Middle Division (Grades 4-6)
The first year of Upper School develops both the expository and descriptive writing skills that students will take with them throughout Upper School. Writing is also integrated throughout all subjects, so they apply what they learn in different contexts.
Students come from 3rd grade with the ability to construct a paragraph. They will grow their skills in expository writing from the paragraph into the five-part essay. Students also expand on the descriptive writing process, first by writing “Moments in Time,” in which the writer focuses on drawing the reader into a single experience or act, such as taking a sip of water or picking up a leaf. By the end of the year, they will write their own stories using the problem-resolution format, with the understanding that the descriptive flair the writer brings is more important than creating a complicated problem to be solved.
Books are selected for their relationship to both the history and SEL curricula. With the focus of history being California from its earliest inhabitants to the time of statehood, readings will include Your Mother Was a Neanderthal, Back in the Beforetime (a collection of Native American tales), and By the Great Horn Spoon. The YA classics Blubber and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler foster lively discussion on ethical and social-emotional topics that the students readily relate to. All the books chosen also serve to provide examples of literary techniques that the students can apply in their own writing: creating tension, using simile and metaphor, and being creative in their vocabulary.
Novels are explored in small book clubs in 5th grade, with reading groups selecting their own books throughout the year and meeting four times each week for in-depth discussion. This format allows the students to connect deeply with literature. Regular assessment and discussion allow teachers to gauge their students' progress in comprehension and analysis.
The goal of the writing curriculum in 5th grade is to broaden students' facility with different genres, perspectives, and audiences. Exercises cover personal narrative, letter writing, poetry, book reviews, expository and creative writing, and reports, with an emphasis on learning to organize their thoughts. Grammar and writing mechanics are explored in short lessons, reinforced with focused assignments.
Writing is integrated throughout 6th grade subject areas, with an eye toward creating writers who can express ideas and demonstrate knowledge clearly and engagingly. The program approaches all writing as creative, as students expand their thinking about language: What other word or phrase could they use? How else might they express a thought or arrange a sentence? How would they express the same thought from a different perspective? The program also stresses the importance of continual improvement through brainstorming, rewriting, and revising. Exercises in editing techniques and sentence diagramming develop confidence with usage and structure.
The 6th grade literature curriculum develops sophisticated readers who can analyze text and draw connections between ideas. Focusing on a few works each year of fiction and poetry allows time to live with the ideas and language of each, while reading the works as a class fosters a common literary experience. Reading short stories at the beginning of the year, they build an understanding of literary terms such as plot, theme, and conflict. Students expand their vocabulary and knowledge of word roots within the context of the assigned reading. They also write frequently about literature, engaging them actively in understanding what they've read.
The Bridges in Mathematics teaching method is followed up to 5th grade, when the curriculum shifts to prepare students for Upper Division math. Bridges emphasizes the thorough grasp of mathematical concepts, key skills, and multiple solving strategies through the use of visual models and manipulatives. The elements are consistent throughout the grades and increase in complexity from year to year. Teachers supplement the curriculum where necessary to introduce or reinforce certain skills or concepts.
In the 4th grade, students become more independent as problem solvers. The year starts with the introduction of more complex modeling with arrays for multiplication and division, laying the groundwork with a variety of algorithms. In geometry, hands-on activities help teach area and volume in flat and three-dimensional shapes, and students move into two-dimensional sketching of the same concepts. The end of the year brings in the concepts of data, statistics, and averages, illustrated with a unit about birds and wingspan. Students will also increase their mathematical vocabulary and their ability to articulate their thinking in solving problems.
Long division and multiplication, geometry, percentage, probability, and fractions are the primary units in 5th grade. Students continue to work with manipulatives to develop multiple solving strategies but also gain exposure to formulas and algorithmic thinking. An exciting component to this year is math enrichment: The Upper Division math specialist comes in to do class lessons on topics related to a current unit and provides extension lessons for small groups of interested students.
The 6th grade year introduces exciting new math concepts and processes, reinforcing skills learned in 4th and 5th grade. The goal is to prepare the students to start algebra in 7th grade, so they will become familiar with the concept of variables and solving and graphing for variables. Keeping pace with the developmental stage of these young adults, the curriculum pays special attention to the practical application of math, with units that dovetail with media literacy lessons on the credit industry and how data is routinely manipulated with graphs and charts.
The highlight of 4th grade, the toothpick bridge, is a vehicle for learning the key concepts of flex, tension, and balance of forces, as student teams design and build bridges from toothpicks and glue. The project culminates with testing the load-bearing capacity of each bridge: Each team hangs a bucket from the center of their bridge and fills it with sand, weighing it at each addition, until the bridge breaks. Other areas of study in 4th grade include sound (for which students make their own stringed instrument) and the workings of simple machines, such as levers, pulleys, catapults, and sails. Students also apply the scientific process in a project on testing and identifying the different types of rocks.
Fifth grade covers three inquiry-based science units. In their study of electricity and magnetism, students learn to build a circuit with salt dough and wires (called a squishy circuit), experimenting with different actions and results; to reinforce their understanding of the process, they also learn to program a simple Flash animation of how the circuit works. Our garden serves as a lab for learning about plant parts and their functions and a small unit about weather.
Concepts and areas of inquiry in 6th grade include flight and rocketry; color, light, and the eye; astronomy; Newton's Laws of Motion; and the dynamics of volume and liquid. Students now begin to develop as scientific thinkers and are doing experiments for the first time. Units are designed to teach them to approach questions, work with a team to run an experiment, and record their findings. In making pendulums, they learn about the effect of variables in experiments—what happens when you add weight, decrease or increase the length? In creating wind-up mechanisms for planes and rockets, they explore the relationship between motor strength and velocity. Color and light experiments with lenses illustrate the complexities of visual perception.
