Lower School Curriculum

Durham Academy Lower School — comprising grades 1 to 4 — seeks to provide students with a challenging environment for learning, while offering the care and attention that guide a child to success.

Faculty present opportunities that foster the joy of learning and allow for discovery as skills are practiced and refined in supportive surroundings that encourage independence and risk-taking. Curriculum content strikes a balance between relevance to the present world and ideas that look to a world beyond. Students use their imagination, think and explore, as well as exhibit what they learn. 

As we provide students with a stimulating academic environment, close attention is given to offering opportunities that will contribute to the development of a child’s character, personal identity, self-esteem and respect for others.


Our ultimate goal for our young readers is to guide them in creating a reading life of their own and to inspire them to become lifelong readers. We work to equip our young writers for a life of writing with confidence and proficiency. The Lower School reading specialist provides curriculum resources and support for the classroom teacher, as well as spends time in first- and second-grade classrooms to provide students with support in phonics and reading comprehension.

Readers Workshop

A balanced approach to literacy instruction provides children with the structure needed to become well-rounded and accomplished independent readers. This structure includes phonics and word study, reading aloud and the 7 Comprehension Strategies: Using and Creating Schema, Asking Questions, Visualizing, Inferring, Determining Importance, Synthesizing Information and Monitoring for Meaning/Using Fix-Up Strategies. Literacy instruction includes students reading “just right” books and guided reading with material appropriate for each student’s instructional level. Fourth-graders read a blend of grade-level texts, small group texts and texts for independent reading. 

Writers Workshop

The writing program is built around the workshop model to instruction. Writers are given direct, explicit instruction in the skills and strategies of proficient writers in a mini-lesson. Students are actively involved in their writing, with long uninterrupted stretches of time to write. They spend time collaborating with writing partners. Writers are given opportunities to talk and respond to each other’s work. As thoughtful and skillful writers, they learn to set goals for themselves. Teachers conference with students individually or work with small groups to maximize their potential as writers. Teaching is consistently responsive to the needs of the students.

Emphasis is placed upon the 7 Traits of Writing: Ideas, Organization, Voice, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, Conventions and Presentation. These traits are an important support structure for fluent and thoughtful writers. The Writers Workshop curriculum focuses on several types of genres: personal narrative, informational writing, persuasive writing and fiction.


The Lower School uses the Bridges math curriculum; this program includes time each day for Problems and Investigations that are facilitated by the teacher with the entire class. There is also time each day for students to practice skills independently or in small groups in Work Places. Work Places is dedicated to teachers, teaching assistants, and at times, our math specialist working with children individually or in small groups. 

Grade 1

Students focus intensively on the four critical areas in first grade mathematics:

  • Addition and subtraction within 20
  • Whole number relationships and place value
  • Linear measurement in non-standard units
  • Reasoning with shapes and their attributes

Grade 2

Students focus intensively on the four critical areas in second grade mathematics:

  • Extending understanding of base-10 notation
  • Building fluency with addition and subtraction
  • Using standard units of linear measurement
  • Describing and analyzing shapes

Grade 3

Students focus intensively on the four critical areas in third grade mathematics:

  • Developing understanding of multiplication and division and strategies for multiplication and division within 100
  • Developing understanding of fractions, especially unit fractions (fractions with numerator 1)
  • Developing understanding of the structure of rectangular arrays and of area
  • Describing and analyzing two-dimensional shapes

Grade 4

Students focus intensively on the three critical areas in fourth grade mathematics:

  • Developing understanding and fluency with multi-digit multiplication, and developing understanding of dividing to find quotients involving multi-digit dividends
  • Developing an understanding of fraction equivalence, addition and subtraction of fractions with like denominators, and multiplication of fractions by whole numbers
  • Understanding that geometric figures can be analyzed and classified based on their properties, such as having parallel sides, perpendicular sides, particular angle measures and symmetry

Social Studies/Unit Studies

As Lower Schoolers learn about the history, geography and culture of our local community, state, nation and world, we also work to instill lessons about personal leadership, independence and their roles as citizens — on local and global levels.  

