Upper Group

The Upper Group bustles with academic, artistic, athletic, and social activity. Nine, ten, eleven, and twelve-year olds show the cognitive leaps they are making as they become more able to apply logic and critical thinking to real-life situations and hypothetical problems. The work they do is increasingly complex and nuanced, and it reflects their widening view of the world around them. As they shift their focus toward their peers, they thrive on collaborating and working in partnerships and teams. They are the oldest and biggest kids in the school, so the Upper Groupers play an important role in student leadership and community service. Teachers Jon Patmore and Teresa Chen work to set a warm, friendly tone in the classroom and to provide a rich, engaging curriculum which respects all that the students can do.

Drama and Movement

You are your own star: “Sing Cha-Cha-Cha!” So goes the cry of an Afro-Cuban song that recent classes have danced to. It exemplifies the depth and range of Upper Group. Young people in this age group radiate with an abundance of goodwill, integrity, strength, and hope that transfers well to the rigors of a challenging multi-act theatrical performance. The annual Upper Group Play is a cherished tradition at Walden that children begin to anticipate and prepare for long before they are in the Upper Group. The play is a transcendent experience in which the absolutely unbridled enthusiasm of youth is seen gloriously through the primitive art of theatre. Over the course of this three-year program children work their way through a series of age-appropriate challenges.

The children prepare in a variety of ways that actually begin in the earlier grades. Students are prepared intellectually by watching and analyzing clips of live performances. Singing is an art form and a science. Students can explore this world by singing in class for each other and by listening to great singers and figuring out how they can improve and develop their own singing muscles. The idea of vocal register or “tessitura” is examined.

Acting is explored through role-playing, theatre games, and building characters through the method of intentions. Dialogue and comedy are explored actively in class through the laboratory of rehearsal and creating character biographies. Periodically the works of Shakespeare are explored which allows in depth study of history, gender roles (as well as reversing them!) and language.

Expression through dance is vital. Dance as physical fitness opens up the discussion of anatomy. Dance as a cultural exponent develops discussion about the African-American influence on popular culture through dance as well as adapting and investigating dance styles from Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean, and India. An Upper Group dance class romps through the atlas of world influence. As we explore divergent dance styles we also learn about the impact of cultural influences in each genre. The joy of what each movement style brings is a powerful road to understanding why the children move the way they move. A ballet plié is a gateway to a West African harvesting dance. African “close to the ground” is the opposite of European “pulled up.” The commonality is that it is all dance and it is a great means of self-expression.

Everyone creates her or his own personal “inner masterpiece” in the class. The class develops a sense of teamwork as they collaborate on the challenge of creating a theatrical work that displays each child’s development and growth.

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Language Arts

Language Arts is about reading, writing, and speaking—skills which are fundamental to any student’s academic success and to his or her engagement with society at large. With that in mind, the Upper Group Language Arts program contains a variety of components to support the further development, expansion, and practice of these complex skills.


The Upper Group reading program focuses on students reading high quality literature, such as Holes by Louis Sachar, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, and The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, as well as biographies, magazines, newspaper articles, letters, journal entries, poems, scripts, and screenplays. Whenever possible, we assign books which relate to our social studies or science theme.

Our two primary goals for students in reading are for them to continue to develop personal connections to books and to reading in general and for them to engage with challenging grade-level texts in an instructional setting.


Writing is most meaningful when it is done for authentic purposes. Our writing program includes responding to literature, writing to document and explore personal experiences and ideas, and short and long term creative writing projects. We present regular lessons on genres of writing, editing, and the mechanics of writing, including grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and the parts of speech. We also go through a progression from the construction of solid sentences through paragraph building and, in the sixth grade, work with the five paragraph essay form.

Other components of the writing program include spelling, word games and challenges, poetry appreciation and poetry writing, and handwriting practice. All of these lessons and activities contribute to each student’s set of writing skills and experiences.

Our two primary goals for students in writing are for them to continue to develop personal connections to writing and for them to demonstrate an increasingly sophisticated ability to use and manipulate written language.


Clear, effective verbal communication is critical to a student’s success both in and out of the classroom setting. Students practice presenting their work, including stories, opinions, and reports, on a regular basis. They participate in discussions by sharing their ideas, relating their experiences to the topic at hand, building on a previously offered concept, and referring to source materials to support their viewpoints and arguments. For the sixth grade group we have a public speaking program in which the students write and give a series of speeches.

