Room 4T: Looking Back at How Far We’ve Come

A MiddleWeb Blog

We are winding down the school year in New Jersey, with less than two weeks left in Room 4T. I always have a certain melancholy about wrapping up another school year. I’m going to miss this crew.

We’ve dedicated a large part of ending our year together to looking back at where we began and how far we’ve come, not only as individuals, but as a classroom community.

One thing that gives me great pride as a teacher is that by the end of each September, a certain tone has settled into our classroom. This happens because a good deal of time is spent in the very beginning of the year getting to know each other and sharing our stories – pieces of our lives outside of school.

The fine-tuning of a classroom community emerges slowly, almost imperceptibly. It’s like when you move into a new home, and the really small things, like brushing your teeth, seem unfamiliar….until they don’t. One day you find yourself dressed and ready to go, and it all suddenly feels so normal. There’s no way to pinpoint exactly when the change occurred, when the new became the norm, but there you are, living it.

As I ponder these questions in my living room, trying to wrap my head around end-of-school excitement and that familiar melancholy in my heart, I am surrounded by boxes – boxes filled with my other family’s personal belongings, boxes filled with household necessities and memories of nine years in a very different type of classroom…the one I live in outside of school.

Most of the boxes surrounding me right now are closed. They have been given vague labels, written in Sharpie marker, labels with titles like “books,” “kitchen stuff” and “art supplies.”

Change is coming…inside and outside of 4T.

A few short months ago, a fierce snowstorm (and an enormous tree) made some serious revisions to the story of my own life outside the walls of our school. A tree falling under the weight of some serious snow can have quite an impact on what happens next in any plot line. This tree was the catalyst for an unsettling change in my own, personal history book.

So where is 4T amidst all of this change in their teacher’s personal setting? Well, they’re right in it with me.

That’s part of the beauty of end-of-year. That’s part of the beauty of 4T’s common story. We’ve become a more close-knit, cohesive group, a thriving community, since September.

Expanding the workshop model in 4T

There are many things I question about the world of education today. The new and not-so-new of teaching models, strategies, and innovations often have me questioning myself and my abilities. I am always asking myself what I do well, what works with my learners, and what my heart believes makes for good teaching.

Until this year, I had never considered the Workshop Model to be one of my strong suits, although looking back it seems I may have been looking with too critical an eye, expecting too much of myself too soon. I am often overwhelmed at the picture I paint in my head about what teaching with a workshop mentality really looks like.

When first introduced to the Children’s Workshop and educators like Lucy Calkins and Jennifer Serravallo, my reaction was, “How could I ever possibly do all of this amazing stuff in my classroom?”

I’ve rarely doubted my ability to engage my learners or motivate them in a whole-group setting. The part I still struggle with is my expectation about what happens after the mini-lesson. That’s when the measuring stick comes out, and I start telling myself that I “should be” circulating the classroom continuously, or meeting with small groups to confer, while also implementing on-the-spot mini-lessons, with individual students and within carefully planned strategy groups.

Here’s where I seem to always fall short. At least in my own head.

Looking back at readers’ and writers’ notebooks

One of my favorite “Workshop” activities to do at the end of the year is to look back at our Readers’ and Writers’ Notebooks, back to the beginning…back to page one.

The idea for the Title Page for each was pretty simple. One reads, “This is my brain on reading…” The other, “This is my brain on writing…”

In between the covers and our final pages are many things. Artifacts of our reading lives, anecdotes of our experiences, story ideas, random thoughts and doodles…and, of course, Post-it notes, now haphazardly scattered throughout. The notebooks are tattered, torn, and falling apart. That’s a good thing. They’ve been put to good use.

Our reading and writing lives have developed extensively since we began our year together, and we have been using the skills we developed during the year to publish our final literary essay. It is an essay on theme, and the life wisdoms we learn through the stories we share. In 4T, they are called precepts, a term inspired by another beautiful story we embraced this year.

While I often question my own ability to incorporate a “workshop mentality” into 4T, what I witness when we go back to the beginning and re-read our own, personal history books gives me some of the affirmation I need that progress has been made. Reading 25 essays discussing the valuable lessons that literature can teach us about life, less than two weeks before summer arrives, helps serve as a powerful reminder, too.

Children’s realizations from reading

Here are a few pearls of kid wisdom I thought I’d share before packing up the classroom this year. They are based on our whole-group and small group work with the novel Pax, by Sara Pennypacker:

  • “Trust is hard to form and easy to break.” ~ Ana Belle
  • “Love and friendship can always find their way home with a big water bottle full of courage.” ~ Hailey
  • “It takes a great deal of loyalty and determination to go after a loved one, but it takes even more to let your loved one go.” ~ Callie
  • “You need to be scared to have courage.” ~ Ethan
  • “Family relationships can be hard.” ~ Sammie
  • “Loyalty is a beautiful thing that brings people together.” ~ Maeve
  • “When you are separated from the one you love it is heart-breaking, but you will always have them in your heart.” ~ Simone

From Pax

Looking back on life’s surprises

4T is taking the time to look through our own memories of our year together. Sometimes it’s good to go back to page one, especially when I find myself sitting amongst scattered boxes, filled with memories of the chapter that my son, daughter and I are currently finishing up, a chapter that began nine years ago, when we first moved into the beautiful little home we are now preparing to leave.

Life can surprise you, with unexpected trees and unplanned moves. And each end-of-the-year surprises me too, when I look back at the path and realize how far we’ve come.

Looking back gives us the opportunity to look ahead with a fondness for where we’ve been and a hopeful smile leading us forward to whatever comes next.

Why read the last page of the book? That would ruin the ending.

Mary Tarashuk

Mary Tarashuk teaches 4th grade at Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. Mary has been an educator for over 20 years. She has served as content writer and creative consultant for the national, award-winning initiative The Walking Classroom since its inception in 2005. Mary’s work has been published in Education Digest and was honored with the SmartBrief Education 2016 Editors’ Choice Content Award. Trying to balance her old-school teaching style with New Age methods that integrate ever-changing technology keeps her on her toes. She believes that fresh air and exercise enhance learning and engage students of all ages. Follow her on Twitter @maryrightangle and visit her personal blog (launched in 2021) Behind the Doors of the Teacher's Room for some adult conversation.

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