Fifth grade in a Waldorf School is usually referred to as the “Golden Year”. Students generally have achieved a skill level in basic academic work that allows them to meet new challenges with enthusiasm and energy. Their capacities also reflect a facility and confidence in working with various forms of artistic expression. Physically, their bodies move with balance, grace, and agility. Even in the social arena, fifth graders display a harmony and integration that will soon be challenged by the demands of adolescence. The fifth grade curriculum meets this golden age through a balance of academic, artistic, and movement work.
The fifth grade language arts and history curriculum is based upon the ancient civilizations of India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. Through the mythologies of these cultures, the children hear creation stories, explore the human being’s relationship to the earth, and discuss ancient perspectives on death and spiritual life. The ways in which the geography and landscape influenced each culture’s world-view is also explored. Working with early forms of writing, geometry, and architecture, students experience some of the roots of modern culture. With the study of these civilizations in this order, children can experience, through story, an evolution of human consciousness that meets their growing interest in the deeper questions of life.
Fifth grade also marks the important transition from mythology to history. The year culminates with the study of ancient Greece, the perfect representative of an appreciation for the balance between physical skill and beauty, art and science, earthly life and spirituality. Through studying the ancient Greek city-states, the class develops an understanding of how the people lived out their ideals in various ways. In the spring the children participate in a five-event Greek Pentathlon with students from other Waldorf schools. This competition involves the discus, javelin, wrestling, long jump, and running, and is held in the same spirit of truth and beauty that the Greeks initiated. The children practice these events in gym class all year long, and are eager to test their individual skills. The year ends with the life of Alexander the Great as a first step into history.
Fifth graders are enthusiastic about learning, eager for new challenges, and capable of hard work and creativity. They still have openness to the world, and a level of confidence that makes them easy to teach. They stand perfectly balanced at a point in their development that places them at ease in the world, harmonious in themselves and in their environment.
By examining the temple architecture of ancient cultures, we can see that for the Greeks, the worship of the gods was intimately connected with the experience and appreciation of the beauty of nature. The study of botany at this age can nurture the fifth grader’s dawning appreciation of the beauty of the world. The unfolding of the plant corresponds to the 5th grader’s openness to the natural world around him. The focus of botany at this age lies in the balance between scientific observation, and an appreciation for the poetic qualities of the plant world’s beauty.