Our two primary goals for students in the areas of speaking are to see consistent, practical participation and presentation from each student and an increasingly sophisticated use of oral language, including the demonstration of a strong, broad vocabulary.

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We believe that the most important element in the success of young students in mathematics is that they remain excited, inquisitive about, and interested in what they are learning. Further, we believe that how students FEEL about mathematics has everything to do with success. With these considerations in place they will, within a successful mathematics program, achieve comprehension and fluency in the understanding of the structure of mathematics and of the patterns in numbers. As educators, our goal is that students achieve mastery and understanding, and also maintain their curiosity and love of learning.

Following the guidelines established within the structure of the Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools our curriculum includes number sense; algebra and functions; measurement and geometry; statistics, data analysis, and probability; and mathematical reasoning.

In addition, we provide age-appropriate activities that include the history of mathematics, logic, games, and puzzles. Students also use mathematical skills and knowledge for art projects such as planning and creating number posters, tesselated designs, polyhedrons, geometrical drawings, and games of traversability.

In the teaching of mathematics to Upper Group students, we incorporate the following three important components:

  • COMPUTATIONAL AND PROCEDURAL SKILLS: using algorithms and operations, facts, measurement, linear equations, interpretation of graphs, use of basic geometry, number sense, the beginning of algebraic reasoning, and an understanding of patterns and functions
  • CONCEPTUAL UNDERSTANDING AND COMPETENCY: being able to understand basic rules and principles that underlie a function or operation, and having an implicit understanding of how to achieve a goal
  • PROBLEM SOLVING; developing an ability to conjecture and to extrapolate, recognizing patterns, translating information into equations, estimating and verifying, and the ability to work backwards from a solution

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The mixed group of 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students offers a marvelous opportunity for musical growth. Younger students inject a special enthusiasm and freshness to each class. Older students experience the confidence of revisiting and refining basic skills. Circle games, dances, body percussion, and clapping plays from the playground repertoire of different cultures keep the students in touch with a spirit of musical play, while providing a gently competitive push to practice and master the skills needed to support others in rhythmic performance. The Orff approach grows from games, rhymes, songs, and poetry, taking small easily learned elements from each source in order to build more complex and layered ensemble textures. Students develop techniques on recorder, ukulele, and percussion. Improvisation in a variety of styles is a key element in the process. Recordings, videos, and occasional guest artists give vital cultural background to inform the hands-on experience.

  • RHYTHM: playing a variety of rhythm games and African American ring plays to sharpen beat and rhythm skills throughout the body; developing rhythmic independence in polyrhythmic ensembles with multiple layers; reading and writing rhythmic notation; compare European rhythms with those from West African, African American, and Afro-Cuban styles; exploring jazz rhythms in ensemble pieces; exploring syncopation, offbeat, swing rhythm, and clave; exploring a variety of meters, including 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 and 5/4
  • MELODY AND HARMONY: exploring pentatonic and diatonic major and minor scales, experimenting with different key centers and modes, reviewing drones and exploring vamp and walking bass lines; exploring chords and chord progressions, improvising melodies on xylophones and recorder, improvising using blues scales, reading music notation for recorder, choral singing technique and signing songs and canons in two and three parts
  • MOVEMENT AND DANCE: body percussion and movement games, African American body rhythms and southern United States children’s games, folk dances of various cultures in a variety of meters and styles
  • INSTRUMENTAL ENSEMBLE: developing recorder proficiency in both reading and improvisation, increasingly challenging mallet work on xylophones, West African percussion ensemble, jazz and rock drumming techniques, chord strumming on ukuleles to accompany singing and recorder pieces

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Science is made up of strands such as life science, earth science, chemistry, and physics, but it is also a mode of investigating and exploring. Our science curriculum has two main components. The first is the in-depth unit. Incorporating the interests of the students as well as the California state frameworks for science, we select and present a unit such as magnetism and electricity, rodent biology, or the physics of catapults. We emphasize hands-on activities and experiential learning, such that, whenever possible, the children construct their understanding of the subject by working with it. For magnetism, for example, we ask the students to perform a series of experiments with magnets, metals, and electricity and draw conclusions from their results. In the case of a topic such as rodent biology which presents more limited hands-on opportunities, we ask the students to work in research mode, reading nonfiction texts and examining diagrams, videos, and computer models. The second main component of the curriculum is the science project. Each year, students design and create experiment-based science projects using the scientific method. These projects start with a scientific question, involve designing an experiment then measuring and testing outcomes, and result in answers as well as further questions.

