In retrospect, the moments that stand out from my own 180 days as a 4th grader swarm together to create a mixed montage…reading Bridge to Terabithia in a book group, dominating kickball at recess, learning how to draw 3D shapes, playing the role of the princess in a play about Orpheus, using the word “unique” to describe everything, and being named “Future U.S. Ambassador to the UN” (there’s still time to accomplish that one). Forty years from now, what will my students remember about their year in Portable D? When it comes down to the takeaway message, does it really matter if they’ve mastered finding the area of irregular shapes or being able to recall what led to the rise of the rancho economy in California history? Perhaps. These may be important things to learn in the process of developing a base of academic skills and knowledge, BUT, what about being able to make eye contact when working with a partner, listening without interrupting, and asking a relevant question? What about being able to solve a conflict on the yard in a way that doesn’t involve throwing a fist or muttering insults? How about having the courage to stand in front of 300 people to share a poem and describe its significance? Yes, there’s a reason for standards—maintaining high expectations. But, it is my belief that we don’t allocate enough time to fostering in our students an understanding of how to live in this world as civic human beings, who make purposeful choices and who care deeply about the fate of those around them. Our futures are, after all, inextricably linked wherever we end up on this planet…
My kids range between 9 and 10 years old. They are just beginning to understand their own identities and develop consciences. Their personalities are increasingly distinct and many desire to be perceived as “popular.” What I’ve noticed in the last six months is that for the first time, my students are becoming aware of the people and places around them. Vanished is the ease of social stability; rather, gossiping, teasing, and unblinking peer scrutiny have emerged. Fourth graders LOVE labels and social hierarchies. Think: Recess, the cartoon. It’s cliché environment is not so far from the truth. (Appropriately, the word “scandalous” is used regularly by a group of 4 boys in my class.) Social pitfalls prevail and the hierarchy is fluid. One moment, kids can be bffs and the next complete adversaries. This makes for a tumultuous backdrop to many days.
My students are little people already navigating the social constructs and gendered roles that society has ingrained in them. Last week during yard duty, I watched the students self separate into various activities. The boys darted over to the basketball courts, split into teams, and immersed themselves in the competitive nature of it all. Shouts bellowed, hands blocked faces, words were uttered in the heat of the moment. Meanwhile, a group of girls casually wandered over to the bench to watch. Whispers, giggles, hair twirls. It was like every stereotype you could imagine, packed into one 20 x 20 ft area. One of my students crossed the game to come ask me, “Ms. S, do you think its weird that Malcolm calls me his girlfriend?” We embarked on a conversation that continued over the next few days of recess. And it became clear to me that I hold immense power when it comes to shaping their understanding of the world and their roles in it. I get the honor of broadening their perspectives and teaching them about social justice, even if its in the context of 4th grade romances.
Sixty-seven days remain between the 27 scholars of Portable D (I’ve accrued 2 more brilliant minds) and me. Naturally, it’s a time of reflection. What have we accomplished? How much more can we achieve before the year ends and we all scatter on our respective summer journeys? It’s easy to get caught up in testing and state standards, but growing up is worth more than statistics and scores. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
With that in mind, I was humbled to receive this email from a parent over the weekend:
“I’m just checking in with you. How is Sena doing in class? She seems happier and to have started to fit in more socially. I wanted to say it’s great all the extra time and effort that you have put in with our kids. I only hear good things from Sena about you. I’m grateful that she was able to have at least one good teacher at this school. I know that it can be challenging. What grade are you teaching next year? Thanks again, Sena reads out loud to me and we have been working on multiplication. :-)”
I don’t always feel successful at what I do. In fact, I know that I fail at many things. But in 40 years, I want my students to revel in the happiness of their 4th grade memories.