Just One Small Part of a Storm That Changes Everything

By Maggie Bendicksen, Fifth Grade Teacher and Instructional Coach

Creating a new fifth grade curriculum around peace, conflict, and change

The challenge and beauty of teaching fifth grade is found in this age group’s on-the-cusp pushes and pulls. They are capable of more and more abstraction, sometimes yearn to be a bit older, and then ask to sing songs from the Beehive’s Friday Sing, all in a matter of moments. These changelings are concrete and completely literal in one moment, and able to discuss the implicit, between-the-lines meaning in an historical novel in the next. Their sense of morality is often polarized, with shades of ambiguity starting to seep into their consciousness.

Fascinated by this metamorphosis, Keli Gump and I jumped at the chance to teach fifth grade this year, and to create a new social studies curriculum. We began by visiting other schools in the spring of 2018 to better understand what they were trying in their fifth grade classrooms.

During the summer we met with specialists at Catlin Gabel, and together we engaged in a Project Based Learning Workshop with the Buck Institute to start designing the new curriculum. We were re-envisioning how specialists and homeroom teachers could blur the lines between disciplines so that children could have a more holistic experience.

The team brainstormed new ways to work together that might provide a more integrated, hands-on experience for fifth graders. We shared what we hoped fifth graders would leave the Lower School understanding, including habits of mind, social emotional learning skills, study habits, and the ability to work collaboratively and independently. Next, we took a deep dive into understanding a child’s social studies experience from grade one to five, and researched themes found in the National Council for Social Studies’ recommendations and Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-Bias Framework.

We found that our students needed more exposure to issues from American history, slavery, Native Americans, democracy and government, war, and social justice. With those possibilities in mind, we created a curriculum centered around the theme of peace, conflict, and change. The team started brainstorming integrated and collaborative curricular opportunities and connections that would be relevant and developmentally appropriate for fifth graders.

Fifth grader holding up her project

Helena’s Capstone Project incorporated word art and illustration to answer the question, “Who are the top eight Flamenco legends and how did they revolutionize Flamenco?”

two fifth grade students wearing Roman armor they made out of cardboard and foil

Ryder and Huxley created a Capstone Project to address the question, “How did Ancient Rome effect the rest of ancient Europe? ”

Launching the New Units

In September, we kicked off the new study with two simultaneous units: Peace Begins With Me, focused on the power of empathy in social justice transformation, and We Were Here First, a study of Native Americans. On our three-day trip to Camp Westwind on the Oregon coast we helped the fifth graders investigate how geography and climate impact culture. Back at Catlin Gabel, they engaged in an overview of Native Americans from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and then chose to dive deeper into a tribe of their choosing. In small groups, fifth graders studied all aspects of culture and geography, and created pop-up living museums in the Fir Grove with shelters, artifacts, legends, food, and games.

Next came research into the reasons for colonization in the United States. We started to discover which events led up to the Revolutionary War, and questioned whether the conflict was avoidable. Our guiding text for the colonial study was Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, a challenging historical novel about Isabel, a 13-year-old slave in New York at the start of the American Revolution. Through Isabel’s lens we started to consider two of our guiding questions: Whose voices are not heard, and how can we listen?

In the winter, we hosted two stellar writers, the spoken word artist MOsley WOtta and Kim Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon and alumni parent, who spoke about how writing can be a powerful tool for social justice. The students read and discussed Kim’s poem, “Advice From a Raindrop,” which urges us to act as “just one small part of a storm that/changes everything.”

Building on Understandings

Our final unit, the Capstone Projects, was framed as a rich and multi-layered inquiry into some aspect of peace, conflict, and change that had sparked interest among individual or small groups of students. We started by focusing on how to ask good questions, and discussed possible topics and wrote questions from many different angles. How might the lens of a math, music, art, history, or science question change the trajectory of the research? Soon, students began to see the connections and possible discrepancies in their research, and recognize thematic connections across texts. They synthesized information, making sense of all of their notes and facts, and creating new meaning from what they’d read and written.

Students began designing and creating projects that expressed their new understandings and remaining questions. They wondered, brainstormed, designed, and created a range of work. Their projects included murals of Portland then, now, and in the future; armor from the Roman Empire; pet-rescue informational posters; a word-art history of Flamenco; and a model of water use in the U.S.

The engagement during the project design and building process was so high that teachers needed only to facilitate and scaffold how to pace and organize such ambitious projects. Students self-reflected and peer-reflected, and teachers weighed in with suggestions and questions. This feedback was incorporated into the next phases of the projects. As a result, some projects were scrapped and re-envisioned, some were modified, and some were able to simply sail ahead.


“Why do we use so much water? ” was the question that inspired a Capstone Project by Chase and Joshua

5th grade student working on project on classroom floor

Nivriti’s Capstone Project responded to the question, “Who has created artwork that conveys an unheard voice?”

A Year of Collaboration

The Capstone Projects are tangible evidence of learning this year, and collaboration made it possible. In a new and generous way, specialists and teachers from Art, Science, Shop, Library, Wellness, Music, Spanish, and Chinese found ways to support fifth graders on their peace, conflict, and change journey.

Parents played a role, too, including Yasodha Gopal, whose son Krish created a website about gerrymandering for his Capstone Project. “There is nothing more heartening as a parent,” she told us, “than witnessing your child take an initial emotional reaction about the way things are in the world and transform it into an artistic response that comes from a place of curiosity and a desire to understand the common good. Because at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.”