Kids shouldn’t learn anything in a vacuum, or everything in a classroom.

What we want … is for students to get more interested in things, more involved in them, more engaged in wanting to know; to have projects that they can get excited about and work on over long periods of time, to be stimulated to find things out on their own.” —Howard Gardner, Educator

Science and Social Studies (Theme)

Fourth graders are captivated by their theme “The Sea,” which is a favorite because of the memorable field trips and related arts activities. Our emphasis is on the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Maine, and ecosystems of the Northeast, but students learn about all of the world’s oceans and continents, as well as about the salt marshes, barrier reefs, rocky shores, tides, waves, and plant and animal life of these environments. Together, the students set up and maintain a saltwater aquarium in our classroom. We take trips to local beaches to gather mummichogs, dogwalks, sea stars, mussels, snails, shrimp, green crabs, Asian shore crabs, periwinkles, and barnacles. They experiment with water properties and densities, learn about fish anatomy, dissect a squid, chart the lines of longitude and latitude, and draw whales to scale.

We also explore how humans have learned to live with and use the resources of the sea. Our year begins with a visit from David Coffin, a Gloucester musician who specializes in sea shanties and early musical instruments. Students learn about the history of life on and alongside oceans, early whaling in New England, past and current fishing methods, and also the threats against and efforts to preserve oceans and the ecosystems they support. Students research and build models of actual lighthouses. Books we read include The Original Biography of Abbie Burgess: Lighthouse Heroine, by Ruth Sexton Sargent; Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus; Whaling Season: A Year in the Life of an Arctic Whale Scientist, by Peter Lourie; The Whale Scientists: Solving the Mystery of Whale Strandings, by Fran Hodgkins; and excerpts from Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick; and Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville.

Our year culminates in a three-day trip to Mystic Seaport, in Connecticut, where students sleep on a square rigger, the Joseph Conrad, and get a firsthand view into the lives of early sailors and a seashore community. Activities include climbing the rigging of the Joseph Conrad, creating keepsakes using traditional sailors’ tools, interacting with costumed roleplayers, singing songs with a chantyman, and touring the last remaining wooden whaling ship in the world.

Language Arts

Fourth graders spend their year learning the components of writing and developing writing skills. In our comprehensive grammar and mechanics unit, students learn the basic parts of speech, the concepts of subject and predicate, how to use punctuation and capitalization, the difference between sentences and sentence fragments, and how to craft three-to-five-sentence paragraphs. The children write personal narratives, learning to generate ideas, use visualization to add detail and sequence, use descriptive language and emotion to add interest, revise for content, and edit for mechanics. In preparation for our Songs of the Sea performance, they write letters home, imagining themselves a member of the crew of whaling ship on a voyage. In our biography unit, students write a research paper about a person of interest, and they gather together props and a costume, write a brief monologue, and impersonate their subject at a Wax Museum event presented to the school community.

During their literacy block, fourth graders practice strategies that will help them become active, independent readers; they learn about the genres mystery, fantasy, adventure, realistic fiction, and historical fiction; they learn about the role of the narrator, point of view, and how to make predictions about what they are reading; they actively engage in literature discussions using Abbie Burgess and Number the Stars. The students learn about the features of nonfiction texts that help them access information—headings, captions, charts, a glossary, the index. They use this knowledge to research a sea mammal and create a Hyperstudio slideshow that they present to the class.


In keeping with the spiraling model of the school’s curriculum, fourth grade math students delve more deeply into concepts introduced in third grade. In our plane geometry unit, we move on to obtuse, acute, right, and straight angles. In problem-solving exercises, students begin learning to translate verbal ideas into the language of mathematics and to recognize cues that indicate which operation to use when solving a word problem. They learn the procedure for long division and the terms prime, composite, factors, multiples, square numbers, exponent, product, and quotient. In their measurement unit, they practice measuring by paces, decades, and centuries, and they learn the prefixes of the metric system. We revisit statistics and probability, fractions, and solid geometry. In a unit on transformational geometry, we introduce students to the concepts of translation, reflection, rotation, symmetry, glide reflection, and fundamental region. Incorporating their theme, students work in small groups on a whale-to-scale project. They draw graph lines and plot the points of a whale from 8½ x 11 inch paper onto a 4 x 20 foot sheet. Their result represents the average length of a baby whale for five different whale species.