Grade 1

First grade is a time of transition for our youngest students, as they increase their independence through class responsibilities. Social studies units include My Place in the World; Communities of the Past (Native Americans); Civil Rights and Citizenship; and Communities around the World. 

Grade 2

Second-graders focus on the study of communities, with local field trips to help them understand their roles as citizens, how neighborhoods and governments function, as well as the culture of community. 

Grade 3

Third-graders spend the entire year focused on the study of the United States. Units on geography, map skills, products and resources of the states, state cultures, landmarks and notable people culminate in the Celebration of Our Nation at the end of the year. Students conduct a long-term research project on one state, which is shared as part of GrandFriends Day. Students are invited to record oral histories of their own family’s American stories and how they contribute to the culture of the U.S. 

Grade 4

The emphasis for the “seniors of the Lower School” is on leadership and balancing responsibility with independence. Fourth-graders focus on culture and diversity, learning about North Carolina’s first people, its colonization and how it became a state. They also study North Carolina’s role in the context of slavery, the Civil War, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. 

Enrichment Classes

Enrichment classes in art, technology, drama, library, music, physical education and Spanish round out each child’s education experience by encompassing what is learned in the classroom, providing opportunities for students to express their individuality while developing competence and discovering personal interests.


Students learn a balance of art history and elements of art. Creative projects are often integrated with students’ classroom curriculum, other enrichment classes or tied into the vibrant arts community of the Triangle. Students have art once within each six-day rotation.

Technology Engineering and Design (TED)

In TED classes, students explore technology and engineering solutions and appropriately apply science, math and research and design skills in order to understand and develop solutions for challenges and real world problems. Students gain experience in TED class with coding, Lego design and robotics. Students have TED class twice within each six-day rotation.

Lower Schoolers learn specific technology skills needed to complete their schoolwork. Students in grades 1 and 2 have access to iPads in their classrooms, and the third and fourth grade’s 1:1 iPad program helps prepare students for the Middle School’s iPad Learning Program. Fourth-graders have their own school email accounts and learn email etiquette, and they are introduced to blogging and Internet safety. Durham Academy has been recognized as an Apple Distinguished School for innovation, leadership and excellence.


Drama classes support the language arts curriculum by encouraging children to visualize and make connections with poems, fables, fairy tales and short stories. Students act out plays, experiment with playwriting and improvisation and practice stage presence. Students have drama class once within each six-day rotation.


The Lower School library holds about 15,000 volumes and runs on a flexible schedule to allow students to visit at any time. Teachers use the library to support their curriculum, but the library also has its own curriculum to teach children how to independently find resources and conduct research. The library curriculum also incorporates digital literacy lessons about how to safely use technology as a tool, finding reliable sources for research and presenting information with technology.

An annual highlight is a visiting children’s author; authors/illustrators Lester Laminack, Matt Holm, Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer are among recent visitors. 


The philosophy for music education is rooted in the Orff creative process of learning music through poems, rhymes, games, songs and dances to actively learn elements of music. Students create their own rhythms, dramatizations, lyrics/words, instrumentals and melodies. Students learn music theory and technique, sing, play instruments and regularly perform at assemblies. Students have music twice within each six-day rotation.

Physical Education

Students attend PE class every day as a grade level. The curriculum is focused on wellness, fitness, nutrition, exposing students to a wide variety of sports and developing lifelong sports skills. Students have access to well-equipped athletics fields, courts and a gym.


The Lower School science curriculum is active and hands-on, with two well-equipped labs for students to learn abstract concepts, test hypotheses and conduct experiments. Students also have access to a “living laboratory” — the Lower School garden. First- and second-graders have science twice within each six-day rotation, and third- and fourth-graders have science three times within each six-day rotation.


The emphasis in Lower School Spanish is on learning language through speaking and listening. Vocabulary is tied to students’ current curriculum (i.e., the water cycle in the science classroom). Students have Spanish class three times within each six-day rotation.