Fourth graders study the development of California from with its first inhabitants (including theories about they arrived here) to the time of statehood. They focus on the Coast Miwok, the arrival of early European explorers and Spanish missionaries, and the Gold Rush. Exciting projects give students the opportunity to flip the classroom, teaching each other and their teachers: In their study of the Coast Miwok, for example, they work in pairs to create movies on a focused topic that they then present to their peers; using Comic Life, they create a graphical short story to illustrate the migration of the first inhabitants into California; and the class builds a large California mission diorama together. The spring trip to Gold Country is an eagerly anticipated highlight of their studies: Integrating skills from drama—with the creation of a character and back story—with outdoor education, the students experience three days of living, and learning about, a key period of the state's history.
Independent research, primary sources, and differing perspectives drive the learning in social studies for 5th grade. With a focus on American history from the 1600s to 1800s, there is rich ground for looking at documents and learning about social movements, but students are also encouraged to challenge received information and conventional wisdom. For the annual Colonial Day project, they collaborate to write and perform short plays about historical figures. This work integrates skills in drama and research, but has also become a powerful media literacy lesson, a way for students to ask pointed questions about what is included in history textbooks: Who gets space and who doesn't and what do we learn about history and about ourselves when we look outside the dominant viewpoint? The plays have covered lesser-known people and incidents such as Anne Hutchinson and the Pequot War.
Students solidify their knowledge of U.S. geography, states, and capitals and complete a report on an American state that includes information on its economy, people, and history; they learn to use interactive maps in the state project and present their paper to the class. Skills include research, note-taking, verifying and citing sources, and writing with clarity and structure.
The historical framework for sixth grade humanities is early humans and ancient cultures, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. In practice, these serve as starting points for investigations into subjects including art, the development of mathematics and measurements, legal systems, views on life and death, gender roles, and others.
In creating formal presentations from their research, students become experts and teachers on their topics, and they are encouraged to express what they learn in novel ways: Writing a song or a poem, creating a Prezi, making a model—anything that helps them convey ideas without making their audience read a screen. The process rigorously develops their skills in researching, assessing the credibility of sources, and synthesizing information. Close integration with the English curriculum supports them in becoming writers who bring creativity to their explanation of any subject; they will apply their growing talents as writers in a traditional research paper. Other critical skills acquired in this year include note-taking and paraphrasing.
Sixth grade history also effectively integrates global education. As students learn and engage in conversations about ancient civilizations, they inevitably draw connections and contrasts with our own time and culture.
Students now gain the foundational tools they need to express themselves in Mandarin. The formal writing program begins in 4th grade, teaching more characters, as well as their stroke order and the ancient pictographs from which modern Chinese characters developed. Students then design their own pictograph and its progression into a modern character. They learn how to properly express time and to place it in the context of a sentence. A popular project is the creation of a story board, with eight pictures that describe people in detail. Students also learn how to use a dictionary.
In 5th grade, the building blocks grow to include a larger vocabulary, the past tense and the names of different countries; they begin reading comprehension this year as well. Students apply their learning in presentations about their daily lives and in two delightful projects: They create a creature based on the character of Totoro and describe it in detail to the class, and they create a zoo for imaginary animals, designing habitats and describing the care and feeding. The highlight of the year—and a true test of their skills—is the spring field trip to San Francisco's Chinatown, where they do a scavenger hunt through different shops and have to bargain with shopkeepers in order to obtain the items.
The 6th grade year focuses on verbal expression and comprehension, with a major project being a iMovie they make about themselves and their families. They also learn about money, transportation, making a basic phone call, and purchasing tickets. They will spend a lot of time reinforcing the reading and writing skills learned in 4th and 5th grade in order to prepare for Upper Division Mandarin.
Throughout each year, short activities provide exposure to Chinese culture, such as brush painting and calligraphy, cooking for Chinese New Year, and singing songs or reciting poems.
Spanish in Middle Division is filled with engaging projects and increasing interaction in the target language. Some of the themes in grades 4 through 6 include giving and following directions, discussing healthy eating, asking for help, and ordering food. Cultural experiences, including a visit to the colorful murals of San Francisco’s Mission district, a parade of flags of the Spanish-speaking world, and making and presenting ofrendas for family members and famous Latinos for Day of the Dead, offer students the opportunity to connect to Spanish-speaking cultures and local communities.
The use of interactive stories helps students further develop their listening, speaking, reading, and writing. While learning to express themselves in real-life situations—such as agreeing, disagreeing, describing, and complimenting—they also begin to write paragraphs and study the geography of the Spanish-speaking world.
Fifth and 6th graders work toward mastery of several verb tenses. Goals include comprehending spoken language, using correct pronunciation, as well as initiating and gaining confidence in conversation, discussions, and interviews. Vibrant lessons showcase stories, songs, dance, games, and culture. Students hear and speak mostly Spanish in class.
Students in 4th grade regularly use iPads in the classroom, and in 5th grade they begin using laptops. Our one-to-one laptop program begins in the 6th grade. The school pays particular attention to teaching the responsible use of these devices and engages in ongoing education around media and information literacy, including digital citizenship and the use of social media.
In addition, a coding class is available to all Upper School students to empower them to understand what's going on behind the technology they use and to be able to control it.