In both the science units and the projects, our primary goals for students are the demonstration of an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the methodology of science and the demonstration of a strong understanding of the concepts they study.

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Social-Emotional Learning

In the Upper Group, we place a great deal of focus on the social curriculum, knowing that it goes hand in hand with the academic subjects we teach. We have class meetings, where we gather in small groups or as a whole group to share news and talk about what is going on. Students help create the classroom rules so they can identify the parameters they need in order to do their best learning. We use collaborative problem solving to work through issues as they arise. Throughout the school year, we do community building activities and cooperative games. Kids have classroom responsibilities. They also do community service within the school (such as reading to younger students and helping to keep the school clean) and off campus (such as marina cleanup day and, for the sixth graders, serving meals to the homeless at Glide Memorial). We talk about building caring relationships—what it means to be a friend or to be an ally, for example. In order to foster inclusion and respect, we ask the students to share about themselves, their backgrounds, and their cultures. By teaching social and emotional skills such as cooperation, responsibility, and empathy, we help our students succeed academically and socially.

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Social Studies

Social studies contains within it history, anthropology, geography, civics, and citizenship, but it is also a framework for considering the relationship individuals have to communities and nations as well as the relationship of those communities and nations to each other. In terms of teaching the material, our approach is to provide as many entry points for understanding as possible and to stay on a subject long enough that students can get into it at great depth. Over the course of any given three-year period, we cover California history, American history, and ancient cultures. We seek to balance placing the subject in the broad context of history with a focus on specific events or concepts (such as the Gold Rush, westward expansion, or the rise of ancient Egypt) in order to create a depth of understanding. We also emphasize the importance of learning about learning—the idea that, if one can piece together a picture of life in Europe in the Middle Ages, one can create a similarly rich picture of other times and places.

Our primary goals for students in social studies are for them to demonstrate a detailed understanding of the periods we study, to show that they are able to extrapolate from what they have learned, and to have them engage with the other members of their community, including students, staff, parents, and people outside the school, in positive, meaningful ways.

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Upper Group Spanish learners master the important verbs “ser” and “estar.” They begin constructing their own sentences using the greater number of verbs they learn. Upper Groupers are beginning to really think in Spanish, playing games with semantic groups; separating words into categories, and making movies and puppets. They have a hunger to read in Spanish—one way they satisfy it is by reading to Lower Groupers in Spanish, incorporating what they learn in drama and language arts to make it interesting and fun to the younger children.

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Visual Arts

The Upper Group class combines the freedom of creation with the knowledge and 
practice of artistic skills. They recognize art 
is connected to all subjects and the world. They are able to connect art with 
imagination and ideas, and create ideas and images based on themes, symbols, events, 
and stories.

Art classes in the Upper Group start with a brief written 
description of the project for the day. There is an explanation about the 
process and the possibilities. Students develop the project feeling free to ask for help when they have an idea that they don’t know how to realize.

Children learn about Greek art, Amish quilting, and artists Simon Rodia, Gaudí, 
Marisol Escobar, William Kentdrige, Rene Magritte, and the Pop art movement (Robert Indiana) 
among other themes. They will be studying the ideas behind the artwork, and get inspired to create clay pieces, quilt designs, sculptures with recycled materials, foam sculptures (subtractive sculptures), collages, and movement in their work. They
 will also be painting, drawing, printing (linoleum alternative, foam stamps, 
plexiglass, vinyl records, etc.), sewing, and creating three dimensional creatures 
and canvases. Each project has multiple interpretations and expressions. Practicing their divergent thought, the students find different ways to solve the problems presented by the project. 
They learn to respect and admire the different solutions generated by their classmates.

The final project is a “stop animation” movie requiring incorporation of many of the skills learned before.
 The art class encourages kids to work together, learn from each other, and help each 
other, as ways to develop a sense of community 
and solidarity.

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