Social/Emotional Curriculum

Twice a week we engage the fourth graders in a lesson from our Open Circle social/emotional curriculum. We gather in an open circle—open because we include one extra space to underscore that there is always room for another voice and no one is ever left out—for a short lesson and conversation and a story or an activity. As an example, in the How to Sort Problems unit we work with students to define dangerous and destructive behaviors, and we talk about why it is always important to immediately talk to a teacher or responsible adult in such situations. We talk about strategies for responding to annoying behavior and teasing and read Thank you, Mr. Falkner. We define bullying and help students recognize that bullying behavior is dangerous and destructive and must be reported to a responsible adult right away, and we consider the roles of the bystander and the ally.


Fourth grade Spanish students become more independent in their language learning. They write original scripts for presentations and speak Spanish in whole-group and partner activities. They learn vocabulary related to their theme, including ocean animals and sea life, the physical features of animals, and the physical features of land forms, such as the beach, as well as vocabulary for clothing and weather. They practice using the verb estar with feelings and location. We explore the Spanish-speaking island countries of Puerto Rico, La República Dominicana, and Cuba, and celebrate the holidays El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), La Navidad (Christmas), El Día de los Reyes (Three Kings Day), Carnaval, and Cinco de Mayo (the fifth of May).

Visual Arts

In fourth grade art, we make art related to our theme of The Sea, taking advantage of the rich visual arts history of Cape Ann, and we also explore a wide range of art traditions and seminal artists in those disciplines, including botanical studies, self-portraits, Paul Klee and abstraction, Frank Stella and collage, Pablo Picasso and Cubism, using recycled materials and Haitian folk art, and African Senufo and Aboriginal animal design. Students practice mixing acrylic paints on a palette and paint Impressionist seascapes, learning from Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, and others about stippling, pointalism, and depicting the reflection of light. We visit the Cape Ann Museum, where students discover the myriad artists who found inspiration along Gloucester’s coast, among them Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, Fitz Henry Lane, and Winslow Homer. Students draw landscapes or seascapes and practice the fundamentals of horizon line, perspective, foreground and background, and creating space and light by using line.


Throughout the year, fourth graders prepare for their end-of-year “Songs and Tales of the Sea” performance. Their project begins with a visit from David Coffin, Gloucester-based specialist in sea chanties and early musical instruments. The students learn the role music played on whaling ships—to accompany the tasks of raising anchor, raising sail, to keep a steady rowing beat, to inspire workers and fill their leisure time—and they build their sea chanty repertoire, with songs that include “Once More to the Sea,” “Haul Away Joe,” “Cape Cod Girls,” and “Rolling Home.” They learn to play the ukulele. The students also share the letters they wrote home, imagining themselves a member of the crew of voyaging whaling ship, as part of the performance.

Fourth and fifth grade music students spend these two years singing as a chorus, and they prepare for several performances throughout the school year. They practice techniques to energize body, breath, voice, and song. They learn to sing rounds and multiple melodies together, to sing with a beautiful tone, and to follow a musical score. They prepare for performances at Grandfriends’ Day, Winter Solstice, a Valentine’s Day visit to a senior living facility, and a performance at the State House.


In dance class, students create, express, communicate, and secure confidence through the study of movement. They participate in exercises that foster creativity, challenge them physically and expressively, require teamwork, develop identity, promote problem solving, and require that they describe their creative process. Children gain body awareness, coordination, locomotor skills, musicality, and choreography techniques through formal and improvisational modern dance lessons. The K–5 dance curriculum spirals from year to year, increasing in complexity. As an example, fourth graders engage in a series of mini master classes in square dance, African dance, tap, ballet, and hip hop, and they learn about the history of these styles, including shoes and costumes.

In addition to the modern dance curriculum, students are introduced to a variety of cultural dance styles. To broaden our global education and dance advocacy, the entire GUS school participates in Dance Anywhere, an annual worldwide simultaneous celebration of dance!

Physical Education

In fourth grade we begin to focus on the skills students will need for the sports they play in upper school. We introduce games and activities that incorporate these skills and also small, in-class tournaments that promote good sportsmanship and teamwork. All students participate in all activities. Our goal is to help students work on the same skills but at the pace that is appropriate for them. We encourage them to seek their personal best and to measure themselves by their own improvement rather than the abilities of peers.

Community Service

Fourth graders travel to local beaches to gather sea flora and creatures for the aquarium they maintain throughout the year in their classroom. Students take from the local coast and they become stewards of the local coast, returning periodically to clean up the trash on a local beach as their community service activity.

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