In the Lower School (grades 1-5), teachers provide dynamic instruction within a caring environment to reestablish students’ confidence, rekindle their joy for learning, and nurture their growth as mindful individuals who are prepared to recognize possibilities, overcome obstacles, and generate solutions to challenges.
Lower School teachers help students begin to develop an understanding of who they are as learners while building a foundation of tools, strategies, knowledge, and personal characteristics that will enable them to take charge of their own learning and meet with success.
- Language Arts
- Social Studies
- Affective Curriculum
- Physical Education
Many students come to Benchmark School with language-based learning challenges. As such, language arts instruction is a core component of a Benchmark education.
Students engage in a rich variety of literacy experiences, including decoding/word identification, process writing, small group reading strategy comprehension instruction, book discussions, and read-alouds. Our instruction is research-based, honed by more than 50 years of teaching experience, and it is developmental, identifying where each student is on their journey toward literacy and providing just the right level of challenge to maximize learning and grow confidence.
Benchmark’s Word Identification program, also known as Word Detectives in our younger grades, is a powerful approach to word identification, vocabulary development and spelling that is grounded in research, endorsed nationally and internationally by leaders in education, supported by studies published in professional journals, and validated through consistently impressive student results across the program’s long history.
The Word Identification program systematically presents instruction that guides students to make discoveries about how the English language works. Once students identify a pattern in our language, the pattern and corresponding strategies are reinforced systematically, explicitly, and intensively, with an emphasis on applying students’ evolving understandings while reading and writing connected texts. Ongoing assessment within the program enables teachers to provide differentiated instruction tailored to students’ particular needs. Whether addressing phonemic awareness with emerging readers or morphology with older students, the program is interactive, multisensory, and fun.
In daily Word Identification lessons, students are taught multiple strategies for decoding words, including analogy, context, and matching sounds to letters. Through systematic, explicit instruction, they are guided to discover common patterns and consistencies in the English language and to use words they know to decode and spell unfamiliar words. Students apply decoding strategies in context as part of each day’s lesson. To develop sight vocabulary and reading fluency, students engage in repeated readings of text.
As students advance as readers, the focus shifts to spelling and vocabulary development. In addition to sound-letter matches and patterns, students are taught to recognize the meaning layer (morphology) of words and use all three aspects to determine pronunciation and meaning. Students are also taught to use what they have learned about patterns to strategically learn word spellings.
The central strategy used in the program is an analogy approach. Students are taught a set of “key words” (familiar words chosen to represent each common spelling pattern in the English language) that enable them to decode and spell. For example, they could use he, ten, and wish to decode or spell replenish. In addition, students are taught to apply letter-sound knowledge and context clues toward the goal of internalizing all of these strategies so that they can be applied strategically and, ultimately, automatically.
Morphology is the study of how morphemes or meaning units within words combine to create meaning. For example, the word “replenish” contains the prefix “re” meaning “again,” the base “plen” related to “plenty” and “complete” and the suffix “ish” denoting action, such as in the verbs “vanish” and “polish.” Based on analyzing the meaning units, students could predict that the word “replenish” means making something full again. Morphology can be a useful spelling strategy, for example helping students remember the “a” in “negative” by using the related word “negate.”
Students have small group reading instruction daily. Working with both print and digital sources, they learn strategies for processing text efficiently and constructing meaning from text. Beginning readers learn to monitor their reading for sense by connecting the text to the pictures, to their background knowledge, and to earlier parts of the text. They become active readers by surveying text, making predictions, and setting purposes for reading. Students learn to generate questions and identify important information in both fiction and informational text.
As students progress as readers, teachers introduce a variety of text styles including fiction, informational texts, audio texts, chapter books, and websites. As texts become longer and more complex, students revisit what it means to take an active stance toward their reading and monitor their understanding. They also learn to identify key events, take notes, and summarize content. At more advanced levels, they learn to analyze novels for character development and theme.
In addition, students engage in stimulating discussions about real-life issues related to the literature they are reading. Students evaluate the strength of the evidence they have for the ideas they share and learn how to take conversational turns, add on to previous comments, and encourage others to participate.
Through systematic, daily writing instruction, students develop an in-depth understanding of the writing process from planning to publishing. They develop a plan for a piece of writing, monitor their writing for sense and elaboration, and request feedback from others and apply it to their writing. Students produce both narrative and informational text. Students share published pieces of writing with other classes in both print and digital formats and are displayed in the library for others to enjoy.
