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
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.”