To understand the fourth grade curriculum and why it is so suited to the nine and ten-year-old, one must first look back to the preceding years of schooling, and especially the curriculum of the third grade. There the children who, up until now, have lived in a certain harmonious relationship to the world, were cast out of Paradise. They were no longer allowed to dwell in the fairy tale realm of the first grade or even to fluctuate back and forth between heaven and earth as in second grade when the stories of saints and fables are told to accompany this duality. They have arrived! Now, how are they going to survive?
Just as the people of the Old Testament challenged and were challenged by their Father God as they learned to survive, to make shelters, and to work the land, so did the third graders challenge their authority as they took up the studies of farming, housing, measurement; and a deepening of those survival skills: reading, writing and arithmetic.
All along stories of the great men and women of the Hebrew nation were told. There was a feeling of ultimate wisdom and justice; a blanket of trust still could be wrapped around the third grader; there was a reason to all the madness.
Now in the fourth grade, that blanket has been tossed aside and the child feels very much separate from any of the security and comforts that previously were supportive. This is a time to look around and see how one stands in relationship to that which is near and to find security and uprightness through that relationship. Four itself is a sign of stability and strength and balance: the four winds, the four seasons, the four elements. Therein lies a sense of steadiness and completion. It is this sense of four, in the midst of separateness and defiance, that is at the very heart of the fourth grade curriculum.
The fourth grader is at odds with the world. Questions take on a personal twist: “How do you know?” There is an earnestness stemming from a new awareness of just what they are up against in the world. Therefore, every possible opportunity is given to meet these oppositions in quite unexpected ways, ways in which the child can have the experience of crossing and at the same time be led towards a wholesome resolution. In handwork, original designs are made which produce a colorful design that is executed in tiny cross stitches. The result is a beautiful wholeness from many little crossings.
In form drawings Celtic knots are challenging tangles of skill and beauty. The feeling of separateness comes in handy here, otherwise one might get lost in the maze. The theme of separateness is further reflected in the mathematics curriculum with the study of fractions. They are introduced with concrete objects to demonstrate truths before forming mental concepts.
Geography, local history, Norse mythology, grammar, composition writing, and a comparative study of the human being and animals are also introduced. In composition simple narration of the child’s own real experiences begins and work in grammar continues.
The fourth grade child is now introduced to a stringed instrument – if not introduced in the previous grade – something delicate and yet powerful that will not answer endless questions nor oblige shortcuts to success. A new discipline and respect is called for in the child. There stands the player, and there the instrument, as separate as anything could be! The music is the bridge. Students may have in-class group lessons with the violin, viola or cello as well as private lessons. Another link is made when the children come together as violinists, violists, cellists and flautists and become an orchestra.
Throughout the year we hear and read stories of heroes. The hero emerges as someone to look up to, emulate, laugh at, respect. There may still be the miraculous feats and yet the human qualities, the emotions, the struggles, and the confrontations are emphasized; the children understand more than anyone else the hero’s plight to slay the dragon, to woo the maiden, to succeed in the three tasks. In the stories of the Kalevala, an epic myth of Finland, there is yet another kind of hero. It is the song. The world was sung into being by the master singer, Vainamoinen; if there is any change to be made, any duel to be fought, task to be done, there is singing. For example: “…Vainamoinen began his task. It was work he loved and he sang as he sawed and planed and hammered, songs of strength and swiftness. The boat grew as a song grows, each part of it was a word or phrase, each in a place. As an unlucky or misplaced word spoils a song, in the same way the boat would be marred.”
It is written in the Talmud: “Let the lesson you study be like a song.” And so we begin and end each day. In addition to our unison singing and rounds from previous years, we now add two-part songs. Now it is no longer a matter of singing the same tune at different times. The children sing the same words at the same time, yet each group of singers must hold their own part and not be swayed by the other group if the song is to work.The child’s newly strengthened individuality now gives him the ability to hold his own in this part-singing as he could not have done successfully before; canons and rounds form a natural bridge to this exciting new skill. He shows his first real delight in harmony and the minor key answers a deep-felt need leading inward in self-discovery. Now, standing as individuals we try to work harmoniously together.