curriculum. Lower School students learn to apply language arts skills to critical and creative thinking and reasoning and to the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of the information and concepts they encounter. The best Lower School programs and projects rely on the language arts necessary to build lively classroom discussions, with every child engaged, confident, and forming and expressing ideas and opinions.
With the youngest students, the language arts program focuses on listening and speaking. Teachers guide students in expressing their ideas, needs, feelings, and knowledge and support them in using language effectively -- to solve problems, for pleasure through conversation and stories, and in narratives that accompany works of art or imaginative play. In addition, the joys of reading are part of every classroom, every day, from nursery through grade 5, as books are enjoyed individually, shared as a class, or read one-to-one with a friend, a buddy from another grade, or a teacher.
Reading and writing instruction is progressive and individualized, ensuring that every child will be challenged and inspired. The Lower School faculty uses a variety of techniques to teach reading, including whole language, phonics, sight, and kinesthetic approaches.
For most children, the writing acquisition process is as folIows: In nursery students begin figuring out the sounds they hear in words and the letters that make those sounds. In pre-kindergarten teachers work one-to-one with students to put those phonetic spellings down on paper in sentences that express their ideas, and by kindergarten, students add simple sight word vocabularies to their phonetic skills and begin to write full sentences independently. In the early grades, use of phonetic -- “inventive” -- spelling encourages the flow of ideas without fear of making mistakes. This is critical as students find and grow their voices.
As reading and writing skills develop, other aspects are added -- formal spelling programs, writing mechanics, writing in different genres, from different perspectives and for different audiences, and formal essays with introductions and conclusions. Poetry, creative, and expository writing are emphasized as students progress through the grades.In addition to their regular classroom work, all students in kindergarten and grades 1 and 2 participate in lessons led by one of two reading specialists. This auxiliary reading program enhances the development of early reading skills, helps to identify students who may require reading support, and provides challenges for early readers.
A sequential mathematics program emphasizing problem-solving and conceptual understanding gives our Lower School students an applications-oriented approach that builds an understanding of the many ways math connects to their daily lives. Students develop basic computation skills and learn to gather, organize, and interpret data. In the early grades, use of manipulatives nurtures development of number sense. This ensures a thorough understanding of basic concepts before students move to pictorial and then to symbolic and abstract levels. Working in small groups, students expand and enrich their experiences through math games and cooperative math activities. Cooperative problem-solving is a thread that runs throughout the curriculum and encourages students to combine essential math facts with diverse and creative approaches to solve mathematical problems.
Teachers encourage students to question math terms and figure out why numbers and concepts work as they do. Problem-solving ability is stressed as students learn to break down math problems and identify what questions a problem is asking. Number sense continually develops. As the youngest work to understand the magnitude and relationships of quantity -- what each number means by itself and in relation to others -- older students develop the ability to use numbers fluidly, flexibly, and fluently in adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying, first in simple operations and later in multi-step problems.
While each grade has benchmarks for math achievement, teachers in all grades differentiate math instruction for students who are ready for more challenging work. Our learning specialists also provide enrichment and support as needed. Auxiliary support to strengthen math skills is also available as needed.
Our Lower School is strongly committed to thematic education, a holistic approach that unifies diverse subject matter around a central social studies-based theme and creates a depth of interest and understanding often missing in other approaches. Learning that is integrated across different disciplines helps students develop deeper comprehension and broader perspectives on facts and concepts. This integration of disciplines illuminates relationships and ways in which disparate aspects of the world are connected -- the past and present, geography and culture, the arts, literature, and history. All areas of learning and the stories of all people are connected by common threads.
A new Lower School fall theme is chosen each year and followed by grade-level themes in the spring semester. The topics selected encourage students to recognize and appreciate the racial, religious, and ethnic diversity of the world in a multicultural approach to education. While spring themes vary in nursery and pre-kindergarten, spring topics for students in kindergarten through grade 2 focus on people, cultures, and geography around the world. Students in grades 3 and 4 learn about Native Americans, United States geography, and immigration, and grade 5 studies the ancient world. As the students get older and their perspectives and knowledge deepen, lessons include the historical origins of current conflicts and raise questions of what can be learned from history and how history relates to the present.