Beginning writers learn to formulate their ideas and express them in writing. Instruction focuses on generating and organizing ideas and using clear and interesting language to communicate ideas effectively.
As students become more skilled writers, they learn to write with focus and elaboration, to present their ideas in an organized manner; to choose clear, interesting words; to write smooth, connected text; and to use accurate mechanics.
Technology becomes an increasingly important tool for students. Fourth and fifth grade students are issued a Chromebook for school and home use. They practice keyboarding skills and are explicitly taught how to use the features of Google tools such as Google docs, including voice-to-text. By the end of 5th grade, most student writing is produced digitally.
Math instruction at Benchmark is highly adaptive and is intentionally designed to address students' individual needs, strengths, and interests in a way that fosters optimal growth for each student.
We want our students to recognize the important role mathematics plays in the world around them. We teach our students to see themselves as mathematical thinkers who can possess a deep understanding of concepts and make strong connections to real-world experiences. Hands-on learning helps students make sense of abstract concepts through exploration and self-discovery.
To help students apply their conceptual understanding and strengthen critical thinking skills, we encourage them to analyze problems, ask questions, engage in mathematical discussions, and find alternate solutions to problems. This active engagement in learning increases student motivation and engagement and helps students develop the confidence and competence to be successful mathematical thinkers and problem solvers.
Lower School math curriculum is adapted from the standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and Common Core Standards and Practices. The five major domains in grades 1 through 5 include: operations and algebraic thinking, number and operations in base ten, numbers and operations in fractions, measurement and data, and geometry.
Benchmark’s social studies program helps students develop the knowledge, strategies, and critical thinking skills that will enable them to become effective global citizens.
Research shows that knowledge developed over time to a deep, conceptual level is most likely to be remembered and applied. Benchmark teachers teach knowledge organized around powerful concepts such as the relationship between citizens and government. For example, students might study the motivations and actions of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement and the outcome of gaining the right to vote, recognizing that when people have strongly held beliefs, they are motivated to try to bring about change. The insight can then be applied to other areas of study, such as the civil rights movement.
In order to have these complex conversations, Benchmark teachers ensure text comprehension using our investigative framework called the “action cycle.” The action cycle provides context and then allows the students to delve into the motivations and consequences of historical events. This framework helps our students in particular gain the foundational knowledge they need in order to inquire and learn effectively.
Action Cycle Version 1
Becoming a Global Citizen
The Benchmark social studies program also helps students develop an awareness of what it means to be a global citizen. Through discussion and problem solving, including design activities tackling real-world problems, students learn we are all interconnected through issues that affect the whole world. Teachers encourage empathy for all people and respect for people’s differences.
Woven throughout social studies instruction is coaching and application of strategies taught in other portions of the school day, including decoding, vocabulary development, reading comprehension, writing, technology, and executive function strategies.
Case study: Fifth Graders Study Central and South America
Fifth grade students began their global studies with a journey through South and Central America. They developed their mental map of the world by identifying South and Central American countries and important features such as the Andes Mountains and the Panama Canal. They used print and digital resources to research the natural and human features of various countries. They then used their growing writing and tech skills to weave the information into a postcard format. Studying global citizens such as scientist Patricia Medici and artist Frida Kahlo enhanced their appreciation of the power of individuals to make a difference. Students also analyzed significant events such as Magellan’s voyage around the world and the building of the Panama Canal. Concept maps helped students to organize their thinking around needs, context, actions, and outcomes and set them up to consider the relationship between groups of people and the physical world.
Science at Benchmark is a dynamic and engaging study of the natural and physical world. Similar to social studies, information is organized around powerful concepts, for example the concept of a system where each part has a specific form and function that contributes to the performance of the whole system. Students explore and discuss science concepts through multiple hands-on experiences and observations to develop a rich and nuanced understanding.
Students also participate in design projects where they can apply their knowledge of science topics to solve real-world problems. Critical thinking is encouraged to help them make sustainable decisions and reflect on how humans can impact their environment. In addition, students are coached to apply their literacy, math, technology, and executive function skills to their study of science.
