Greek Day: An Important Moment in the Learning Life of 5th Grade

Head of Middle School Susan Palmer writes about the Greek Day, an annual learning event for fifth-graders.

Everyone remembers who they were in the Greek Play. Carrie Palmer ’06 was Athena, carried a stuffed owl, and wore her mom’s gold jewelry. Seventh grade English teacher Jeffrey Boyd ’06 was a narrator and provided background for the antics of the residents of Olympus. In 2013, Fifth Grade Greek Day continues as a learning tradition like none other, and the vivid world of the gods and goddesses continues to captivate fifth graders today in new and compelling ways.

Greek Play 2006

Greek Play 1999

Greek Day, celebrated just last week, begins with The Spirit of Olympus, complete with fifth grade actors in homemade costumes who inhabit the characters of the many gods and goddesses. Sprinkled with original dance moves, contemporary music, and realistic props, the students make the play their own. The lines for each character were originally written by retired fifth grade Literature teacher Joan McDole, who was present on Friday, but the interpretation is unique to each class and to each actor. The play was followed by a procession throughout campus, time in the Star Lab spent tracking the constellations, a delicious Greek feast, and a highly competitive Greek Quiz Bowl.

Down the fifth grade hall, original myths were posted on lockers for all to read. Sets for the play, lighting, and sound were all student-created and student-managed. The program for the day was created by students, and the Quiz Bowl Committee worked on logistics. Behind the scenes, of course, is the fifth grade team of advisors who worked to set up learning experiences for every student, keeping in mind how many lessons can be learned from working together, sharing ideas, developing characters, taking responsibility, and meeting deadlines. It was truly a day for the fifth grade to shine.

Greek Play 2013

Greek Play 2013

That’s why each year’s memory of Greek Day is different, because each class stamps the event with their own unique personality. Not merely a showcase of how much students have learned about gods, goddesses, and myths, Greek Day rather demonstrates an important moment in the learning life of the fifth grade. Greek Day is not a culmination; it’s a step along a developmental journey. The Class of 2020 will surely remember all of the details of the day well into adulthood, but they may not know just how much they learned by being a part of this enduring tradition.

Science: Satisfying a Child’s Natural Curiosity

Head of Lower School Michael Simpson writes about Greenhill Schools science curriculum and a visit to the newly opened Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Recently the Fourth Grade spent the day at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. At the end of the day, we all attended a session called “The Science of Superheroes,” which was a series of interactive science demonstrations on topics inspired by superheroes. It was about Newton’s laws, light and color, and magnetism and conductivity. There was another school in the audience at the same time. Occasionally the Perot instructor would throw out a question, and each time it struck me how several hands strained to the ceiling from our green-shirted students on one side of the room, and few or no hands were raised from the other side of the room. After a moment of sadness that the children at the other school have not yet had their science fires lit, I was impressed by our students. They showed their amazing curiosity and knowledge of science, which was a great reflection on them and our program.

Our job in Lower School is to set the stage and create the foundations. Especially in the last year we have shifted to focus our instruction even more on the process of doing science. Journaling, collecting and interpreting data, working in teams to solve problems…our students do this on a regular basis.

For example, every month third graders head outside to the playground to collect data about the relationship of the earth to the sun. The students measure the length of the shadow of an upright meter stick. They record which direction the shadow is pointing. They measure the angle of the sun in the sky above the horizon. For this part they use a device the kids have named an “angle-ometer,” consisting of an upside down protractor, a tube, some string, and cardboard backing. They record this information in their science journals. Then they go back to their classroom and process the data. They calculate and record a class average, and with the teacher they discuss reasons for the variations in their data.

So in addition to using this process to discover the Earth’s tilt on its axis, the students are also learning about the challenges of collecting large information. It would be easier (but less fun!) if the teacher just did the measurements and told the students to write it all down , but then the opportunity to discuss how variations in data collection occur would be lost!