The annual fall project unifies Lower School as all classes study the same theme from different perspectives. Sharing a common theme gives rise to interactions between classes and across grades, topical assembly programs, related service projects, group games, numerous collaborations and, overall, a great deal of fun and the satisfaction of understanding a topic well. Specialists in music, art, Spanish, physical education, and library link their lessons to each class’s studies during both the shared fall project and the individual grade spring themes.
RECENT ALL-SCHOOL THEMES
- Literary Adventures
- The Renaissance World
- Into the Woods
- Latin America
- The Mediterranean
- Bright Ideas
- The Middle Ages
GRADE-LEVEL SPRING THEMES
- Pre-k Insects/Space
- Kindergarten World Tour
- Grade 1 Asia
- Grade 2 Africa
- Grade 3 Native Americans
- Grade 4 USA—Land of Diversity
- Grade 5 Ancient Civilizations
Lower School students are natural scientists, full of questions, ready for challenges, and eager to experiment, make things, and find ways to figure out answers. All grades, nursery through 5, have one or two weekly classes in the science lab, a space that entices students young and old with its equipment -- all manner of building materials, microscopes, measuring devices, and other tools -- and collections of fossils, rocks, minerals, shells, and other objects of natural history. Using a hands-on, experiential approach, students cover a variety of disciplines including biology, botany, and the basic principles of chemistry and physics. Children are encouraged to use their acquired knowledge to solve real-life problems in a curriculum that teaches scientific techniques and stresses an appreciation for conservation and ecology. Almost as much class time is spent outdoors as indoors. The science curriculum uses the 18-acre campus with its woods, fields, pond, bird-blind, access to a nearby creek, and gardens, including the new garden created in 2014 in a central location adjacent to the lower playground.The curriculum builds understanding of scientific concepts and principles as it develops intellectual and manual skills. At the same time, the teachers support units of study going on in individual classrooms. Nursery students learning about the circus may study principles of balance and counterweight with their science teacher, for example, and a science lesson may take pre-k entomologists to the creek with sieves and microscopes to catch and observe insects in larval and nymph stages.
Use of technology is integrated into all classrooms with one-to-one iPads available for all students in grades K-5. Nursery and pre-k students work with technology and classroom teachers in small groups using iPads for pre-reading and math enrichment activities
In grades K-5, technology instruction supplements and expands classroom learning through mastery of applications across subject areas. Students use iPads to research, calculate, draw, read and write stories and to reinforce math skills. The availability of iPads give children access to creative projects, such as making movies and other multi-media presentations, which allows students a wider choice in responding to what they are learning and provides a potentially much wider audience for their work.
Lower School students participate in an active physical education program that stresses mastery of a sequence of developmentally appropriate skills and emphasizes teamwork. Younger students play cooperative games and work to develop fundamental movement skills, balance, and eye-hand coordination. Older students develop skills in specific sports such as soccer, field hockey, and basketball that prepare them for participation in the Middle School sports programs. Wellness is specifically taught in 5th grade health, but it is also discussed, taught and lived throughout the year in the entire Lower School physical education program.
Our Lower School Spanish program teaches the children through many approaches, including games, puppets, props, dialogues, storybooks, and music. Instruction is conducted in Spanish and integrated with the overall classroom curriculum. Lessons are designed and coordinated with the children’s grade level, thematic focus, and developmental progress in mind. Listening, oral comprehension, and speaking skills are emphasized. Students in grades 3 and 4 begin to write in Spanish. For example, one fourth grade written assignment has students create travel brochures for a Spanish-speaking country, working in pairs to research, write, and then present their brochures to the class.
Each year, the curriculum for all grades includes study of the geography and culture of two Spanish-speaking countries, with one choice linked to the fall project theme. For example, Spain and Don Quixote linked Spanish class with the fall theme, Literary Adventures, while Venezuela and the Oronoco River were studied during another fall's Rivers theme. Other topics of study during the year include animals, family, time, numbers, community, weather, clothing, plants, body parts, feelings, simple commands, transportation, interests, leisure activities, months of the year, daily routines, and holidays and celebrations including Dia De Los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo.