Case study: First and Second Graders Study the Forest Ecosystem
Our youngest students took advantage of our beautiful wooded campus to study the forest ecosystem, including its soil, soil dwellers, trees and leaves, insects, birds, and mammal inhabitants.
Through multiple hands-on experiences, they learned that each part of the forest ecosystem makes a unique contribution to the overall functioning and health of the ecosystem, and how humans can impact the forest. They also discovered that all living things have adaptations that help them survive in their particular environment, such as the example of deciduous trees dropping their leaves in autumn to protect the tree’s resources from winter cold. They used tech tools such as their iPad camera and Seesaw app to record their observations.
The students wrapped up their study of the forest ecosystem with a design project that involved researching, designing, and building bird feeders for the Benchmark campus. Each bird feeder was designed with the needs of a particular woodland bird in mind. Students were delighted to observe birds coming to the feeders.
Children learn about the healthy body, how it works, and how to make healthy choices to maintain peak performance. They also learn how our environment and our community contribute to our health. Students begin to develop strategies for acquiring and understanding health information such as posing questions, observing, role-playing, and problem solving.
In younger grades, we focus on helping students begin to be aware of how their thoughts and feelings are connected to what is happening in the environment around them and how their thoughts and feelings can impact learning.
We introduce principles of mindfulness to help students practice ways to settle internal distractions while remaining more engaged in the learning task.
We place emphasis on activities that provide students opportunities to interact and problem solve, allowing for openings for genuine respectful feedback.
For older students, the emphasis shifts slightly to encompass more strategies for taking charge of one’s focus and engagement. Lessons focus on point of view and perspective, an important aspect of social problem solving. We highlight cooperation, consensus building, and leadership skills. Emphasis is also placed on helping children to embrace all kinds of differences and to understand the dynamics of bullying and the crucial role that each of us can take to help create a safe learning environment.
Music at Benchmark School is tailored to the needs and strengths of students who learn differently. With explicit instruction in percussion, rhythm, singing, and simple instrumentation, lower school students gain a repertoire of American and world music, singing skills, and confidence as music makers.
With the use of games, chants, songs, props, movement and percussion instruments, students in our youngest classes have fun while strengthening their executive functioning and learning skills. Students gain a foundation of what it means to be a music maker.
Students continue this exploration into 4th and 5th grades as we look at more sophisticated songs, time periods in American music like the Harlem Renaissance and how music affects us in our daily lives. Fifth grade students focus on world music as it connects to the social studies curriculum. Students “travel” to South America, Asia, and Africa to look at folk and modern music from each region through singing, movement, and the study of instruments unique to each country.
Our music program also features a deliberate focus on arts integration, an approach to teaching that connects music (and visual arts) to other subject areas to create deeper connections in both. Through thoughtful collaboration across disciplines, we complement topics taught in other classes with exposure to related songs and instrumentation. Our students benefit from background knowledge gained in language arts, social studies, and science to build a deeper understanding and learning in the practice of music.
We celebrate all forms of creativity and musical expression in the annual Virtual Talent Show.
Art is a language, and our program allows students to find their own voices through the creation of visual works. Through thoughtful education on both the tools and techniques of visual art, students gain the technical skills and knowledge to create purposeful artistic expressions. The curriculum is intentionally flexible and projects are designed to support and encourage the curiosities and interests of each class.
Along with a weekly dedicated art class, students and teachers create projects that integrate visual art and other subject areas such as science, English language arts, and social studies to enrich students’ learning experiences.
Benchmark’s physical education program integrates every child into physical and athletic play to learn essential life skills, to promote physical well-being, and to have fun. Our program provides students with learning experiences that contribute to their physical and social development at age-appropriate levels, and exposes them to games and activities that can lead to the future leisure time activities. Some games and activities include soccer, basketball, volleyball, Newcomb, team handball, hockey, kickball, baseball, speedball, bombardment, and pickleball.
Our two youngest classes enjoy dedicated programming called “Little Gym.” Specialized for their developmental needs, Little Gym teaches fundamentals of physical education activities, such as listening skills, spatial awareness, social interactions, and knowledge of how to move their body appropriately. Little Gym takes place on our playground, our low ropes course, and in our gym in the winter, with as much outdoor time as the weather allows.
We also promote fair play and kindness while we expose students to the rules and principles of the major sports and activities that they will encounter in their future schools and within society.