This approach to doing science continues on into Middle and Upper School. I was amazed at a recent meeting on science curriculum to learn that course offerings in Upper School next year will include classes such as “Bioinformatics,” in which “the bioinformatics tools of BLAST and Cn3D are used to investigate the genetic and molecular consequences of a mutation to the Breast Cancer Susceptibility 1 (BRCA 1) gene.” Another lab class is called “Biotechnology Laboratory Techniques,” in which students pursue the answers to questions such as “What techniques are needed to genetically engineer an organism and include genetic material from another organism?” and “What tools and procedures are used to isolate and analyze protein samples?” Our students are not going off campus for these classes, they will happen right here in our science labs, with our equipment and biological material the school is purchasing.

Most likely, the students from the other school are learning about science out of a textbook, maybe a couple times a week. One can draw a line from our third graders learning how to use microscopes and the “angle-ometer,” or fourth graders applying precise measurement and data collection skills, to those Upper School classes. It all begins in Lower School with a combination of curiosity, practice of science process skills, and introduction to interesting content.

Made for Children by Children

Head of Early Childhood Kim Barnes write about a community service project pairing third graders, kindergarteners, and pre-kindergarteners to make blankets together.

“They are so cute” were the words from the third grade student as he worked with a group of four pre-kindergartners and three other third graders. They, like the other 76 third graders, 24 pre-kindergarteners and 64 kindergarteners, had gathered together to do important work and this particular third grader seemed to be delighted to work with younger students.

Their work was to make fleece blankets to give to the children at The Vogel Alcove. The third graders had been prepped with the directions, but even after several reassurances, the third graders still worried the younger students were going to cut their fingers as they cut the fleece edges into strands. Patience was, indeed, the term for the activity.

The requirements of this activity were fully integrated. Each group worked on verbal cooperation to come to agreement on a one-strand or two-strand knot. They used a standard measure square guideline of three-inches for the length of each cut and a non-standard unit of measure of a third grader’s finger for the width of each strand.

The physical aspect of this activity required the third graders to learn and teach how to tie the chosen knot. This was not easy for many and took several practice attempts before some had mastered the skill.  Of course, the scissors weren’t always the sharpest; hence, problem solving and sharing ensued as both the third graders and pre-k’ers and kindergartners came up with a system to use the scissors, which had proved most successful to cut the fabric. There were a few tears shed, but perseverance won out at the end of each of these collaborations.

The children began with the same size and the same prepped piece of fabric. When finished, like the students who were creating these bits of warmth, the pieces were no longer the same.  Some of the knots were a little tight and the strands, a bit uneven. And on a couple of blankets, a bit of length had been removed; there were also differences within each blanket as each pair of third grader and preschooler worked on their side. The final product, however, was the same in that each blanket was endearing and could be imagined wrapped around a tiny body.

Children were dedicated to their work of purpose to fruition. As the third graders returned to class, the words “they are so cute” were heard once again, but this time, the reference had a bit of pride as they paraded past their work.

blanket3  blanket1


Encouraging Students to Become Independent Language Learners

Mary Tapia, Upper School Modern Languages Teacher, writes about independent language learning enriches the classroom experience.

One of the greatest challenges a teacher faces on a day to day basis in the classroom is how to meet the needs of students who come with a wide variety of skill and maturity levels. In a single class I may have 9th or 12th graders, and their language experience varies from exposure since Kindergarten to a single year of high school instruction. Thus, like virtually all my colleagues in Modern Languages, I must be creative in order to find ways to engage these students and help them along the path to developing fluency in the target language. Additionally, I myself am a life long learner, and I try to keep abreast of the ways in which the classroom is changing in the 21st century. As a result of all the above, I have been exploring strategies to make my classroom less teacher centered and more effective in meeting the needs of my diverse groups of learners. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject of differentiated learning, in this brief article, I would like to share some of the ideas I have implemented to help my students become more independent learners.

First of all, like most Modern Language teachers I already use plenty of group and pair-work in order to increase the opportunity for participation of each student in class. This is an obvious first step in encouraging students to work independently. Also, I have experimented with requiring students to collaborate more often outside of class. By using free online tools such as or chat rooms, students can interact online and present their work to the teacher on the next day. Of course, the teacher must provide clear instructions and a realistic task for such an assignment, but my experience has been that students are happier to practice their interpersonal skills in this manner than they would be to simply write a traditional composition for the teacher.