Lower School is rich in artistic excitement and expression. Students present plays, produce videos, make beautiful music, and fill the school with the visual arts. The dynamic art and music programs turn hallways into inspiring galleries that reflect the children’s joyful creative spirits and often lead to spontaneous bursts of song from groups of students reprising favorite pieces learned in music class.
Children love to come to art class with its wealth of materials and the time and opportunity to explore them. Lower School captures the natural and abundant creativity in every child, encouraging the development of visual literacy and awareness and helping students to understand and interpret the world around them. Self-confidence is built through successful self-expression.
The program uses both traditional media -- different kinds of paints, natural and synthetic clays, drawing materials that include pencils, pastels, markers, fabric crayons, India ink, and charcoals -- and nontraditional media such as sunprint kits, duct and colored tapes, found objects, metal foils, yarn, fabric, and objects from nature. They also work on potters’ wheels and iPads and use a variety of printmaking materials and techniques. The works of historical and contemporary artists are studied. Given the materials and guidance, students build skills based on their individual experiences. These skills progress through each grade, scaffolding and supporting children’s growing abilities to express themselves.
Children respond to music innately. Our Lower School music curriculum is based on the belief that music is for all people and designed to nurture musical creativity in each child. In class students actively engage in music making through singing and playing a variety of classroom instruments. The Lower School music curriculum is based on the Orff and Kodály approaches to music education as well as the music learning theory of Edwin Gordon. All of the work and play done in class is part of a carefully sequenced program that develops musical independence and music literacy and includes opportunities for individual and ensemble improvisation. Starting in second grade, the Lower School also offers an extra curricular instrumental program including a string ensemble and private lessons on piano, violin, and cello.
The Lower School Library serves as the information center of the Lower School, supporting all educational programs and providing teachers and students with helpful resources quickly and efficiently. Our goal is to inspire a lifelong love of reading and to promote information literacy by teaching research and library skills necessary to become independent learners.
The library offers a wide array of materials including over 14,000 books, videos, DVDs, CDs, reference materials, magazines and online resources. Research skills are taught within the context of classroom curricula and in collaboration with classroom teachers. All classes visit the library weekly. In addition, there is flexible scheduling for classes to use the library for research projects. Children are encouraged to visit the library, with permission of the classroom teacher, whenever they need to return or choose a new book.
The library is equipped with 12 computers with internet access and an online catalog. Additional laptops are available when needed. Our library blog includes links to kid-friendly search engines and research sites. We subscribe to World Book Online, Encyclopedia Britannica Online and AccessPA Power Library, all of which can be accessed from home. Lower School faculty and students have instant access to Blackburn’s Middle and Upper School library online catalog and resources.
In collaboration with classroom courses of study, the Lower School library curriculum is, in accordance with the American Association of School Librarians, designed to inspire and foster a lifelong love of reading, viewing, listening, and learning. The program also promotes information literacy, including visual, textual, digital and technological literacy to help children acquire the thinking skills needed to become independent learners. Children are taught digital citizenship and ethical behavior in the use of information and technology.
To accomplish this, the Lower School library uses a wide array of materials reflective of diverse perspectives in print and non-print formats: books, e-books, videos, print, and online reference sources (encyclopedias, dictionaries, maps, atlases, almanacs), websites, blogs, and search engines. Additionally, author and illustrator visits are a regular occurrence at Lower School with an in-depth study of the works of at least one visiting author or illustrator each year. The library supplies faculty and children with the most current, relevant information to support curricula. For all grades, there is a focus on stories, genre, and author/illustrator studies in collaboration with class curriculum and special events.
In each subsequent year, the use of reference sources and understanding of the library’s organization and systems are expanded as student assignments for research and writing become more complex and students become more independent library users. Issues of copyright, plagiarism, crediting sources, and bibliographies are introduced in 3rd grade and studied more deeply in 4th and 5th grades when there is also a more in-depth focus on use of print and online resources for research, search techniques, evaluating sources, and note taking.
Parent/teacher conferences are held in the fall and spring of each year, and written evaluations are sent home in December and in June. Written reports include a narrative overview of the student’s progress and a checklist that provides information about specific skills in each academic discipline. In addition to the specified conferences, parents and teachers communicate as the need arises.