Another way I encourage my students to work independently is to schedule regular visits to our language lab. During these visits, I make certain that we are not simply doing the same things we could do as a group in class such as group listening to a recorded document. I plan the lesson carefully, post the written instructions on Blackboard, and expect that when the students come to class they will log on and stay focused for the entire period. Each set of instructions is tailored for the level and language, but I do my best to provide a variety of activities which will provide an opportunity to practice interpretative, interpersonal, and presentational skills. Also, I make certain that in addition to the required tasks, there are optional activities at the end so that no one can sit idle. These optional activities include (but are not limited to) visiting the website for Spanish or for French. While my students are working independently, I have time to spend a few minutes with each one individually. These brief but regular conversations help me build a strong relationship with my students and enable each one to ask questions without worrying about what their peers might think.

In my AP Spanish class, I have experimented with letting my students choose some of their own homework assignments. This is a structured project which requires students to reflect on their individual strengths and weaknesses, formulate a goal, and develop a list of tasks specific to chosen specifically to help achieve their objective. My role is simply to mentor them at the beginning, give them feedback along the way, and hold them accountable for what they have proposed to do. Probably the most powerful part of this project is the fact that students have choice about which tasks to perform and considerable flexibility about when to hand them in. There is plenty of research to show that motivation to complete a task increases when a person has had a say in choosing it. Also, the motivation to complete the task increases when there is a clear goal in mind. Too often the student’s goal is to earn a grade, but in this case, I do my best to encourage students to focus on improving a skill, not on a earning a grade.

I implemented a somewhat similar project in my French class last trimester. After completing a couple of free online diagnostic tests for the first homework assignments, each student chose a series of tasks to complete as homework for each lab day. Then, at the beginning of each lab period, I asked each student to write in their journal about what he or she had done the night before and provide some “proof” of what they had done. The journals could be in either English or French, and the proof could be a recording, a written document, or even a screenshot of work done with an online tool such as At the end of the trimester, each student made an oral presentation to the class about what their work had been and what they had learned.

What I have learned from these experiments is that the shift to a student centered classroom can be rewarding for both teacher and students. With creativity and use of readily available technology, my students can and do work well independently. I do not have hard data to prove the degree to which their fluency has increased, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the fact that they were more actively engaged than they would have been if I had been standing at the front of a classroom controlling every step of their journey. As I continue to explore ways to encourage independent learning, I have started a blog about my experiences. If you would like details, rubrics, or handouts from these or future projects, please visit

Where Math Meets Art

Communications Associate Emily Wilson writes about a visit to Cathy Falk’s BC Calculus classroom where students engaged in tangible spacial visualization.

What do you think of  when you think of AP Calculus BC? I, being out of a math classroom for quite some time, have memories of abstract concepts that made my brain strain and my eyes glaze over. I instead, gravitated toward the arts, and later went on to get my degree in Fine Art. So you can imagine my surprise and interest when I walked into Cathy Falk’s Calculus BC classroom and found students building sculptures.

Students were cutting out shapes from brightly colored poster board, standing them up in varying patterns and positioning them in elaborate configurations. Math concepts were informing the creation of models, or in a word, artistic sculptures—a fascinating cross-disciplinary exercise.

Mrs. Falk explains, “Building these models help the AP Calculus BC students visualize and make unusual shapes formed by building known cross sections on top of a platform. The platform is a region bounded by certain graphs.” Students, working in groups of 4, were then assigned to “show the setup of the integral used to find that volume.  The process is basically summing up the areas of the known cross sections bounded by the given region.”

Each group was given a different platform and cross section, so each final model turned out differently. Mrs. Falk says, “I have used this modeling project for over 20 years, and every time my students tell me how much they learn from it. Their understanding of volume is exponentially increased.”

Two visuals clarify this exercise.

Model #1 is formed first by a region bounded by the graphs of y = 1n x;  y = 2, y = -1, and x = 0. Students drew this region on their poster board as a base of the object.  Next the students cut out semicircles that are placed perpendicular to the y-axis.  The diameter of each semicircle is bounded by the region on their platform.  The students used play-doh to hold the semicircles in place.Model1

Model #2 is formed by first making a solid by taking the region bounded by the lines x = 1, x = 3, y = 0, and y = x^2 + 1.  This was then rotated about the y-axis, represented by the straw.Model2

For more photos of students working on this project, click here.